From Caloundra to Collingwood, from Brisbane to Bega and over to Adelaide and Perth, community gardens are sprouting in Australia’s cities and towns. In some, the community gardeners work their own little plot of garden, their allotment. In others, they share whatever work needs doing and, at the end of the day, they divide the herbs and vegetables ready for harvest.
Visit Melbourne’s Veg Out Community Garden at St Kilda, the large community gardens at Collingwood Children’s Farm and Sydney’s Randwick Community Organic Garden and you see the allotment model in use. Go over to Sydney’s Glovers Community Garden in Rozelle or Brisbane’s Northey Street City Farm to see shared community gardens in action. Different models of community gardening for sure, but they all work.
Community gardens—diverse places
Diversity is a feature of community gardening; diversity of plants and diversity of people. The membership of community gardens reflects the people that live in the surrounding area. In Melbourne’s Flemington Community Garden and the Waterloo Estate community gardens in Sydney you find people from Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe—and even Australia.
These are gardens on the land of state government housing estates and have been built by organisations like Cultivating Community for the use of the residents of the high-rise blocks that surround them. Some gardens are predominately Anglo in makeup.
Just as diversified as their participants are the plants that community gardeners grow. Mostly, it’s vegetables and culinary herbs. There are the common varieties like tomatoes in their surprising range, leafy greens such as lettuce and cabbage, eggplant and capsicum, corn, and cucumber. Look closely and you find less commonly grown vegetables like globe artichoke and Jerusalem artichoke. Wooloomooloo Community Garden even has a coffee tree from which a local coffee roaster processed the beans for brewing.
Check out the communal garden beds in the Randwick garden and you discover a patch of the native vegetable, New Zealand spinach, reflecting the interest in Australian wild foods among some community gardeners. Fruit shrubs and trees are a feature of larger community gardens where the varieties you find are determined by climate. In Collingwood Children’s Garden’s orchard, for instance, and in that at CERES in Brunswick, you find cool climate varieties such as the stone fruits. Citrus and avocado might be seen in the larger Sydney community gardens and, if subtropical Brisbane is on your travel itinerary, Northey Street City Farm has a wonderful range of warm climate fruits.
It’s not only plants that grow in community gardens. A walk along the fence at Glovers Community Garden or a poke in the back corner at Randwick Community Organic Garden will reveal something else installed by the gardeners—chickens. The chickens at Randwick were donated by Randwick City Council, whose sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell, borrows them and their small mobile pen when she runs workshops on keeping urban poultry.
Management of community garden chooks is by a ‘chook team’. They organise a daily roster so that someone checks that the birds have fresh water and food every day. That lucky person gets to take whatever eggs have been laid. Needless to say, community garden chooks are a popular attraction to community garden children, who like to watch and handle the birds.
Relocalising the food supply
Although you find native plants in community gardens, the growing of food is their core business. And this is fortunate because community gardening is a means of returning food production to the city. When the permaculture design system’s David Holmgren and Bill Mollison started to promote that idea almost 30 years ago, it was new and novel. Now it has become a means of reducing the food system’s contribution of greenhouse gases due to the long distance transportation of food (known as ‘food miles’). With oil price hikes—and price increases of anything that uses oil in its production or transport, such as food—likely because of the impending peaking of global oil production—home and community gardening become the means to a more secure and less expensive food supply.
Related to this is the leading role of community gardening in the growing ‘local food’ movement. Here, food grown in community gardens joins food grown in the wider region and sold at farmers’ markets to create a relocalised food supply that has fewer food miles than that obtained from the supermarket.
Of course you cannot grow all of your food needs in a community garden; it is really a means of supplementing what you eat. Nonetheless, the reasons people community garden are as varied as the gardeners. Some seek access to cheaper, fresher, and more nutritious food. Others want to reduce their family’s expenditure on food. For some, it’s a constructive recreation and, for many, the reason for gardening is primarily social—it’s a means of meeting and being with others. Community gardens are family-friendly places.
If you decide to take up community gardening, there remains one key factor to keep in mind as you lay your mulch and carefully plant your first seedlings. It is something very important to the community gardening experience and is something you might like to keep in mind all the time. It is this—have fun.
Russ Grayson is media liaison for the Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network (www.communitygarden.org.au). A journalist and editor (www.pacific-edge.info), he works with the TerraCircle international development team in the southwest Pacific (www.terracircle.org.au) and is a member of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance (www.sydneyfoodfairness.org.au). Russ is also involved in sustainability education and is a board member of the Manly Food Coop and Permaculture International.
• The American Community Garden Association
• Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network
• Australian Community Foods
• Canada’s office of urban agriculture
• Collingwood Childrens Farm
• Cultivating Community
• Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens UK
• Glovers Community Garden
• Northey Street City Farm
• Organic Traders and Consumers Network bOCTACnet
• Randwick Community Organic Garden
• SEED International
• Seed Savers Network
• Slow Food Movement
• Veg Out Community Garden
Starting a Community Garden
What is a Community Garden? Very simply, it is any piece of land gardened by a group of people. It can be urban, suburban or rural. It can grow flowers, vegetables, herbs or community. It can be one community plot or many —at a school, hospital or in a neighbourhood.
Here are a few ideas on how to get started:
1. Form a planning committee
2. Choose a co-ordinator
3. Find a sponsor (to help fund tools, land, etc)
4. Choose a site
5. Prepare and develop the site
6. Organise the garden management
7. Look into insurance
8. Set up an organisation and create bylaws
9. Create simple management guidelines
10. Find ways to include children
11. Have fun
For more information visit the American Community Gardening Association: www.communitygarden.org