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On the edge of Bellingen, an enterprising bunch of community gardeners

On the edge of Bellingen, an enterprising bunch of community gardeners

DRIVE OUT TO THE EDGE OF BELLINGEN, cross the river and when you reach the roundabout take Northbank Road, then go on up the hill a little further until you see the sign beside the roadside stall from which the gardeners sell vegetables. Here, behind the tall hedge that hides it, is Northbank Community Garden. And what a place it is.

The Northbank crew — some of them, anyway

aOccupying part of a five hectare block made available by a rural landholder, the organically managed community garden is an innovative place hosting fruit and vegetables and a flock of 15 or so chooks. More than that, though, it’ a community enterprise in which participants learn about the full food cycle, from planting and growing, through to harvesting and marketing.

Marketing might sound like an unusual activity for a community garden, however, selling produce to Bellingen cafes and restaurants reflects the enterprise’s role as a place of learning and innovation.

The bright red of amaranth and the green of jacaranda frame a simple rotunda that shelters the gardeners from hot summer sun and rain.

Walk into the garden and you encounter an area of shrubs and vegetable beds. The bight red seedheads of amaranthus, bearer of thousands upon thousands of tiny black seeds that can be popped in a dry pan like corn, rise above the greenery.

Look beyond the seed heads and you see the simple rotunda the gardeners have built to provide themselves with shelter. Shelter is surely needed here, in this region with its hot subtropical sun and its sometimes torrential rains. Walk over to it and you stop to gaze out over a distant landscape, and you realise that the garden really is well situated with its sweeping view over surrounding hill and hollow.

Unless you have been told, you might not know that you stand in the part of the community garden used for community workshops and that serves as a forage garden from which the public can take food.

Corn and sunflower stand above a sprawling groundcover of sweet potato.

But another surprise awaits.

Walk on into the garden a bit further and you come to a larger area that has been mass-planted to larger numbers of particular food crops, all planted in rows. Why rows? To make harvesting easier and less time consuming, for this is the market garden part of Northbank Community Garden. Here, produce is grown not only for the subsistence of the gardeners but for sale to Bellingen’s cafes and restaurants. Here you find sweet potato, corn and sunflower, and soil only recently mounded and awaiting the sowing of a new crop.

Basil and sunflower in the market gadren.

aThe Northbank gardeners are a young crew, men and women and families with young children. Those children are perfectly at home is what amounts to the best type of playground a child could want — it’s unstructured and has no play equipment, far from the common type of playground designed by professional adults who think they know what children want. The children dart here and there through the shrubbery, appearing and disappearing as only children who know a place can do.

Gardening in this climate might be hard and often sweaty work, but a few minutes with the gardeners gives the impression that here is a cohesive and relaxed bunch who are following their own particular dream.

But this is no dreamers garden, it is a real and practical example of how a good idea, plus a little ingenuity and hard but thoughtful work can bring into creating something that not only feeds people but provides useful work-life skills at the same time it brings into existence from the fertile earth something of striking and edible beauty. This is to work with nature, not against it.

A parachute canopy makes a temporary shelter.
Ripening bananas grow well in the rich soils, high rainfall and subtropical climate. The chook shed is seen behind, draped in melon vine.
Ripening bananas grow in the rich soils, high rainfall and subtropical climate. The chook shed is seen behind, draped in melon vine.
Taro, an edible root crop the leaves of which serve as a cooked green, grows in the community garden’s fertile soils.
Rosella — Hibiscus sabdariffa — growing in the community gaden, tall, bushy shrub with flowers and fruit used to give colour and flavour to jams, sauces, fruit punches, and desserts.
Rosella — Hibiscus sabdariffa — growing in the community garden is a tall, bushy shrub with flowers and fruit that is used to give colour and flavour to jams, sauces, fruit punches, and desserts.
A row of melons growing over a structure.
A raised garden bed in the foraging/training garden.
The gardeners have set up a self-service stand for fruit sales on the roadside.

Comments (14)

  • Kat
    14/05/2010 at 8:37 am Reply

    Absolutely love this garden, and friends, pick herbs and chillies and whatever things we need to complement our dinner that night. Fresh straight from the garden, love it!!!

  • Kev
    14/05/2010 at 10:12 pm Reply

    Bellingen is incredibly lucky to have such a community sharing / learning / feeding / growing resource on its doorstep.
    A great article that highlights the massive work that has been put into developing the Garden.
    Off there this afternoon for a musical celebration / fundraiser and very much looking forwards to it.
    The mention of children darting down the many pathways is never more true than at gathering times when trees are climbed, pathways explored, chooks held and food shared. Every town needs something like this!

  • Judy
    14/05/2010 at 11:55 pm Reply

    Well done Northbank crew and well done Steve. The garden is truly excellent and what a wonderful place for a picnic. The children that roam about the garden are truly priveleged. Every town and suburb would benefit from such a garden. Those without such a garden might not appreciate just how great the benefits are.

  • Emily
    17/05/2010 at 8:47 am Reply

    I don’t think it was mentioned as part of the story but they also run some really cool gig’s in the garden, it’s sooo lovely to sit on the gently sloping hill looking down at the stage.
    It makes a perfect natural amphitheater surrounded but beautiful gardens and the incredible smell of home made pizza with ingredients right from the garden cooking their hand made pizza oven… ABSOLUTE HEVEN!!!!!!!!!!

  • Soli
    17/05/2010 at 10:27 am Reply

    This garden has really brought a sense of ‘community’ to Bellingen like nothing else.
    It provides the local businesses and people with produce, in turn the local businesses have provided donations for fundraising events.
    People of all ages, from the very young and old gather here to garden, to connect, listen to live music and share meals.
    Thank you Steve, Jester, Hannah, Stu, Nic and everyone else who form part of the crew that work so hard to create such a magic spot! It’s a blessing to us all having this incredible garden to share.

  • Gerard
    18/05/2010 at 10:05 am Reply

    Steve Smith is a legend.
    He started alone, self-funded, on loaned land, with just one strong intent, namely, to create a working community garden.
    He’s worked like a mad bastard to get that garden well established.
    It is fantastic to finally see the success of his endeavour.
    Likewise, not enough can be said of the magnificent skills and dedication, that others of the community (once having discovered Steve’s idea), have brought to the project. The sheer scale of the garden is evidence enough of a grand work informed by play.
    Steve’s original seed of a thought has taken root and is well and truly flourishing.
    Bellingen should be very very proud of the community spirit which is so apparent there, it should do all it can to nurture this remarkable resource.
    Bellingen owes a debt of gratitude to all involved, not the least of which is Steve Smith without whose vision and determination this outstanding and growing community centrepiece, would literally just not exist.

  • Barb Sabadin
    18/10/2010 at 5:32 pm Reply

    Hi 🙂
    I am a nurse at Bellorana Nursing Home, Bellingen.
    We have a resident, Mr John Anderson, who loves to grow things in his garden here at the nursing home. He is after some herbs to grow, which will then be used in the kitchen.
    Would you guys be able to organise for him to receive the following plants?
    Dill; Parley; Thyme and Basil.
    It would be much appreciated.

  • Barb Sabadin
    14/11/2010 at 2:02 pm Reply

    To date, no answer to my request (above) 🙁
    I guess everyone is busy digging instead
    of monitoring the website…hmmmm

  • steve
    21/11/2010 at 8:56 pm Reply

    Hi Barb, just saw your msg by chance, we don’t monitor this website, this is just an article about the garden on another website. You can catch us on the northbank community garden facebook page, or come up to the garden, or call me on 0434228587

  • John
    20/12/2010 at 1:24 pm Reply

    Hi Steve,
    Congratulations, fantastic concept and achievement. My aunt lived in Long Island New York for many years and regularly visited the local community gardens. Wonderful place to meet people and keep healthy.
    My family and I will be moving to Bellingen next month and look forward to participating
    Kind regards

  • Rajiva
    25/06/2011 at 7:51 am Reply

    Hi, Steve?? spoke with you thurs arvo re. compost toilets. Seems that where the Public is involved the question of how to responsibly use the system dominates. The ‘great unwashed’ are not to be trusted!! However, wonder if the RTA type systems might be suitable and maybe an approach to them could be fruitful. R

  • Brad
    20/03/2012 at 10:56 am Reply

    HI Everyone
    Can anyone tell me what is good to grow at this time of year in Bellingen.
    I am a amateur vegetable gardner.

  • peter from the garden
    30/03/2012 at 10:11 pm Reply

    Being sub tropical we are in our main planting stage for autumn, carrots, broccoli,cabbage, lettuce, spinach, snow peas, bracicas, beetroot,etc come up to garden i will give advice, we have a nursery with seedlings ready to go

  • Rosey
    24/03/2013 at 11:20 am Reply

    How great it would be if you had your own cafe /shop there in the garden grounds.

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