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New garden in old suburb—Ultimo

New garden in old suburb—Ultimo

Story and photos by Russ Grayson

A poorly used park is being converted into a community garden by residents of inner-urban Ultimo.

A childcare centre and a children’s playground adjoin the community garden on McKee Street, which is otherwise surrounded by medium density dwellings. Ultimo is an old part of the city within a short walk of Railway Square and is dominated by late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century buildings. Like much of old inner Sydney, economic and demographic change is reshaping the architectural and social structure of the area as the old smokestack industries give way to those of the new service and creative sector. Already, taller, new apartment blocks are appearing amid the old brick structures a great many of which are being repurposed as apartments and new workplaces.

The garden is underway-trucks deliver aggregate and soil.

Locals contacted the City of Sydney around a year ago to ask about the possibility of a community garden under the City’s then-new Community Gardens Policy. The City’s community garden program coordinator dispatched Emma Daniell, a horticultural and landscape design consultant from Natural Touch Landscapes (who is completing a Permaculture Design Certificate) to carry out a participatory site analysis with the would-be gardeners. The City expects that the possession of permaculture qualifications will bring a participatory process and knowledge of integrated design to projects. The gardeners then made a formal application for assistance in community gardening to the City.

Community consultation was carried out, as required by the policy, and although there was some opposition to the community garden proposal on the basis of loss of public open space, the proposal was unanimously voted to go ahead at a city council meeting late in 2010, for a trial period of 12 months.

Garden bed marked out and materials laid out, it’s time to start building.

Start-up capital was provided by a City of Sydney Local Action Plans Matching Grant (recipients match the value of the grant with in-kind contribution such as time).

This was to be a self-build project by the garden team. They set about organising the project and met with the City’s community gardens and parks team to discuss their plan and work breakdown. Construction started at 7am on the warm Saturday morning of  26 February. By 10am, the truckloads of aggregate and vegetable quality soil have been upended on the lawn. By late afternoon, the first garden bed was in place.

A temporary sign was produced by the gardeners to let passers-by know what was going on.


The garden is to be a parallel series of beds about 1.2m in width raised above ground and supported by steel roofing panels. The panels, erected inside out for increased strength, are held in place by star pickets, capped for safety, and the structure braced by wire cross ties to reduce bowing once filled with soil. A layer of thick builders plastic separates the garden soil from the  ground.

The City provided one of its depot staff with a knowledge of worksafe practices, construction and tool use as works supervisor for the first construction day. He later donated some of his pay for the day to the New Zealand earthquake appeal. Supplying a works supervisor was something that was done for the construction of Charlies’ Garden in the Charles Kernan Reserve in Darlington. The City considers it an investment in gardener education in construction and safe work practices. At the start of work, the staff provides a brief site safety induction to familiarise the gardeners with professional worksafe practices as part of their education in community gardening. By the end of the day, the first of the long garden beds had been filled with soil.

As a gardener-constructed project, it will be some months before the garden is fully built.

By the end of day one a garden bed had been built and filled with soil.


Patience was one of the learnings of this project, for both the gardeners and the City but especially for the gardeners. Between the time an application for assistance in community gardening is made and assessed, a community consultation carried out, the proposal exhibited for public comment, a vote taken in council and the first sod turned, quite a few months will have passed.

This time can be used wisely, however. If a site for the garden has been chosen, the participatory site analysis and design can be done and  a plan of management – which is more to do with governance, such as how decisions will be made, conflict resolved and with whom and how communications will be made – can be completed. Developing a plan of management assists in heading-off difficulties later as new people join the garden. As one community gardener said, producing a plan of management is time well spent because if anything will crash a community garden once it is underway, it will be interpersonal difficulties.

This delay of months also tests the staying power of the community garden team – if they survive the wait, then they are likely to persist once the garden is underway. It is common, though, to lose a few participants during this wait, however numbers are likely to be made up once people see the garden happening.

Other lessons for the gardeners included learning to deal with the processes of local government, though delays other than those imposed by waiting for fixed-time delays such as for the community consultation to be finished, exhibiting the proposal and sending it to council were minimised by the City. Communicating with council staff was expedited by a member of the garden team being able to produce a Gantt chart outlining the stages and critical path through the project. This person also produced working drawings of construction detail. This was useful as most gardeners were unfamiliar with this material and the City had not encountered community garden beds built of it.

Another learning was the value of taking time for compiling information about park usage, including how the small site was used by visitors. Fortunately, there is a larger park within a block or two, so using the site for a community garden did not deprive the area of the general use of open space.

Construction detail: wire ties have been installed to brace the sides of the raised garden against bowing under pressure of soil and moisture.

Self-construction and self-management

The community garden is not to be fenced, not even with a low fence with unlocked gates that the City sometimes builds around community gardens such as those in the Charles Kernan Reserve in Darlington and the James Street Reserve Community Garden. A small amount of vandalism may occur, however this happens in most open space reserves.

A composting facility will later be installed and a large sign identifying the community garden erected by the City, as is provided to all community gardens. The creation of the community garden led to the restoration of the damaged gas barbecue in the park and the first day of construction saw it pressed into service for its first use in some time.

The self-construction process has developed further the capacity of the community garden team for self-help and for the use of their skills. Like all community gardens in the City, the Ultimo garden is expected to be self-managing.

Plans for the garden were developed, drawn up and discussed with City of Sydney parks staff
One of the community garden team could fortunately produce construction detail drawings.
The raised community garden bed marks a significant change in the use of the open space.

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