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Learning to create our new nature in the city…

Learning to create our new nature in the city…

AS THE COURSE PARTICIPANTS ARRIVE for the class they open jars containing soil samples from their gardens. These they tip onto small, white plastic panels. Opening a bottle of dark purple reagent, they squeeze a little onto their samples and, using a plastic stick (wood contains acids that would bias the results), they mix it in. Then they open the bottle of white indicator powder and dust it onto their sample. They watch as the powder begins to show colour, then compare that to the colour chart. Now they know whether their garden soils are too acid, too alkaline of just right. Those with soils too far from neutral Ph discuss how to remediate them.

It’s another Saturday afternoon at the Randwick Sustainability Hub’s* Organic Gardening class. Autumn is almost over — just a couple days to go —  and after a recap of last week’s learning the participants go out into the garden for the practical part of the afternoon’s learning. 


Under the grey skies of late Autumn, participants in the Organic Gardning course plant out the training garden.

The seven week Organic Gardening course meets Saturday afternoons in the new classroom on the village green. Offered now for more than a decade, the no-fee course (it is paid for through Randwick Council’s environment levy) continues to attract people who want to garden the small spaces of their medium density dwellings or their apartment balconies. More than 54 percent of Randwick residents live in medium density housing, and gardens in the northern half of the suburb are mostly small.

The Organic Gardening course was introduced around a decade ago by Fiona Campbell, council’s sustainability educator. Prior to that she ran it for the previous decade in a local community garden for City East Community College. 

The continuity of the course and its ability to continually attract participants attests to the growing popularity of urban food production in home and community gardens. This is a demand linked to the topicality of food issues, to the demand for safe, good food from the region and to a growing awareness of concepts like food security and food sovereignty — the control by eaters and farmers over their food supply and the freedom to choose the types of foods people want to eat, distributed in ways they wish to support with their purchasing dollar.


The courses are aimed at the beginner gardener and makes use of permaculture design concepts. Permaculture is a design system developed in the late-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Hobart, Tasmania, and brings together food production, energy and water effiecient building design and community development.  The courses are science and evidence-based without being overly technical. The two food-focused courses, especially, focus on soil quality as the key to successful and productive food gardens.

Participants are encouraged to experiment rather than accept hearsay about organic gardening. For example, companion planting is taught less as the assumed (and frequently unproven) positive benefits of establishing plants in proximity, and more on the mutuality of plant function such as windbreak, shading, nitrogen fixation, insect repellency and so on. It’s something of a functionalist approach to companion planting that is based on evidence and plant characteristic.

Drawing on permaculture design, participants learn how plants are placed in the garden landscape to take advantage of sunlight through the seasons and to protect vulnerable plants from strong, damaging winds.

In preparation for the afternoon’s planting out, Fiona introduces the planting pattern used in the Biointensive gardening system. The Biointensive approach, developed by John Jeavons from the traditional French Intensive gardening method, is based on nutritnt-rich soils and close planting and is a highly productive system for small urban gardens. Explaining how the leaf canopies of the mature vegetables will almost touch, Fiona uses mosaic tiles and plastic rulers on the floor to demonstarte Biointensive’s hexagonal and zigzag planting patterns and the optimal spacing of different vegetables. This the participants will replicate with their seeds and seedlings later in the garden.


With assistant educator and horticulturist, Jon Kingston standing by, Fiona uses ceramic tiles and rulers to demonstrate the plant spacing and patterns of the Biointemnsive gardening system.


With its focus on small-area food production, the Organic Gardening and the Forest Gardening course, which focuses more on growing fruit trees and shrubs in the small gardens and sandy soils of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, aims to return some of our food production to the city. It is not uncommon for participants to start with the Organic Gardening course then go on to Forest Gardening or, sometimes, to enroll in both when they are run concurrently on different days.

There is also Gardening On The Wild Side that is offered a couple times a year. The focus of this shorter course is people who don’t want to grow food but who want a garden that is low-maintenance, low-water-consumption and that offers biodiversity and aesthetic benefits. To cater for this, the course’s focus is on native plants. 

Completion of the three courses equips participants to design and manage recombinant gardens that include all the plant types. Doing this increases the already-substantial biodiversity of the city by including the biodiversity of native plants, the diversity of exotic ornamental species as well as the agricultural biodiversity of our food plants. In stimulating peoples’ imagination, the courses present an alternative to drab lawn monocultures. It is through combining plant and garden types that we create nature in the city — out urban nature, our new nature.



Autumn is almost over and in the fading light of this cool, late Autumn Saturday afternoon the enthusiastic participants in this long-running course are planting out in the training garden. Working in small groups each with a section of the garden to plant, there is much discussion about what plants to place where, about how the taller vegetables could shade the lower-growing when the sun is lower in the sky in Winter, about how the flowers should be integrated into the plantings so as to attract pollinators and the predatory insects that are part of the garden’s integrated pest management strategy. Gardening, it becomes clear, is as much an intellectual problem-solving exercise as it is a physical activity.

The Organic Gardening Course is popular because it is a response to the DIY food production demands of local people. Participants have commented on how good it is that a council offers this type of education, however like much of the good that councils and private educators do, it is due to the presence of the social entrepreneurs on their staff rather than to the organisation itself.
* Randwick Sustainability Hub is the name given to the community education program at Randwick Community Centre, 27 Munda Street, Randwick NSW.

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