With spring upon us, now’s the perfect time to start thinking of going outdoors, getting active and growing your own produce. And for the novice (or social) gardener, there’s no better place to start than a community garden. Catherine Mah shows you how.
What’s a community garden?
In basic terms, a community garden is an urban* space where people pool their skills, time and energy into growing food and plants for their own use. They can be any shape or size, and are dotted around the city, from rooftops and vacant lots to public parks and even schools. You’ve probably walked past community verge gardens in your city – tiny garden patches that sit between the footpath and the street.
There are three types of community gardens: shared gardens, where everyone pitches in where needed, allotment gardens, where gardeners have their own plot of land to look after, and a hybrid of the two.
For those of us who live in apartments with a meagre windowsill and just enough space for two or three potted herbs, community gardens offer a chance get back in touch with our agricultural roots and learn new skills. Can’t understand why that basil isn’t thriving? Tried to get rid of those aphids with no success? Someone in your community gardening group is sure to be know the answers.
Putting ‘community’ back into garden
But it’s not just about homegrown tomatoes. Emma Wise, from Addison Road Community Garden in Sydney, says that “more than just a space to grow your own food, community gardens are about people with similar interests coming together to create a shared food garden”. For her, the social and educational aspects are sometimes more important than the satisfaction of harvesting your own lettuce.
“You’ll meet new people, learn new skills. And gardening is one way to improve health and wellbeing.” That’s why you’ll find community gardens in housing estates and why local governments are backing initiatives that get asylum seekers and disadvantaged groups involved with these gardens.
Many community gardens will also host monthly meet-ups, social nights and working bees to help new members get involved. The skill sharing aspect means you might learn anything from how to cook sweet potato leaves (didn’t know they were edible?) to how to write a grant proposal for government funding for the garden.
How does a garden work?
Some gardens, especially those with allotted plots, or managed by local councils, require a payment. Others run on a volunteer basis. You simply put in the hours that you can. In terms of harvesting the produce, some groups will harvest one day of the week and share the bounty equally among its members, while others are guided by the principles of fairness and honesty.
Spent five hours on a Saturday pulling weeds and spreading compost? Help yourself to what you think that’s worth. Just remember that it’s about taking only what you need and leaving the plants in good condition for future growth.
I’m sold – how do I join?
Local councils are also a great starting point to find out what you have nearby. City of Sydney and Adelaide City Council are just two that provide directories online. And The Guardian Australia lists its top five picks for Melbourne here.
Emma suggest going on a tour of a few. “Get together with some friends, visit a few community gardens in your area. They’re all unique, so you can find one which suits you.”
Her ultimate tip? Simply “give it a go, it’s good fun!” Bring an open mind and perseverance and you’ll be wielding that green thumb in no time.
Top three considerations
Before you jump in, keep these things in mind.
Distance: The closer to home, the easier it will be for you to get involved. And let’s face it, you don’t want to be stomping out a carbon footprint that’s bigger than the benefit of growing your own food.
Involvement: All community gardens have different rules, depending on the needs of their members. Allotment gardens, for example, may require a minimum number of hours to be put into your plot. And don’t forget the social aspect – gardeners are a friendly, inclusive bunch, so there won’t be a shortage of friendships, meet-ups and events. Check out the rules of the garden you want to join and see if it matches what you’re looking for.
Giving back to the community: Some community gardens are more focussed on helping the disadvantaged or offering new migrants the chance to meet locals and become part of the community. If that’s more your cup of tea, look into a community garden with these initiatives.
And since it’s all about skill sharing, consider what skills you can bring to your group. If you’re a gun writer or social media expert, perhaps offer to help with spreading the word. Are you super organised? Maybe you can be part of a committee that arranges events or keeps members in the loop.
* There are plenty of community gardens in the country too!