WHEN THE TRAIN PASSENGERS, passing by high on the rail embankment above, look down they see a patchwork of rectangular allotments and the familiar shape of cabbage and lettuce, capsicum and tomato. If they look down on Wednesdays, they are likely to see people working the allotments those vegetables spill from.
Perhaps they will notice people cutting back the coral trees (Erythrina) that grow in the narrow, deep cutting that forms the creek that bisects Chester Hill Community Garden on the diagonal. If left to themselves, these deciduous, leguminous trees grow tall and wide and, although resplendent in their large, bright red flowers, they would cast unwanted shade where allotments might one day be built. In the creek they are kept low and keep company with a solid congestion of tall, strap-leafed water reeds.
Passengers in those passing trains – this is the Western Suburbs line – who know their plants might recognise, growing on the other side of the creek, a number of young citrus trees adjacent to a garden shed.
The bridge that spans the creek delivers visitors to the allotments. Taking the shape of practically designed and easy-to-maintain rectangles edged with sturdy timber, here is where the Chester Hill gardeners produce their commonly-eaten vegetables. There’s lettuce, tomato, capsicum, even a patch of taro and other varieties. One of the allotments, gardened by a mother and daughter team, is particularly prolific with leafy edibles.
Chester Hill is not a large community garden on the scale, say, of Randwick Community Organic garden which, by Sydney standards, is extensive. It has, however, a great deal more space than the smaller, inner-urban gardens such as Newtown Community Garden and Redfern’s Greg Hewish Memorial Community Garden.
Those from the Sydney Community Gardens Network meeting here this cool, dull, mid-winter Sunday afternoon gather in a circle adjacent to the shelter and its rainwater tank and introduced themselves.
There’s the manager of the community centre whose land the garden occupies; a clutch of Chester Hill gardeners; Emma Daniell from Randwick Community Organic Garden with her young daughter Josie; Lucinda and her team from the northside where they are planning to start a community garden in Epping; a team from the proposed Meadowbank Community Garden; Maery O’Connell, a Randwick community gardener who is active with the Arts in Community Gardens team; Annie Walker, the City of Sydney’s Community Gardens and Volunteers Coordinator; and Fiona Campbell and myself from the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network.
It’s a gathering of community gardeners and a couple local government people whose roles involve liaison with community gardeners. It is also a gathering of people from one of Sydney’s oldest community gardens – Randwick – and some from community gardens yet-to-be. The presence of the Meadowbank and Epping community garden startups is significant and their gardens, once they get going, will be two of too few on the Sydney northside, the tardiest part town when it comes to community garden development. The oldest community garden over there would be Willoughby Community Garden. Managed by Willoughby Council, the garden operates similarly to council Bushcare groups, the gardeners being council volunteers.
Gardens of the urban west
There are other community gardens in the metropolitan west in addition to Chester Hill, such as that at Wentworthville, just beyond Parramatta, but they are thinly spread across this vast region that is the demographic heart of Sydney, the location where the bulk of the population live. There are others out in the Liverpool area of the urban south-west and they are likewise scattered.
Chester Hill Community Garden is the oldest in Western Sydney, dating back to the late 1990s when Alicia Bourner, a graduate of the PacificEdge urban Permaculture Design Course, was hired by the Chester Hill Community Centre to design, start building and gather a community to work the garden. The project was well suited to the urban orientation of the course and brought into use the participatory planning and group dynamics skills Alicia had picked up during her training.
The garden took shape over succeeding years. Alicia finished the project long ago and, today, a capable and friendly bunch of local people manage the garden. As they tend those rectangular allotments and meet in the shade of their modest shelter they have gone from being fellow gardeners to gardening friends.