The Growing World of Community Gardens

Wild Canary garden
  • Article by Amy Bradney-George
  • April 23, 2015 at 12:20 PM

As properties get smaller and people look for different ways to include nature in their lives without a backyard, community gardens are flourishing in a wide range of forms.

The term “community gardens” usually brings to mind plot of land central to a number of people, filled with a wide range of fruit and vegetables, herbs and berries, as well as maybe some flowers for viewing pleasure. These conventional community gardens have sprung up all over Australia in the past few years, as more and more people embrace sustainable, shared living options.

Even the hipsters have helped in this respect, thriving on the eco-friendly philosophies behind these projects. But it also benefits local councils and governments by encouraging community engagement and natural spaces. In a nutshell, community gardens have the potential to be a win-win for everyone.

The origins of community gardens

Shared gardening in public spaces has a long history, and for the western world it harks back to 19th century England, when the government provided poor people with plots of land they could use to grow vegetables and flowers.

While various forms of community gardens have been around ever since, according to Tina Jackson of DoSomething! and Foodwise, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the contemporary version started to take off around the world.

“In the UK and Europe allotment gardens have been an important source of food for many families, some passing on allotments for several generations. In Cuba organically farmed community gardens fed millions of people after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economic support in 1989. In Asia, community gardening remains a typical way of life in many villages,” she explains.

“[In Australia], the recent wave of community gardening began with Melbourne’s Nunawading in 1977, followed a few years later in 1985 in Sydney, with community gardening at Callan Park in Rozelle.”

Community gardening has become so popular here that local and state government bodies, along with churches and schools, have become involved in helping people start and manage community gardens. The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network (ACFCGN) directory shows there are hundreds of community gardens across the country, both in metropolitan and rural areas, and many more are springing up all the time.

ACFCGN vice-president Jane Mowbray says that these gardens attract everyone “from people in comfortable middle class suburbs, to rural towns and social housing estates” and are as much about enriching people’s social lives as they are about actual produce.

“While the gardens provide some of the food their members eat, experience shows that they have an important social role as venues where people can come together to work on something of mutual benefit and get to know people living in their area,” she says.

While Mowbray’s comments come as a call for more support from industry and government organisations, community garden developers are finding all kinds of ways to get the backing they need for flourishing plots of land.

The award-winning Mullumbimby Community Gardens in northern NSW, for example, has a donations section on its website and has set up a fund to make sure all donations over $2 are tax deductible. It also lists specific projects that people can donate to, and has volunteer initiatives including a shop, market stall and nursery, with funds raised going back into the gardens.

Meanwhile, the Hobart City Farm is in the process of establishing itself as a financially sustainable urban farm with supporters as diverse as Kickstart Arts, Sustainable Living Tasmania and Goodlife Permaculture. The community farm has even run a crowd funding campaign through Chuffed crowdfunding to drum up support for its many plans and ventures.

Other community gardens invite members and plot-holders to make donations or financial contributions, and many of the bigger gardens are fully or partially funded through local or state government grants.

The evolution of different kinds of community gardens

Community gardens have become so familiar that people are now starting to play with what it actually means to combine “community” with “gardens”. The result is not only more of the familiar community gardens, but also innovative new projects, such as high-rises that support vertical gardens, as well as rooftop and central garden developments.

Sydney’s One Central Park, for example, includes all three features in its award-winning eco-friendly design. According to the project’s Director of Turf Design, Mike Horne, the goal behind One Central Park is for it to become “the green heart of Chippendale”.

“Our vision for Central Park is to design a green oasis that sits at the centre of an existing inner-city neighbourhood,” he says on the website.

At the heart of Central Park is Chippendale Green, a ground-level park covering more than 6,400 square metres. The development also includes hanging greenery – boasting the highest vertical gardens in the world – as well as rooftop gardens and wide range of other eco-friendly features. But it is the variety of gardens that really set this development apart from the average high-rise complex, and they also point to a bigger trend towards developments that include community garden elements.

The Signature Apartment’s Redfern property is another apartment block encouraging this approach. Just a stone’s throw from One Central Park, this building has one of the most successful rooftop community gardens in Sydney. Fuelled by the community-focus of its residents, the garden has also become one of the most popular features of the towering inner-city property and is often mentioned in real estate listings.

According to the City of Sydney website, the building’s rooftop space is now home to “more than fifty self-contained garden beds growing herbs, small veggies and flowers.”

“Thanks to the garden, the residents are excited to have access to fresh, seasonal, chemical-free fruit and vegetables that are locally grown.”

It’s not just apartments that are embracing city gardens either. Melbourne’s Federation Square has partnered with Little Veggie Patch Co to develop the Pop Up Patch edible garden, which features over 140 veggie plots mostly leased to the public.

The Pop Up Patch page on the Federation Square website outlines community-based activities, including demonstrations, an information centre and shop and its very own online Gardening Club. It says Pop Up Patch is set to become
“Melbourne’s biggest community garden” and has a lot of support from local businesses.

“All the restaurants and cafes at Fed Square have their own plot, where they grow fresh ingredients to use in their daily menus,” it says.

There are actually a lot of restaurants now embracing this style of dining, with more and more developing vertical gardens, or creating their own gardens to cook from.

Take Brisbane’s Wild Canary restaurant, for instance: it not only has an extensive garden used daily by the chefs, but also an attached nursery and information program so that guests can learn how to grow different fruit, vegetables and herbs at home.

According to the website, the garden is made up of four main beds, 2.6 metres wide by 12 metres long, and houses “over 40 types of edible herbs, roots, spices, leafy greens and culinary flowers”.

“We firmly believe that food tastes best when it is prepared using the freshest ingredients. We make a commitment to grow our own herbs and produce where we can,” it says.

“Produce from our kitchen garden is supplemented by regional and local ingredients grown using sustainable practices. This ethos inspires our chefs who are respectful of the produce they work with, appreciate its exceptional taste and quality, and are proud to prepare it for you to enjoy.”

Another project taking the benefits of community gardening to a new level is the Refugee Garden Project in Sydney. Set up by the Jesuit Refugee Service above St Canice’s Church, this rooftop garden is designed to give refugees an opportunity to get involved in the community and develop vital skills, with the produce also helping feed homeless people.

“At first the main beneficiaries [of the garden project] will be asylum seekers [through workshops, training and employment opportunities],” project founder and St Canice’s parishioner Rob Caslick said when the garden was established.

“However, we are also working with St Vincent’s hospital on horticultural therapy classes that will focus on other community groups. And of course the people who come to the soup kitchen will benefit from the fresh food!”

The gardens have garnered a lot of attention and support from organisations including the Royal Botanic Gardens and construction company Built, as well as high profile Australians like Gardening Australia’s Costa Georgiadis.

All of these trends highlight how much community gardens have changed over the years, both in function and in form. But the core purpose and values surrounding these projects is maintained no matter how or where they are developed, revealing an enriched diversity that changes with the seasons. With the growth of smaller properties, apartment living and a global community set to continue, it is clear that gardening can be a truly grounding and nourishing way to get us back to our roots as human beings.

Images: A photo of the Wild Canary garden, source: Wild Canary Instagram; One Central Park Sydney, credit: Daniel Neubauer.

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