Grand Tour One: the luxuriant gardens of the inner city

Russ Grayson reports on another City of Sydney community garden tour...

BY THE TIME everyone was aboard the 21-seater, the mini-bus was packed full. Younger, older and middle aged, it seemed that on this tour females would outnumber males. That's not surprising though, it's the usual gender distribution on these tours. The interest and enthusiasm of those crammed into that little bus, however, knew no gender bias.

Road tips are a traditional genre for writers but they usually describe the meanderings of footloose travelers across the continent. But this was a road trip with a mission greater than wayward rambling along dusty byways — it was a road trip in search of what for most of those present was their food future. Yes, it was another City of Sydney community garden road trip.

Looking inot the orchard area of Glovers Community Garden.

Looking inot the orchard area of Glovers Community Garden.

The purpose envisioned by the woman who started these tours last year, Annie Walker, the City of Sydney's Community Gardens and Volunteer Coordinator, is to expose community gardeners and would-be community gardeners to the diversity of community garden sizes, types and structures. I've been acting as guide for Annie and every time we set out I am surprised at the range of people who participate and at the level of interest that there is in the practice of community gardening. The tours, the road trips, are offered on a first-in basis, which means that those who leave booking for too long are often too late.

First stop

I arrived early at Greg Hewish Memorial Garden, the starting point for the first of this year's tours, but that allowed time to talk with the gardeners.

The garden is located at the corner of Ogden Lane and Marriott Street in Redfern, at the back of Saint Saviour's Anglican Church, and is quite small, as are quite a number of Sydney gardens (how we Sydneysiders envy the large allotments in the community garden at Collingwood Childrens' Farm in Melbourne). It grows on church land wedged comfortably between the lawn of a tiny patch of open space and the neighbouring house. Behind is the depot of the Food Distribution Network, a weekly fresh food box scheme that delivers to people who for reasons of illness or lack of mobility cannot shop for themselves. Across the street is an old Art Deco printery (Streamline Moderne style for those who appreciate these buildings) now converted into apartments.

The garden itself is mainly raised beds that were built by bricklaying students some years ago. There are three long, raised beds that are divided into 12 plots and there is additional planting space along the fenceline. The garden demonstrates that, when it comes to design, simplicity works... no curvaceous garden edges, no mandala gardens, just simple, functional and easily-maintainable raised beds.

The raised garden beds of Greg Hewish Memorial Garden.

The raised garden beds of Greg Hewish Memorial Garden.

There is also evidence of the City of Sydney's investment in community gardens in the form of a rainwater tank and a storage shed that was in the process of upgrading. This is the result of the local food interest of Lord Mayor Clover Moore and an interested City administration (the City only recently adopted a policy to enable community gardening).

Street of angels

It wasn't a long drive to our second destination of the day — Angel Street Permaculture Garden. This garden couldn't be anymore different to the Greg Hewish Memorial Garden. Where Greg Hewish is devoted mainly to vegetables, the Angel Street garden is a forest... a food forest.

Walk up the slope and you disappear in the encroaching and overarching foliage of clumping bamboo, avocado and guava — to mention a mere few of the species growing here. Walk down the slope and you notice that the hill, sometime in the past, has been terraced with low brick walls — where once vegetables grew trees have taken over in an act of vegetative colonisation.

The Angel Street gang. From left, Vivian, Leith, Tamara, Rose.

The Angel Street gang. From left, Vivian, Leith, Tamara, Rose.

This is one of Sydney's older community gardens. It occupies a disused corned of Newtown High School and came into existence as a result of the rejection of the gardeners' application, to what then was South Sydney Council, to build a Sydney city farm in nearby Sydney Park. That was at the end of the 1980s and work started on Angel Street Permaculture Garden in 1991.

Trees crowd the flat land of the community garden too, and here, too, is an old propagation igloo now used as a weekly farm-fresh food box collection depot by local members of Food Connect Sydney, a community supported agriculture scheme.

Leith reaches into the canopy to pluck the fruit of the Japanese raisin tree at Angel Street Permaculture Garden.

Leith reaches into the canopy to pluck the fruit of the Japanese raisin tree at Angel Street Permaculture Garden.

Just as we were about to leave, you couldn't help but notice Leith, one of the original Angel Street gardeners, reaching up into a tree to pull down handfuls of a strange looking, brown fruit that looked more like thick twigs than what we commonly imagine fruit to look like. Tuning the fruit over as if to try to comprehend it, the visitors tentatively put fruit to mouth, took a bite — and then came exclamations of tasty delight as they discovered that the fruit is not unlike apple in taste. Now convinced of its tastiness, people saved the seeds from the pieces they were gives so as to ensure the reproduction of Japanese raisin tree in other community gardens.

The vegetative overabundance of Glovers

Glovers Community Garden has the distinction of being an authentic heritage garden on account of its being the first in Sydney. There are occasionally claims that there were earlier gardens, though not much earlier, but those making the claim seem never to be able to say where those elusive gardens were located or by what name they were known. The claim often turns out to be hearsay, secondhand information. Consequently,  Glovers — started in 1985 — is agreed to be the earliest confirmed community garden in the metropolis.

The twisted fruit of the Japanese raisin tree tastes not unlike apple.

The twisted fruit of the Japanese raisin tree tastes not unlike apple.

Unlike Angel Street, it's possible to gain a comprehension of this garden at a single glance. Occupying a gentle, north facing slope in the Inner West suburb of Rozelle, Glovers is encased in a chainlink fence and occupies a corner of what was Callan Park psychiatric hospital, an area presently under consideration for redevelopment.

The visitors gathered in the sparse shelter of the old celtus tree to listen as Jane Mowbray explained how the place works. An ex-school teacher, Jane is active with the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network and is an avid seed saver. A patchwork of gardens occupies the flat land around the celtus and, on the other side of the shadecloth-draped propagation igloo, the slope has been terraced for vegetable cultivation. Here, the garden edges are formed of terracotta roofing tile seconds, a strong and durable edging that, when carefully fitted, forms a good weed barrier. Beyond, at the far end of the garden, is a small orchard area populated by a number of fruit trees. Below is a keyhole bed, freshly mulched.

Of great interest were the dozen chooks and lone rooster. Chooks never fail to arouse interest on these road trips and, here at Glovers, what the tourers saw was what could be described an an agropoulry system of fruit trees planted as a canopy over the chicken yard with the chooks occupying the ground level. It was like stacking the landuses vertically.

The agropoultry system in the chook yard... the fruit trees will grow up to shelter the yard and yield fruit. The tyres prevent the chooks from excavating the young fruit trees.

The agropoultry system in the chook yard... the fruit trees will grow up to shelter the yard and yield fruit. The tyres prevent the chooks from excavating the young fruit trees.

Visitors prowl among the vegetable beds in Glovers Community Garden. Note the garden edges of terracotta roofing tile seconds.

Visitors prowl among the vegetable beds in Glovers Community Garden. Note the garden edges of terracotta roofing tile seconds.

And onto Glebe

Glebe Community Garden is  a small garden in the grounds of a church at 132a St Johns Road, not far off busy Glebe Point Road.

Carlo, spokesman for Glebe Community Garden

Carlo, spokesman for Glebe Community Garden

According to Carlo, a print journalist now turned community gardener, the garden opened in 1995 and has around 30 members. Following the principle to capture and store energy where it becomes available, rainwater falling on the roof of the church building is stored in a large plastic water tank of the tall, broad and flattish kind that was provided by the City of Sydney. Open bays produce compost for the garden. These are common infrastructure in community gardens.

Carlo explained that pumpkin had been especially prolific this year. Looking around, less-commonly established plants in other community gardens were found — hops, used in brewing beer, and bassella, a tropical, edible-leaf vine climbing a tripod, otherwise known as Ceylon or Malabar spinach.

According to Carlo, members pay $30 a year for a small allotment of land plus the $10 a year membership fee. The garden has a licence with the church landlord for a period of three years.

Glebe is a small community garden with lots of potential.

And as to outcomes?

What did the tourers learn on this visit to community gardens?

First, that there is no 'typical' community garden... each is different, each starts from different situations to follow its own evolution set by the gardeners. Although garden structure and design can be changed over time and in a small number of cases actually have been, community gardens are sensitive to their starting conditions. Then there is appearance. The visitors saw gardens that are quite different... the vegetable gardens of Greg Hewish, the dim recesses of the food forest at Angel Street, the distinct segments of vegetable bed and orchard at Rozelle and the veges and herbs of the Glebe Community Garden.

Behing a bed of sprawling pumpin, Carlo discusses the Glebe Community Garden with visitors.

Behing a bed of sprawling pumpin, Carlo discusses the Glebe Community Garden with visitors.

Whether it was the row of repurposed fuel drums harvesting rainwater from the chook shed at Glovers or the conventional water tanks of the other gardens, the visitors learned the necessity to harvest and store water. Another learning in resource management was the universal use of composting to produce fertilser for the gardens. In regard to managing the community gardens, visitors learned of the different levels of formality in decision making.

That's why these City of Sydney community garden tours are so good... the exposure to different ideas that they reveal... all considerations for would-be community gardeners, especially those planing to start their own garden.

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