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PacificEdge | October 17, 2017

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On the road (apologies to Jack Kerouac)

Russ Grayson

On the road with the City of Sydney educational tour of community food gardens

LET ME SAY A GOOD WORD about someone new to her job… someone still learning but who is bound for success because she has the needed combination of right motivation, right attitude and right action. Her name is Annie Walker and just this January she started her new job with City of Sydney as its volunteer and community gardens officer. Young and smart, Annie comes with a background in local government sustainability education.

City of Sydney Community Garden and Volunteer Cordinator, Annie Walker (left), accepts a gift of Jerusalem artichokes from a community gardener

City of Sydney Community Garden and Volunteer Cordinator, Annie Walker (left), accepts a gift of Jerusalem artichokes from a community gardener

To take on this position with the City is to be plunged, rapidly and dramatically, into the people side of community gardening. It’s known among community gardeners who have been around awhile that the skills of growing plants are picked up over time. Growing people and their capacities within organisations, and assisting them to solve problems, however, is a far greater challenge. And it’s this that Annie has taken on. If anything, it is people skills – participatory planning, decision making, problem solving, conflict resolution, negotiation and the rest – that make up the key employment skills and personal toolkit of someone taking on this liaison and catalyst work with local government or any other agency.

Annie assumes the role more than ably managed for years by the City’s Michael Neville, who continues with the council in his work in waste education. Michael is not leaving the community gardening milieu, however, and will continue his interest and activity with both the Sydney regional community gardens network and the national City Farms & Community Gardens Network.

Annie’s first larger scale public task was to organise a series of three day tours of Sydney community gardens. The purpose was to familiarise people presently active in the gardens or interested in starting or joining a community garden with the design, management and other ideas found in gardens in the City of Sydney and Randwick local government areas. My role (through the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network) was an educational one of tour guide. Here’s how it went…

First brew

The first harvest was brewed by Toby’s Estate, the coffee roaster down the road. For them, it was an opportunity for their staff to take coffee straight from tree to steaming brew. It was almost certainly Wooloomooloo’s first and, so far, only harvest of the global beverage, coffee. Now, with the branches hanging low under the weight of a new crop of shiny green berries, Wooloomooloo community gardeners are anticipating more cups of the local product. Not bad for what’s usually a tropical crop, grown here in the inner city, even if it does fruit only every second year.

Wooloomooloo Community Garden was the first of the gardens visited on both of the City’s tours to date. The City supports a total of 13 community gardens, Annie explained to the crowd of 22 that filled the council’s minibus on each of the tours. Two more gardens are in the planning stage with another opening in Alexandria. Although some of the gardens are not on council land, they still receive support from the City and are encouraged by Clover Moore, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, who demonstrated her push for urban food systems by opening the recent Food Summit launch in Parliament House for the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.

A gardener harvests her leafy greens at Wooloomooloo Community Garden

A gardener harvests her leafy greens at Wooloomooloo Community Garden

Small and productive

Wooloomooloo Community Garden occupies part of Sydney Place in the narrow valley of closely-packed housing between the CBD and Potts Point. One of Sydney’s early-settled places, Wooloomooloo is not a wealthy area and includes a fair portion of social housing.

Designed and built by the City of Sydney to replace an earlier and very small garden below the Eastern Suburbs railway viaduct, the community garden demonstrates compact design, durable and low maintenance pathways and raised garden beds of concrete block — some lifted higher to accommodate less-mobile gardeners. There are one or two reserved as community beds with the rest divided into small plots for individuals. From these spill the herbs and vegetables, fruit and flowers that thickly carpet the place. There’s one of those grafted stone fruits that produce two varieties of fruit from the single tree, an old enamel bathtub full of water celery and another showing the first shoots of next season’s water chestnuts.

The gardeners know they should have removed some of the banana trees to leave just a mature one and its successor but, as one of them explained, that just didn’t happen. Now, an area by the streetside fence is filled with a large clump, from one or two of which hang stems of young, green bananas from which the gardeners have cut away the conical, purple flowers known as ‘bells’.

Once, the garden had a reticulated irrigation system. Some locals, however, discovered that the irrigation pipes were just the right diameter for use in bongs. With the irrigation literally gone up in smoke, watering is now via a hose with a spray nozzle. A very small tool lockup — necessary because the garden is protected by only a low fence — compost bins, an industrial scale wormery salvaged from a school that didn’t want it anymore — and a bamboo and galvanised iron shelter that drains rainfall into a large plastic water tank make up the rest of the garden infrastructure.

Small, compact, well used

Annie had organised a seed swap to start the day on the first of the three tours and the visitors left Wooloomooloo with little packets of seeds as the tour made its way towards inner urban Redfern, site of the Greg Hewish Memorial Garden. The swap had been a positive start to the day, and walking away with a pocketful of seeds was something that would make the event stick in the minds of participants.

The Greg Hewish garden adjoins a small patch of lawn immediately in front of a community centre that houses the Food Distribution Network, a food box delivery service for people who have difficulty in obtaining food for themselves. Its clientele includes aged and ill people. Facing what was a printery housed in an old Art Deco industrial building, the land belongs to the nearby church.

The Greg Hewish Memorial garden team

The Greg Hewish Memorial garden team

This is a small, inner urban community garden consisting of three rows of raised beds, made of brick, that are divided into plots. Present are what are now common features in community gardens — a rainwater tank for irrigation, lock-up storage for garden tools and a composting facility. Also present were the most important part of any community garden — the gardeners. And, just as those at Wooloomooloo Community Garden had done, they made the visitors welcome. By the time the minibus pulled out of the narrow street, the visitors were loaded with cuttings of rosemary and clusters of Jerusalem artichoke, some destined for the pot, some for the garden.

The second of the City’s tours visited the tiny Newtown Community Garden rather than the Greg Hewish garden. It’s tucked away on the front lawn of a community centre only metres from busy King Street. The garden is a rather well constructed patch of raised, heavy timber beds and includes a water garden in the shade of a tall eucalypt. That day, the gardeners made sure the visitors departed with envelopes of seed harvested from the garden in their pockets.

Newtown Community Garden is compact but productive.

Newtown Community Garden is compact but productive.

Garden of ripples

Imaging a still pond. A rock is thrown in and ripples radiate out towards the edges from a central point. That’s the design of the Randwick Community Organic Garden, the beds of which ripple from the central, raised herb garden. The beds are divided into the plots or allotments managed by the gardeners and are raised slightly above the ground by roofing tile seconds installed upright into the soil. The space between them forms bark chip-mulched paths more than wide enough for a wheelbarrow.

Along the western perimeter that separates the garden from the park’s playing field, Randwick City Council’s Bushcare team has worked with the gardeners to establish a windbreak of native plants endemic to the area. On the community garden side of this, and tucked up against the acacias and other trees, is the garden’s pergola, which is presently being extended to include a nursery and storage shed. A necessity in any community garden, the pergola provides shelter from sun and rain. Below is a large table around which the gardeners meet, socialise and share food. Across on the other side of the garden are a small and a large plastic water tank that receive roofwater from the neighbouring stables. With a combined capacity of 30,000 litres when full, the tanks are the garden’s only source of water. This probably makes Randwick the city’s only rainfed community garden.

The commercially available plastic compost bins used by the gardeners were a council requirement, as was the chainlink fence. The idea was to avoid the rodents that find habitat when open compost bays are poorly maintained. A cluster of the black bins stand adjacent to the utility area next to the corner planted as a tree garden with pawpaw, banana, tamarillo and shrubs above a small pond and a groundcover of sweet potato.

Randwck Organic Community Garden is larger than the inner-city gardens and is designed as concentric circles of gardens radiating from a central herb garden

Randwck Organic Community Garden is larger than the inner-city gardens and is designed as concentric circles of gardens radiating from a central herb garden

Gasps of surprise greeted sight of the Randwick Community Organic Garden as the minibus pulled in, such was the contrast in size compared to the two compact, inner urban gardens already visited. The garden is on land owned by council, zoned as public open space, part of which is also owned by the state government Department of Lands. It is tucked between racing horse stables and a park. Randwick is in its second iteration, previously having occupied land adjacent to the Randwick Community Centre that was later closed, and that was started by students attending a Pacific-Edge urban permaculture design course.

A key to the success of the Randwick community garden is less the compost and mulch the gardeners have added to the porous and low-nutrient-retaining sandy soil, and more the organisational structure. This was inspired by that of the community garden which used to exist at Bondi Junction, those gardeners now on their new site as the Paddington Community Garden in the Woolahra Council area.

The arrangement sees new gardeners spending a period in the shared beds before they can apply for an allotment. This ensures they plan to stay around long enough to manage the allotment so as to avoid the problem of allotments being left unused while others are waiting for them. New gardeners are allocated to a team in which they learn about families and suites of plants as they acquire the skills of community gardening. Like other community gardens, an annual fee is payable and, when an allotment is acquired, an additional fee comes with it. It is in this way that the costs of running the garden, which includes public liability insurance, are met, modest they might be. The Randwick garden is an incorporated association, and although this entails a few extra but simple administrative responsibilities, it qualifies the garden to apply for grants.

Out back of the church

From the ripples of Randwick it was back to the compactness of inner urban gardens.

A timber arch bears the name and website address of the Glebe Community Garden and welcomes visitors as they move through the entrance between the old stone walls of the church yard. We were back in City of Sydney territory and this was one of two community gardens in the City that occupies what was poorly used land. The other is behind Waterloo Uniting Church and is used mainly as a therapeutic garden by people with HIV.

A mere block from Glebe Point Road, the Glebe Community Garden does not have the raised beds of the other gardens visited by the tour. Here, garden beds are edged with stones. There are two main, larger beds divided into individual plots, and there are the usual tool lockup and water tank. According to one of the Glebe gardeners, hand watering, rather than the pumped and piped irrigation system installed by council would have proven a more reliable way to get water to plants.

The second of the City’s tours went to Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle, in the Inner West, Sydney’s first community garden which was started in 1985. Complete with a flock of chickens and a mix of allotments and shared gardening areas, the garden climbs a low hill. Demand for gardening space has seen the garden spread further up the slope. This, the gardeners have terraced. On the late Autumn day of our visit the terraces supported a profusion of leafy greens and fruiting vegetables.

But there was something interesting at the top of the slope, above the terraces. I learned about it when Steve, a man perhaps in his late sixties, came over to talk. An immigrant from Greece many decades ago, Steve was eager to show us his work. It’s sort of peripheral to the community garden although it joins it, but what a lot of work it must have been. He’s planted olives, mandarin and oranges and has colonised a strip along the fence over by the road by clearing the forest of castor oil bush and terracing the slope. Last season, Steve said, he harvested a pumpkin from that garden weighing 20kg. We found it full of vegetables. Steve is proud of his work and has effectively colonised an area of unused land.

This was guerrilla gardening, I realised, par excellence. It was larger than any other guerrilla garden I have seen and it differed in one major respect — unlike some other guerilla plantings, Steve’s was regularly maintained. No chance that his plantings would be abandoned and ignored to become a insect pest vector for other local gardeners. Steve was more than happy to talk and it took a bit of cajoling from Annie to drag us away.

Glebe community gardeners with their patch of New Zealand spinach, an Australian bush food with a place in all community gardens

Glebe community gardeners with their patch of New Zealand spinach, an Australian bush food with a place in all community gardens

On the road

A day’s on the road visiting community gardens. All different, but all exhibiting the reality that community gardens reflect their site and the demographics, interests and skills of their gardeners. And all featured the basic infrastructure kit common to community gardens — durable paths and garden edges, rainwater tanks, tool storage, pergola to shelter the gardeners and a level of organisation pertinent to the gardener’s needs.

The tours are a simple but productive initiative of the City of Sydney and of the City’s community garden officer, Annie Walker. Much was seen and learned and much networking took place. Above all, the tour showed that our cities can be humane and sustainable places and that community gardens, with their local production of food and their social benefits, are key components in making those cities resilient in the face of global change. This was the city as solution.

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