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Climate Action Through Gardening

Climate Action Through Gardening

…with Jimi Gatland, CGA’s Northern NSW Regional Representative

Introducing the United Nations Association of Australia Young Professionals 2022 National Event Series, My Climate Action. A four part online series that provides young professionals with ideas, actionable resources, and tools to directly contribute towards climate change mitigation. The first event in our series premiered on April 27 2022, and featured two inspirational practitioners of environmental restoration, Jimi Gatland and Jessica Pinder.
Jimi is the president of Lennox Community Gardens and is a representative for Community Gardens Australia. He has helped found a number of environmentally focused organisations including Enova Community Energy and his own educational startup green games. Jimi lives in Northern NSW in an all-electric home and in his spare time you will find him tearing around in his solar-powered Nissan Leaf or tending to his garden and over a hundred fruit trees.

Watch Jimi’s presentation on his journey below…


Jimi Gatland

My name is Jimi Gatland and I live in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales the recent floods have brought climate change quite literally to my back door. Several thousand homes have been condemned and for the first time. Thousands of Australians have been displaced by global warming. Climate change has very much become a domestic issue, I understand many of you tuning into young professionals I was once one too, so i thought that might be a good place to start.

I’m going to share with you some of my story and the hope that it inspires you in some way and in case any of you want to reach me after the event I’ll leave my contact details in the final slide. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

In the second part of this talk I’ll discuss gardening and its many benefits on climate change and we’ll run through some easy actions that you can take at home.

To begin, this is me in 2010 at the height of my career having just been relocated to Sydney to sell hotels for a global real estate firm. There was a clear path before me, I just had to follow it, but, as you can probably tell, I didn’t. I was a vegetarian who voted for the greens and spent my spare time volunteering for animal welfare groups I was a hippie in a suit in 2011.

I met my now wife Elaine. Elaine has very much been my inspiration and support throughout this whole journey in transition. This is us on one of our first dates visiting the Greenpeace vessel the Esperanza Elaine’s from France and her visa was running out, so she gave me an ultimatum throw in the job and follow her overseas or never see her again.

So off we went traveling through Asia for a year learning as much as we could along the way. This is us working with Dr Vandana Shiva on her farm in Northern India her project Navdanya saves the seeds of over 600 varieties of rice these are distributed to farmers to grow organically to free them of the debt cycle that comes with buying patented seeds and the pesticides that come with them the likes of Monsanto and others. Farmers repay the debt by saving half of their first harvest and sharing it with another farmer and so on and so on. 

And, this is us in Cambodia working with wildlife alliance the project was focused on rainforest conservation. This was achieved by creating alternative employment opportunities for the families who made money from logging old rainforest trees and hunting endangered wildlife like Sunbears. We helped them to establish an eco-tourism industry centered around protecting rather than exploiting the rainforest. Men re-skilled as guides and women operated homestay accommodation.

One of the reasons this part of my life is so important to this story is because of our exposure to the Buddhist teachings of Southeast Asia and Gandhi’s philosophies while in India in particular there is a Buddhist saying which drastically changed my view of the world and my place in it. It was so profound to me that I’d like to share it with you all now. 

When I was a young man I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change my nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change my town, so as an older man I tried to change my family. Now as an old man I realise the only thing I can change is myself and suddenly I realised that if long ago i changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town, their impact could have changed the nation, and I could indeed have changed the world. In other words be the change.

So with this in mind, we return to Australia with a different approach to think global but to act local to change ourselves in positive ways and demonstrate that to those around us so that they could have the opportunity to do the same.

This led to our first backyard garden and plenty of successes and failures more failures. In the early days, a permaculture course went a long way to subsequent successes, teaching us the basic skills of composting, companion planting, etc. We eventually purchased a suburban block in Lennox Head, New South Wales and got to work improving the soil with truckloads of compost and mulch.

Here’s a tip for the uninitiated, buy a tarp the right size for the job. We designed a garden that would ultimately provide all of our fruit and veggies and herbs. This is us planting the first of over 100 fruit trees including nine varieties of edible natives.

Main’s gas was strictly excluded from the design with a 48 panel solar array generating enough electricity to run our house and car. 

We also introduce pollinators with seven native beehives most species of Australian native bees are stingless and are easy to keep as pets. In addition to pollinating plants they produce sugar bag honey which is delicious.

In the five years since we moved into the property we have seen wildlife return. We have also begun to harvest our first long-term crops such as mangoes and avocados. It really is a dream come true.

I think that this photo says it all but I wanted to use it to make this point, as a landowner, you have a choice to make when it comes to landscaping. Our neighbours choose to concrete and pave the bulk of their backyards, which seems to be the trend, but the environmental consequences of this are enormous. It removes valuable topsoil and habitat both of which sequester carbon and encourage biodiversity. I understand that with increasing household debt and the corresponding longer working hours, many homeowners feel they don’t have the time to maintain a backyard like this, but designed well it should reduce living costs which for us has meant less time in the office and more time in the garden.

It’s a win on so many levels you don’t have to be born and raised a farmer to grow food. Growing food and all the things that come with it like building healthy soils comes naturally to humans we’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

If you’re not already doing it, I encourage you to, there is no food more organic and lower in food miles than the veggies you pick from your home garden, except perhaps the sprouts growing on your kitchen bench.

For me, backyard gardening naturally led to community gardening when the opportunity presented itself back in 2015. I became the president of our then fledgling community garden here in Lennox Head. It took four painstaking years to enter into a lease agreement with council but it was worth it.

This was us in April 2019 and this is us well this is the same space exactly two years later. If you’re thirsty for new ways to affect positive change, community gardening is a great place to start. 

The benefits fall roughly into one of the four categories from an environmental perspective. It’s difficult to go past the massive amount of carbon that community gardens sequester. Trees are made predominantly of carbon which is absorbed through their leaves this removes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it into the tree structure, where the trees, when they tree eventually die, is broken down and absorbed into the soil locking that carbon up where it can’t cause any trouble. 

Community gardens are a great way to get into the outdoors and get moving instead of running nowhere on a treadmill. I highly recommend pushing a wheelbarrow full of mulch. This is an interesting and relevant point, during the floods, we found ourselves for the first time cut off from the distribution network due to water over the Pacific Highway. Our supermarkets were closed for days for lack of food and without power. What food was left in the fridge spoiled fast. 

Community gardens offer a source of food in times of crisis. They provide real resilience in the face of a changing climate, and, finally this is a point very close to my heart, Elaine and I used to run our family day care and I was often amazed by the lack of understanding children had about the origins of their food. For most, chicken comes shrink-wrapped from the frozen section at Woolies, even though they actually helped care for four ex-battery cage hens in our backyard. Since moving from an agriculture-based society to the cities that connection has been all but lost which has profound consequences for our food choices today. 

Community gardening is one of those community actions that you take without ever fully understanding its value. For example, I recently received a call from a lady whose husband has prostate cancer she makes him a home remedy using papaya leaves of which Lennox community gardens has many. She now has a more or less infinite supply near her home for free. Community gardens don’t just feed, they heal. 

Community gardens come in various shapes and sizes. This is a picture of our leaf garden which will eventually comprise 15  raised garden beds.

Lennox community gardens is a truly communal community garden it has no fences and is open and available for members of the public to enjoy at any time there are no private allotments. All crops harvested during working bees are shared between members with any surplus left on a table for other members and members of the public to collect.

But, community gardening, like gardening in general, isn’t 100 altruistic it gives back in so many ways for me personally. It’s about spending time with friends doing what we love. Getting my weekly dose of exercise and returning home with a share of the harvest.

And, from little old Lennox Head, I took on the role as representative of Community Gardens Australia which is how I came to be with you all tonight. 

I just wanted to conclude with some relatively straightforward actions you can take at home to both grow food and combat climate change at the same time.

First of all compost. Around a third of waste that ends up in landfill is organic this is tragic for two reasons. One, it could otherwise be composted and used to build healthy soils and sequester carbon. But two, when compacted in landfill the air is squeezed out and it becomes anaerobic, when this happens, it releases methane gas which has a greenhouse effect around 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. So collect up those veggie scraps, most can be boiled into a soup stock and frozen for later use. Those that aren’t suitable, can be collected in a benchtop compost bin and added together with grass clippings dried leaves etc from the garden to an outdoor composting facility. I recommend a subterranean system like the Subpod as they’re odourless and don’t attract pests. Larger woody items like palm fronds and tree branches pose a bigger challenge. However, if you happen to have a fire pit these can be burned the resulting ash is really rich in potassium in fact the word potassium comes from the English word potash. It can be added to compost or scattered around fruit trees especially citrus which have shallow roots.

All right, secondly grow food. Start with the easy stuff like herbs and spices these can be expensive to buy but are so easy to grow even in small spaces like on apartment balconies. Many are perennial too so you plant them once and harvest from them year after year. Here’s a photo of a herb spiral that Elaine and I made using bushrock excavated from our neighbour’s property. By locating it near our kitchen, we don’t have far to go should we need to harvest a forgotten ingredient in a hurry. And, here is a list of essentials that in my opinion you’re wasting your money on if you buy them from the supermarket. 

Now, if you’d like to go the extra mile, join Land for Wildlife or a similar scheme in your area. They will talk you through how to create wildlife friendly habitat in your backyard. Alternatively, just go it alone, it can be as simple as making or buying an insect hotel. If you’re interested in adding a native beehive to your backyard, I would recommend getting in touch with Steve McGenity of the Australian Native Bee Company. That link will be at the notes at the end. Hives are generally only split when the weather warms up in spring, so, odds are, you’ll need to go on a waitlist. Once you have one though, you can split it once a year until you end up with the number of hives that you want.

If you find you’re enjoying the above and want to take it to the next level sign up to your nearest permaculture course. I emphasize nearest, because gardening is location specific so skills gained in one area of the world aren’t always relevant in another. Australia is the birthplace of permaculture so you won’t have any trouble finding a provider. Generally, they’re two-week on-site intensive courses called permaculture design courses, or PDC’s for short. This will provide you with the foundations to go on to confidently grow your own food at home.

And, last but not least, sign up to a community garden. There are community gardens all over Australia so odds are, you won’t need to go to the trouble of starting one like we did. To find your closest one, jump on the Community Gardens Australia website and use the map tool.

Gardening is an art that can never be mastered you will continue to adapt and evolve as a gardener throughout your lifetime just as your garden does. It’s what makes it so interesting, surrounding yourself with other gardeners exposes you to different ways of doing things and gives you an opportunity to share what you’ve learned. Community gardens also provide a space for experimentation so you can try any new plants or techniques you stumble across on YouTube. Speaking of YouTube I highly recommend Mark Valencia’s channel — Self-sufficient Me. Mark is based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and has loads of videos and valuable tips to share.

Thanks everyone for listening, again, my name is Jimi from Community Gardens Australia.

I hope you get the bug for gardening like I do. Once you do, there’s no going back.

Here’s to changing ourselves so that we might change our families, our towns, our nations and just maybe the world.

Thank you. 

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