Garden education in Sydney’s sandy east
THERE’S A NEW GARDEN in Sydney’s sandy east, the region once home to the Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub. Now we call it Randwick and today it supports a radically different vegetation.
It’s only a small garden, facility constructed by Sydney Permaculture designer and landscape architect, Steve Batley. Steve, who completed his Permaculture design certificate in the city, has his own landscape design and construction business — Sydney Organic Gardens.
The garden was co-designed and commissioned by Randwick City Council’s Sustainability Educator, Fiona Campbell. Fiona is Council’s liaison with community gardens in the Randwick local government area. Her background both in teaching, the design professions and in permaculture education — she organised and taught the Permaculture Design Course in the Eastern Suburbs for around a decade — is apparent in her approach to the training of gardeners in the Sustainable Gardening course. It is, in effect, a course in permaculture garden design and management.
The course — running for the past four years — is aimed at home and community gardeners and consists of five Saturday sessions in which participants learn about low-water use, organic gardening as well as site analysis and the design of productive gardens. Steve Batley assists in teaching the course, as does Randwick Community Organic Garden trainer, Emma Daniell. The gardening course complements Randwick City Council’s Living Smart community sustainability course.
Despite being reputed to have the second highest population density in the southern hemisphere — around half of the population lives in apartments, town houses and other medium density accommodation — there is a keen interest in gardening in Sydney’s east even though a small courtyard is all that some people have. The course includes a session on container gardening for those with an apartment balcony.
Deeper into gardening
For interested participants in Council’s Living Smart course, the Sustainable Gardening course takes them deeper into gardening and food production than is possible in Living Smart.
Another motivation in designing the course was to provide further training for community gardeners in the Eastern Suburbs, training to supplement that which they receive through community garden-organised workshops.
This is probably Sydney’s first ever course for community gardeners and familiarises them with site analysis and design concepts as well as water conserving irrigation, plant propagation, botany, edible crops, planting patterns for higher productivity, soil improvement and integrated pest management.
Course participants express a strong interest in the growing of food in home gardens, however growing native plants is also popular thanks to their promotion for low water consumption.
Rather than presenting the choice as between only food or only native plants, the garden demonstrates how the two types can be integrated. Working with Council’s Bushcare Officer, Tina Digby, Fiona and Steve have established leguminous native shrubs to provide the plant nutrient, nitrogen, and flowering natives on the edge of the training garden’s food growing area.
The idea of integrating leguminous and otherwise compatible native plants with fruit trees and other edibles was pioneered around 30 years ago by Sorel Whitby in what was a design arrangement strongly suggestive of the permaculture design system’s ‘guild’ plantings, although the author had no known contact with permaculture at the time.
Designed for access
A criteria for the garden was that it be designed to accommodate one class at a time.
A keyhole bed was selected as a design option and sized so that participants can reach half way across the garden’s width from both sides, providing optimum access. A small pond was excavated and filled by the torrential rains during the gales of June. Native plants and herbs have been mix-planted adjacent to the keyhole bed, including flowering species of both plant types to attract pollinator and beneficial insects.
The garden was edged with a plastic weed barrier to minimise maintenance.
Classes mulch, plant, irrigate
Successive classes mulch the garden with stable sweepings delivered by the NSW Mounted Police. The sweepings are heaped and allowed to mature to provide time for veterinary chemicals to break down and leach out and to start the composting process.
Trainees use the sweepings, plus kitchen scraps and lawn clippings, to learn how to make compost in commercially available compost bins. The plastic bins are favoured by Council for their vermin-proof qualities and because the small households of the area do not produce a large amount of kitchen waste.
Using water conservatively is something that participants learn about quickly, for there is no tap near the training garden and water is carried down from the community centre building in buckets and watering cans.
Bringing food production back to the city
In devising the Sustainable Gardening course and building the training garden, Fiona was motivated by the need to produce more food within the city so as to improve the security of the food supply for families and to help them to help themselves in producing nutritious and safe food for themselves and their children.
This is another reason that the course was designed to train community gardeners. There is increasing interest in starting new community gardens in the Eastern Suburbs and providing a foundation in effective garden design and food production would make those new gardens more productive.
In October 2009, two new garden beds were installed at the training garden by Sydney Organic Gardens.
The beds, both rectangular in shape, are formed from recycled plastic panels and are UV-stabilised to resist breakdown under direct sunlight. They do not leach contaminants into the soil, something that the number of times that question is asked indicates is a concern.
The sign was made by Rob Alsop of Quietworks.
By November, the young plants showing so much promise in October had bloomed into a luxuriant vegetative splendor that spilled from the garden beds. Several days of wet weather boosted growth.
The two days of extreme heat of 21 and 22 November knocked some of the more delicate leafy greens back a little, however the gardens survived the hot spell.
Watching the development of the beds over the months, it became clear how effective it had been to build raised beds and to fill them with nutritious compost produced from Council’s green waste collection. Growth in the new beds was so much more prolific than in the adjacent keyhole bed managed as a sheet mulched garden. This indicates the wisdom of adopting gardening methods that get nutrients into the root zone of the soil profile rapidly.