By Russ Grayson, First published in ABC Organic Gardener, 2005.
THE IDEA THAT COMMUNITY GARDENS can nourish the mind as well as the body is quickly catching on as gardeners in the eastern states and all the way to Perth offer informal education to their members and the public.
Informal learning has long been a feature of community gardens. It is the means by which gardeners learn to grow, harvest and collect the seeds of their crops. A process of gardener teaching gardener, it does not stop at the vegetable bed. Community gardens are social places so problem solving, conflict resolution and facilitation are add-on skills that the more enthusiastic gardeners acquire.
The use of community gardens for informal education and vocational training goes back to around 1990 when Sydney landscape designer, Bronwyn Rice, was hired to design a community garden and engage the local Aboriginal population in Sydney's troubled Eveleigh Street, Redfern.
Bronwyn was involved in another community educational initiative soon after, when she designed Fairfield City Farm's model home garden, complete with a 10 metre-long worm wall (a very large worm farm), a contour ditch (swale) to catch and retain rainwater runoff and a large, rotational-forage chook pen. The work, essentially a large vegetable garden and small orchard, was funded by the National Landcare Programme.
Garden made by trainees in a labour market training program at Farfield City Farm. Such training has been a feature of several community gardens including Brisbane's Northey Street City Farm.
The 168ha city farm, on Sydney's rural fringe, made use of land degradation elsewhere on-site to offer Landcare education to secondary geography and primary students as well as to the wider community.
According to Fairfield City Farm's Landcare educator at the time, Fiona Campbell, "The city farm must have been one of the first in this country to adopt a formal educational package for schools and the community. That shows how important it is to apply for grants to do this kind of work - the National Landcare programme funded the city farm's educational programme which, in turn, paid part-time educators."
Education - a growing role
It is not only the big city community gardens and city farms that offer educational opportunities to their communities. Community gardens in regional Australia do so as well.
Community gardening, education and health have been combined at Fern Avenue Community Garden in Fullarton, South Australia where, according to community garden spokeswoman Gloria Bristow, " ...the school adjacent to the garden leases a plot and the gardening experience has raised the self-confidence and self-esteem of young students. The kindergarten’s four year olds have also been in the garden and CAS bring their wheelchair-bound patients every Tuesday."
In the garden, the Cancer Care Centre's 'Seeds for Health' programme combines education with therapy; participants learn to grow their own ‘food for healing’ as they connect with nature and experience the therapeutic effects of gardening.
"The programme is not limited to people with cancer", explains Gloria. "The Centre encourages participation by those who are interested in preventing illness and promoting wellness - it is for anyone interested in healing and in living a healthy life. It provides the skills and confidence to improve lifestyle and to produce food. The course is educational, enjoyable and therapeutic. It promoted the connection with nature and assists in the healing process.”
Education has also been adopted as a form of community garden outreach at Dungog Community Garden in regional NSW. "Our popular weekend courses have attracted participants from as far away as Sydney, Taree and Newcastle and many local people are keen to develop skills in sustainable property management and organic farming", explains Faith Thomas.
"In 2003, the garden hosted twenty, two-hour workshops for local primary and high school students. The kids participated in a range of activities including planting bird-attracting natives, exploring the ponds and habitat areas, making worm farms, no-dig gardening and designing better schools and gardens. All workshops were designed to instil a greater respect and love for their environment while making them fun and creative by employing experienced, innovative teachers.
"Workshops, courses and presentations are offered as well as the Permaculture Design Course. The main course run at the Dungog garden at present is the Skills for Sustainable Living course which is held over the three days of the October long weekend."
Far from Dungog, the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network Albury-Wodonga coordinator, Rebecca Chattleburgh, took informal organic gardening education into the community.
"We put our thinking caps on. Some residents expressed their passion for learning but wanted to do it ‘hands-on’ in their own backyard. With the support of the National Environment Centre, Riverina Institute of TAFE, Parklands Albury/Wodonga and Albury City Council, the first Community Backyard Vege Garden group was underway. It started slowly but the momentum picked up and there were seven groups running, meeting once a week. All are structured a little differently and meet in people’s backyards or at a community-based setting.
"Participants enrolled in their backyards and a statement of attainment is was obtained after a semester. The course was totally hands-on -- we focused on organic and Permaculture principles, no-dig gardens, worm farms, composting and recycling. We had excursions to places such as the Harmony Herb Farm at Sandy Creek. "
Update: Faith Thomas, with Dungog Community Garden when this story was published, is now living in Brisbane.