Originally published in Kindred magazine, by Russ Grayson, 2008.
FROM CALOUNDRA TO COLLINGWOOD, FROM BRISBANE TO BEGA and over to Adelaide and Perth, community gardens are sprouting in Australia's cities and towns.
And different they are. In some, the community gardeners work their own little plot of garden, their allotment. In others, they share whatever work needs doing and at the end of the day they divide the herbs and vegetables that are ready for harvest. Visit Melbourne's Veg Out Community Garden at St Kilda, the large community gardens at Collingwood Children's Farm and Sydney's Randwick Community Organic Garden and you see the allotment model in use. Go over to Sydney's Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle or Brisbane's Northey Street City Farm to see shared community gardens in action. Different models of community gardening for sure, but they all work.
Community gardens—diverse place
Diversity is a feature of community gardening; diversity of plants and diversity of people.
The membership of community gardens reflect the people that live in the surrounding area. In Melbourne's Flemington Community Garden and the Waterloo Estate community gardens in Sydney you find people from Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe... and even Australia. These are gardens on the land of state government housing estates and have been built by organisations like Cultivating Community for the use of the residents of the high rise blocks that surround them. Other gardens are predominately Anglo in makeup.
Just as diversified as their participants are the plants that community gardeners grow. Mostly, it's vegetables and culinary herbs... there's the common varieties like tomatoes in their surprising range,sizes and colours; leafy greens such as lettuce and cabbage; fruiting vegetables like eggplant and capsicum, corn and cucumber. Look closely and you find less commonly grown vegetables like globe and Jerusalem artichoke and even the South american root crop, yacon. Wooloomooloo Community Garden even has a coffee tree from which a local coffee roaster processed the beans.
Check out the communal garden beds in the Randwick garden and you discover a patch of the native vegetable, New Zealand spinach, reflecting the interest in Australian wild foods among some community gardeners. Fruit shrubs and trees are a feature of larger community gardens where the varieties you find are determined by climate. In Collingwood Children's Garden's orchard, for instance, and in that at CERES in Brunswick, you find cool climate varieties such as the stone fruits and apple. Citrus and avocado might be seen in the larger Sydney community gardens and, if subtropical Brisbane is on your travel itinerary, Northey Street City Farm has a wonderful range of warm climate fruits including big, mature mango trees.
It's not only plants that grow in community gardens. A walk along the fence at Glovers Community Garden or a poke in the back corner at Randwick Community Organic Garden will reveal something else installed by the gardeners—chooks. The chooks at Randwick were donated by Randwick City Council, whose sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, borrows them and their small mobile pen when she runs workshops on keeping urban poultry.
Management of community garden chooks is by a 'chook team'. They organise a daily roster so that someone checks that the birds have fresh water and food every day. That lucky person get to take whatever eggs have been laid. Needless to say, community garden chooks are a popular attraction to community garden children, who like to watch and handle the birds.
Localising our food supply
Although you find native plants in community gardens, the growing of food is their core business. And this is fortunate because community gardening is a means of returning food production to the city.
When the permaculture design system's David Holmgren and Bill Mollison started to promote that idea almost 30 years ago, it was new and novel. Now it has become a means of reducing the food system's contribution of greenhouse gases due to the long distance transportation of food (known as 'food miles'). Transportation, however, is a minor component of the cost of food and of its carbon footprint. It's how food is grown that accounts for most of its environmental impact and it's here that growing food in cities, in community gardens, can reduce those impacts. Both home and community gardening also contribute to a more secure and less expensive food supply.
Related to this is the leading role of community gardening in the growing 'local food' movement. Here, food grown in community gardens joins food grown in the wider region and sold at farmers' markets to create a localised food supply that supports a regional food economy and the enterprises and jobs that go with it.
You cannot grow all of your food needs in a community garden, of course; it is really a means of supplementing what you eat. Nonetheless, the reasons people community garden are as varied as the gardeners. Some seek access to cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food. Others want to reduce their family's expenditure on food. For some, it's a constructive recreation and, for many, the reason for gardening is primarily social—it's a means of meeting and being with others. Community gardens are family friendly places that bring social as well as nutritional values.
If you ever decide to take up community gardening, there remains one key factor to keep in mind as you lay your mulch and carefully plant your first seedlings. It is something very important to the community gardening experience and is something you might like to keep in mind all the time. It is this...have fun.