As cities grow bigger and living spaces get smaller, connecting with the land is more important than ever. Community gardens have long provided this space, but many of them do so much more.
The Secret Garden, Hawkesbury
“When you think of a community garden you often imagine vegie plots, but there’s much more going on here,” says Secret Garden coordinator Marianne Farrar.
It’s just after 9am, and Farrar is jostling with a lock on the garden’s main gate. A handful of local workers and disabled volunteers have gathered out the front, ready to start their day. Farrar has barely clicked the latch when people start to stream in. They walk past the nursery, where hundreds of small pots – from hardy natives to kitchen herbs – await new homes; past a small army of propagated seedlings in a plastic polytunnel; past the front office, the potting shed and into the garden.
As they walk, a few volunteers grab rakes, hoses and brooms, while others head straight for the animals. Guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep and two massive pigs called Bruce and Molly are drawcards for many in the garden community. “They’re like local celebrities,” Farrar says with a smile.
Set on a five-acre plot attached to the University of Western Sydney, just an hour’s drive from the Sydney CBD, The Secret Garden has always supported disadvantaged people in the Hawkesbury community. The site was founded 24 years ago to provide job opportunities for the long-term unemployed and those on Work for the Dole programs.
Today, the space is run by North West Disabilities. “Our focus is mainly helping people with disabilities gain skills in horticulture and to provide a fun, safe place to come and visit,” Farrar explains. “I’ve been here 10 years and that has always been the priority. We’ve built up the garden through community volunteers and the good quality, unusual plants that we sell.”
Farrar, who has a nursery background, runs all facets of the garden with help from horticulture assistant Travis Darroch and horticultural therapist Karen Gray. As they are part time, all three rely heavily on 60 regular volunteers – made up of people with varying abilities and locals from the Hawkesbury community – to keep the garden thriving. Each week, more than a dozen groups, schools and individuals visit to tend their plots, hang with the animals, or just spend time outdoors. Locals and families also come to shop at the nursery and picnic on the grounds. All are welcome.
“We’ve built up the garden through community volunteers and the good quality, unusual plants that we sell.”
There is no main path through The Secret Garden. Pebble-covered trails, meandering walkways and miniature tracks weave under big shady pecan trees, flowering shrubs and bird-attracting salvias. There’s an orchard laden with tangerines, lemons and grapefruit, and a rose garden full of bright blooms. Raised mudbrick vegie plots, easily accessible by visitors in wheelchairs, are set throughout. All garden signs are hand-painted.
“There’s a great group of people here and it’s just good to be outside,” says David Griffin, a volunteer from the local area. “My wife worked in schools for a long time as a teacher’s aide with disabled kids, so this was a natural progression for us, something we decided to do together.” Griffin spends two days a week in The Secret Garden, where he rakes, prunes and weeds, but the social side is just as appealing. “We all work as hard as we want, but always stop and chat,” he says. “It’s great to work with the disabled people who come in. You get a lot of satisfaction seeing the other volunteers grow.”
In the potting shed, Rebecca and Lisa are putting box-hedge seedlings into big pots of earth. As disabled volunteers, they spend at least two days a week in the garden. “My favourite thing is potting, and art and craft, and flower arrangements,” Rebecca states, pressing a seedling into the soil. “I love weeding and potting,” adds Lisa. “I’m the head boss in the potting shed. I tell everyone what to do. I don’t know why I like weeding, it just makes me feel good.”
Horticultural therapy integrates gardens, plants or nature-based activity in health care programs. As a horticultural therapist, it’s Karen Gray’s role to match activities with Secret Garden volunteers. “Each week we organise a range of things, from nursery work through to garden crafts,” she explains. “The programs help build self esteem. Participants gain the satisfaction of growing plants from seed, harvesting vegetables, picking flowers and having a good conversation and laugh with each other.”
This connectivity is something Farrar is trying to replicate as she and the team design a new garden. In a year or two, The Secret Garden will move to a different space on campus, polytunnel and all. “We’ll have bigger pathways to fit wheelchairs, more spaces where people and groups can sit, and a lovely courtyard area,” Farrar says. The current community garden provides an excellent blueprint. The new space will echo its spirit, but better meet the needs of workers and visitors.
It takes just a few minutes to witness The Secret Garden’s positive impact, something Farrar and Gray experience every day. “So many people come from the community with diverse needs that are met by this garden,” Gray says. “It might be a retiree volunteering to help others, someone in a wheelchair gardening in the raised beds, a person suffering from depression enjoying the sunshine, or a young family running around after the ducks and chickens. It is so important to have peaceful, beautiful places like this.”
Perth City Farm, East Perth
A busy train line runs alongside a former scrap metal yard and battery recycling plant on the fringe of Perth’s CBD. It’s not somewhere you’d expect to find a thriving community garden, but Perth City Farm isn’t your average plot. Twenty years ago, environmental initiative Men of The Trees took hold of the land, which is bordered by high-rises and sound-tracked by locomotive rumblings, and transformed it into a project to nourish, support and teach.
Pitched-roof sheds, once home to chemicals and heavy machinery, have been reincarnated as a circus school, a commercial kitchen available for hire, and places for workshops, meetings and weekly farmer’s markets. There’s an impressive hall – with fairy lights tumbling from the beams – where weddings, exhibitions and parties are thrown, and a café run by smiling folk who have their pick of the goodness that grows.
The garden is wildly abundant. Enormous silverbeets, swathes of herbs and rambling sweet peas dart in all directions, while chooks stamp their marks in the soil. Midweek, the plot is filled with people. Many are part of the government’s Work for the Dole program, some are tenants of the community housing next door, and all have their heads bowed beneath big hats, focused intently on the garden.
There’s a clear leader in this group. Helen Montgomery is the farm production coordinator and nursery manager, and she runs a tight ship.
“I am here to enable and empower people, to give them the tools to apply for work, to learn how to grow and prepare their own food,” she explains. As Montgomery speaks passionately about the benefits of structure, form and time, and how precious self-sufficiency is, she’s also fielding questions about de-heading lettuces.
“With Work for the Dole, we’ve now got some people coming back after their compulsory 33 hours and giving their time as volunteers,” she says. “I think what’s happened, is – like at any workplace – if you get praised, you come back. You’ve got something to measure your progress. So that’s what I do.”
Perth City Farm’s success is built on collaboration. In July 2014, they enlisted the help of 1,500 local school kids to plant 100,000 trees in a single day for a spot in the record books, and they have just welcomed OzHarvest, the country’s first food rescue organisation, to work from the premises.
Their arrangement is a cyclical one. OzHarvest will distribute food grown in the garden to those in need, and Perth City Farm will take the inedible food OzHarvest collects to reuse as compost.
In giving, they receive. There is Mr Hung who, without a word of English, contributes to the farm weekly. He arrives, unannounced and silent, places money in the donation box, picks up a broom, sweeps the grounds, then leaves. There’s Nick, an elderly Italian man, who has a way with the fruit trees. “You wouldn’t believe the way he has made the mulberry trees bloom,” says David Siglin, the farm’s vice president and treasurer.
Siglin himself donates an incredible 70 hours a week to the farm’s wellbeing. Everyone in this garden, for reasons of their own, is fiercely proud of their contribution. Helen Montgomery beams as she talks of her favourite part of the day. “You’ve got to come back at late afternoon. The trains slow down on their way into the city. Every single face inside is pushed against that glass, eyes open, saying, ‘Look at that!’ Wanting to get in here”.
Mullumbimby Community Garden, Byron Bay Shire
The Mullumbimby Community Garden doesn’t have any trouble growing things. In fact, quite the opposite. Two years ago, they started the Living Earth Festival, which was held on their five-acre site in upper northern New South Wales. The aim was to promote the garden, educate the community and hopefully raise some funds for new projects.
The board of volunteers guessed a few hundred people might turn up, but when close to 8,000 rolled through the gates, and quickly overloaded the tight walking paths, they were overwhelmed as the entire place became gridlocked.
It’s the sort of problem a music festival promoter would kill to have, but for a group of unpaid gardeners and a space dedicated to sustainability, it wasn’t ideal. So last year they downsized the program, did less promotion and changed the name to the Living Community Festival, thinking that shifting the focus from global to local might dampen some interest. Still, 4,000 people rocked up.
“It was really mind blowing how it just took off,” says Hannah Forrester, the garden’s recently appointed president. “It was a lot better in terms of space. You could actually walk around. The main problem is we’re promoting the idea of sustainability, but some volunteers burnt out putting it all together and needed to take time off. So we don’t know if we’ll do it again.”
So much interest shouldn’t have been too surprising, however. Along with the nearby counter-culture meccas of Nimbin and Byron Bay,‘Mullum’ is one of the original towns where people started relocating to escape modern life in the city. Since the early ’70s, people have been getting off the bus here and choosing a simpler existence, one where they can get some land and grow their own food. Maybe they don’t earn as much money, but they have an abundance of time to be outside in the garden instead. Getting back to local and growing organically might be big business nowadays, but this is a community that has been ahead of the curve for decades.
“I think diversity is what makes our garden unique. I love gardening by myself, but it’s much more fun to see what my neighbour is growing and how they’re doing it.”
So with all that space, why would they need a community garden? Even in the centre of town, people have big backyards and those living on the outskirts typically have plenty of acres, not only large enough for vegies, but also whole orchards. “There’s a big difference between gardens in the city and regional areas,” says Forrester, who’s originally from Melbourne. “I’ve had a lot of experience with the CERES gardens in Melbourne and even though it’s in the city, it’s a massive inspiration for us. Obviously, people in the city don’t have backyards, so they need a place to grow vegies. We don’t have that need here, so we had to pick up on a different need, which is community. It’s a really good place to develop community and create bonds.”
Established in 2009, the gardens have grown from a handful of dedicated locals to nearly 80 members, from all over the shire. It’s a change that Sue Disney, one of the project’s founders, has enjoyed watching unfold. “The community surrounding the garden has increased, not only in numbers but in diversity,” Disney says. “As people see the physical infrastructure growing and succeeding, we’re getting more visitors from interstate and overseas. I guess you could say we’re becoming mainstream.”
Given that the mainstream media is starting to focus on energy, water and food security, it makes sense that more people are interested in these sorts of projects. Along with growing fears around the erosion of harmony and unity within society, these are issues that can seem overwhelming, but at places like the Mullumbimby Community Garden they’re being overcome each day, albeit on a small scale. “I think diversity is what makes our garden unique,” Forrester says. “Of the people mainly. I love gardening by myself, but it’s much more fun to see what my neighbour is growing and how they’re doing it. For example, I have a plot at the garden and my neighbour is Japanese. He grows quite a few Japanese plants, which is really inspiring and something I’d never have thought about doing myself.”
This variety hasn’t arisen by accident. Like the fruit and vegetables they tend, it’s also something that’s been nurtured from the beginning, mostly through the project’s thoughtful design. There’s the elders’ garden, with raised beds, so the oldies don’t have to bend down. There’s a children’s garden, with its toys and sandpit. There are plots where anyone can pick fresh produce for a small donation, and there’s a quiet corner where local mental health groups are welcome to gather. It’s no wonder they sometimes have trouble keeping people away.
How to start your own community garden
1. FINDING LAND
Aside from a community, land is the vital ingredient in any new garden. But where to look? A good place to start is by asking your local council if they’re willing to free up some land for a garden. You could also look for an unused property, find out who owns it, and contact them about access. Local institutions, such as health or community centres, schools or universities can be useful starting points, too.
2. STATING YOUR CASE
Many councils support community gardens and will have a process for getting started. When councils don’t have a policy, a well-researched and articulate submission will help convince either landholders or council staff to trust your group. Think about your purpose and objectives: do you want to build a sense of community, improve family nutrition, green-up the area, or all? Local benefits: how will your garden improve health or social needs? Demographic: who in your community will make use of the space? Government plans: most local councils have an enviro strategy, how does your garden fit into this? Budget, timeline, risk assessment and staff training should also be covered in this document.
3. PUBLIC LIABILITY
Sounds like a dry point, but you need this to cover your community garden should any problems arise. Public liability protects your group against legal charges, for example, if someone injures themselves in the garden and seeks a payout. One option, if your garden is on council land, is to request the council extend their public liability insurance to cover your site.
4. DESIGN AND BUILD
Every community garden is different, but the best plots meet the needs of their users. For the design phase, you really want a seasoned community gardener, designer, or landscape architect on your team, someone with experience in both the planting and planning side of things. Community gardens are people-first places, so spend time in the site and discuss how the gardeners will use it. Consider site conditions, draw up a base plan and work out where you want to put vegie plots, orchards or sheltered areas. This part of the process takes a lot of time, but it’s important. When in doubt, consult an expert.
5. MANAGEMENT AND TRAINING
More paperwork! Get started on a brief management plan that covers the regular garden activities. Think about monitoring the site for safety, maintaining any shared gardening areas, keeping structures in good condition and maintaining the aesthetic and tidiness. You also want your gardeners to know the basics. Draw on community knowledge to teach propagation, mulch and compost, planting patterns, pest management and irrigation.
6. TO MARKET TO MARKET
The secret to any good community garden is a dedicated and active community. Plan events that can engage gardeners through slower months and attract more people to your plot. These things could be garden related, like cooking workshops, or not. Art classes, music performances and social events could all have a place in your garden.
For more info, tips and advice: communitygarden.org.au