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Down to Earth

The blossoming of community gardens

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Down to Earth

It’s a picture-perfect Saturday morning on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. Surfers are paddling out on the dazzling blue ocean, sunbathing British backpackers are turning a deeper shade of lobster and a busload of Japanese tourists are busy snapping the scene.

Tourist-magnet Bondi may be one of Australia’s most transient suburbs, but a few blocks back from the famous strip of golden sand, a group of locals are busy putting down roots—literally. For the past two years they have been meeting every Saturday morning to create and tend to a thriving community garden.

In the front yards and backyards of a privately owned apartment block on Bondi Road, they grow everything from eggplants to olive trees, bean stalks to bananas. Along the way the volunteers get their hands dirty; learn about growing their own food; eat delicious, organic fare; meet like-minded locals and have a laugh in the sunshine.

The grow-your-own revolution

Community gardens have their roots in 19th century Europe where they were used to help feed the urban working class. In Australia the first community garden appeared in 1977 in Nunawading, Melbourne. Russ Grayson, coordinator of the Australian City Farms — Community Gardens Network, estimates there are now “hundreds” of community gardens nationwide.

Driven by a concern over the environmental impact of industrial farming as well as the rising cost of groceries, community gardens have sprouted in cities all across the country. Some are on school land, others at the back of social housing estates; many are council-run, while a growing number are community initiatives on private land or even ad hoc vegie patches on the grass verges of city streets.

At some community gardens, individuals are allocated their own plots; at others, everything is shared. Some gardens are strictly membership-only with years-long waiting lists, while others are an unfenced veritable free-for-all where everyone pitches in to plan and grow.

For the evolving group of a dozen or so volunteers who meet on Bondi Road every Saturday, the latter system is the case. Every Wednesday evening, the volunteers get together in a local community hall to enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of their labour, supplementing their meal with organic vegies from a home delivery service when the garden is having a slow week. All and sundry in the local community are invited to the feast, which is usually followed by a film or inspirational talk.

Bondi local, fitness trainer and permaculture designer Lance Lieber, was the one who chanced upon the land for the community garden. He found it through Landshare, a relatively new scheme which sees wannabe food growers with no land matched with landowners with no time.

Lieber’s permaculture expertise came in handy as he trained a passionate team of local volunteers in the art of companion planting, warding off bugs naturally and recycling all waste. Neighbouring restaurants also got in on the act, donating food waste to the garden’s compost bins, thus reducing their rubbish removal costs at the same time.

Think global, act local

Certainly, Lieber was attracted to the health, lifestyle, social and economic benefits of growing his own food. But his primary motivation in getting the garden off the ground was to secure a local food supply in an age of peak oil.

“The way we get our food nowadays is unsustainable and completely dependent on fossil fuels for everything from growing and transporting to processing and storing,” he explains. “We’re trying to shift the culture back toward growing your own food.”

Once upon a time a vegie patch might have meant you were strapped for cash, “but that’s all changed now with the whole organic movement”, says Lieber. “Growing your own food is actually quite trendy.”

Guerrillas in our midst One person who certainly started a trend was Sydney-based sustainability expert Michael Mobbs, author of Sustainable House (UNSW Press, 2nd edition, 2010) and a pioneer of Australia’s guerrilla gardening movement.

In 2008 he created a “road garden” on the footpath outside his Chippendale home, planting native berries, herbs, tomatoes, rocket and fruit trees. He showed the City of Sydney Council his work; they were so impressed, they donated 200 fruit trees to a community ä planting day. The whole neighbourhood pitched in to help, planting the trees on road verges.

Three years on, thanks to Mobbs’ initial act of environmental rebellion, the area has transformed from a concrete jungle into an edible forest. Mobbs’ initiative also led the local council (and many other councils nationwide have followed in their wake) to adopt policies supporting the growing of food as well as composting on city streets. “It’s terrific to know it’s so easy to live like this”, waxes Mobbs, who says you don’t need to be a gardening guru to grow your own food.

Mobbs predicts Australia will face a major food shortage within the next decade and wants to encourage more people to jump aboard the grow-your-own bandwagon. “Food causes the second highest air pollution after coal-fired power stations in Australia”, he reveals. “By growing food where we live and work, we cut climate pollution.”

Getting started

Before you pick up a shovel and start digging, it’s important to decide what kind of community garden you want to create and how you’re going to go about creating it. The “bottom-up” approach to establishing a garden involves galvanising community support and then approaching council or a private landowner to secure unused land and possibly financial assistance.

While the bottom-up approach is the most common way of starting a community garden, it also requires persistence, patience and careful planning. The “top-down” approach, meanwhile, is where the garden is actually initiated by community workers or local governments, who may also take care of key considerations such as public liability insurance, the training of gardeners and ongoing maintenance.

Once the land is secured, a decision needs to be made about whether the garden will be shared or divided into individual allotments. If it’s the former, policies need to be in place over how produce will be divvied up. If it’s the latter, everyone needs to agree on whether organic principles should be adhered to.

The group might also consider building other amenities on-site, such as a mud-brick tool shed, a water tank, a cob oven for communal cooking or a pergola to provide a shady spot to sit and relax.

The Australian City Farms — Community Gardens Network website has an excellent manual on starting your own garden. Still, for any first-time community gardener, there’s always a steep learning curve.

Lieber has salient advice for those with limited gardening experience: “YouTube can be your best teacher.” He also advocates a fearless, trial-and-error approach to gardening, admitting “the best way to learn to grow stuff is to kill stuff”.

It needn’t cost the earth, either. The Bondi Road garden has relied entirely on small financial and equipment donations as well as the occasional fundraising drive to cover their costs.

Growing a community

The health benefits of community gardening are manifold: there’s the exercise you get from digging holes and pottering around a vegie patch in the great outdoors—and there’s the vitamin hit you get from eating organic, sun-ripened fruit and vegetables.

Research shows that community gardens have additional, unexpected social benefits. In 2005 the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute UNSW-UWS Research Centre found that community gardens were effective in reducing the incidence of crime on housing estates.

While community gardening is not always a bed of roses (neighbourhood feuds have been known to erupt over access to land and produce), Lieber’s Bondi garden seems to be proof that a community that gardens together, stays together. Teenagers, adults, grandparents and grandchildren all join in the Saturday morning ritual of planting seeds, removing weeds and spreading compost.

“Our group consists of people who never would have otherwise met each other,” says Lieber, a sentiment echoed by many of the volunteers who say that while they’ve lived in Bondi for years, this is the first time they’ve actually felt “part of a community”.

With friendships formed, pumpkins cultivated and herbs swaying in the gentle beachside breeze, Lieber is still waiting for one more thing to blossom in the Bondi Road community garden: romance.

“We haven’t had any couples made here yet”, he laughs. “It’s always nice to have a story like that.” But like waiting for a pear tree to bear fruit, Lieber knows you can’t hurry love. It’s just something that happens—organically. 

Taking the initiative

The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network website (communitygarden.org.au) has a comprehensive manual on how to start your own community garden.

  • Landshare (landshareaustralia.com.au) links green-thumbed people with no land to private landowners with an unused garden.
  • For help in establishing a road garden, contact Michael Mobbs through his website, sustainablehouse.com.au.
  • To share ideas or get inspired about greening your community, visit livelocal.org.au.
  • To get involved in the movement to tackle climate change and peak oil, visit Transition Sydney (transitionsydney.org.au).
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