ACT News

Community gardens in Canberra are the quiet achievers

Unloved, weed-strewn tennis courts in Canberra are being given radical make-overs to become veggie patches.

Ken and Chris Perrin run a community garden at Ainslie Church of Christ.
Ken and Chris Perrin run a community garden at Ainslie Church of Christ. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Along with producing tomatoes that have taste, these community gardens encourage suburban cohesion and interaction and promote the paddock-to-the-plate philosophy in the suburbs.

And the trend to grow-your-own is now coming to a street verge near you.

The ACT government is finalising plans to allow vegetables to be grown on the nature strip, recognising the benefits this will have – healthy food and, hopefully, better connected neighbourhoods.

Current rules governing Canberra's nature strips are highly restrictive, with people required to submit detailed plans for any planting outside their front fence.The proposed change is prompting discussion in the territory, reflected in the letters pages of this newspaper, where some correspondents claim the cost of "boutique Canberra water" would make footpath-grown vegetables the most expensive in Australia and would be liable to go missing.

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Meanwhile, despite this debate, community gardens are the quiet achievers.

At Kingston and Ainslie, for example, community gardens are flourishing on old tennis courts.

Ken and Chris Perrin in the community garden they run at Ainslie Church of Christ.
Ken and Chris Perrin in the community garden they run at Ainslie Church of Christ.  Photo: JamilaToderas

Motorists cruising along Limestone Avenue are probably more likely to notice the message board outside the Church of Christ, rather than the lumps and shapes on the tennis court – veggie patches enclosed with sleepers and covered with netting.

All types of veggies are growing, with the help of a 10,000 litre water tank, fed by run-off from the enormous roof on the church.

Pastor Ken Perrin says his family history is in the vegetable gardening business in Melbourne. "My uncle was a market gardener in the Dandenongs."

A couple of years after he and his wife, Chris, were posted to the church, they decided to make better use of the sad-looking tennis courts.

"Because it's an ageing congregation, the two tennis courts weren't being used and they needed a lot of work done," Chris Perrin says.

"We felt we've been given that land and we thought it should be used for the community and so we came up with the idea for the community garden."

Ken Perrin says: "The founding philosophy of the project is, church is about community, community is about church, the church needs to be part of community.

"We looked around and saw the nearby flats and thought, what on earth can we do which is going to bring these people together and actually teach them something at the same time? Both of us are avid gardeners and so we thought, a community garden – why not?"

When I mentioned I'd only recently noticed the sign for the community garden, on the wire fence of the old tennis court, Chris Perrin agrees: "We're told we need bigger signs."

Even with the small signage, it's a wonder the demand for the subsidised plots is not higher.

The church charges only $35 per year for a plot which costs it around $200 for the sleepers and soil.

Leasing a plot is a cheaper way to put veggies and herbs on the dinner table than buying them at the supermarket. And the taste of homegrown is always superior.

One of the few rules at the Ainslie community garden is no marijuana. It hasn't had to be enforced yet.

While about 16 plots are pushing up plants at the Ainslie garden, the Kingston enterprise is much larger.

The organic community garden on the former tennis courts at Currie Crescent has 59 individual plots, providing about 265 square metres of cultivating area.

It has a town water supply and a rainwater supply, through the use of a 25,000 litre tank, and has a shed, shade house and compost bins.

"It provides a free space where people meet and interact, get to know one another and share their wisdom and insights about gardening – and life in general!" the website says.

"The Canberra Baptist Church stresses that this is a community garden – not an exclusive church garden. All people from the community are welcome and valued regardless of their creed, lifestyle or any other defining characteristic.

"There is no message or motive behind the garden other than the garden itself, for it embodies the church's concern to care for the earth, to share with others and to experience the wonder of things that grow."

The Kingston community garden has nine communal plots, with half the produce going to the gardeners and the rest to the less fortunate in the local community.

According to a report in 2012 by the University of Canberra, commissioned by the ACT government, there is growing – their word – demand for community gardens in the ACT.

It says these gardens have been shown to have multiple benefits for participants and the wider community.

At the time there were 17 community gardens and at least 77 food-producing school gardening sites in the ACT.

"This report identifies that there is no one 'right' model for a community garden," it says.

Among its recommendations were: encouragement of partnerships between government, community services, community organisations and unaffiliated community members in the establishment and maintenance of community gardens; location of community gardens to be within walking distance of a participant's home; future community gardens be sited on school grounds; and future gardens to have a mixture of individual and communal plots.

Looking at overseas experience, the report says urban agriculture initiatives focusing on communal urban food production have a long history and have taken many forms around the world.

"They are thought to have their origins in the allotment gardens of Europe in the mid-1800s," it says.

"Through whichever form communal garden activities have taken, they have played significant roles in ensuring food security in times of national crisis. Notably, this occurred throughout the two World Wars, during the Great Depression and in the 1970s Oil Crisis.

"During World War I and World War II, the Dig for Victory campaigns included the creation of Victory Gardens with an estimated 20 million gardens during WWII producing 40 per cent of the fresh vegetables consumed by American residents.

"In the Great Depression they were a means of producing food and also of engaging a large population of un- or under-employed people and in the 1970s oil crisis, community gardens provided people with access to food when transport costs, and the resulting price of food, were spiralling out of control."

The report says the value of these gardening spaces has a history of being overlooked in urban planning and design processes, with community gardens viewed primarily as temporary uses of land.

"Within this context it has been observed that 'many land use planners refuse to consider community gardens as an appropriate use of urban land' since it fails to provide the highest amount of tax revenue," it says.

Not so in Canberra, where the community garden movement is promoted by the ACT government.

The Canberra Organic Growers Society is a group of gardeners, mainly urban, dedicated to growing their own organic fruit and vegetables, either in backyards or community gardens.

"The community gardens are a great way to get your hands dirty, to grow your own fruit and vegetables for home consumption and to exchange tips and extra produce with fellow gardeners," its website says.

The society runs a dozen gardens across the ACT and has around 400 members, although only about half have a garden plot.

Walter Steensby, the society's immediate past president, says there is a resurgence in interest in growing vegetables in an urban context.

"Community gardens serve a useful purpose for people who don't have much land or they live in flats," he says.

"We have 240 members with plots and the waiting list varies from 50 to 60, with no advertising at all. If we advertised, I think we'd be swamped.

"We could open two or three more gardens immediately, if we could find the land."

He joined the society when he was facing retirement. "We haven't looked back, it's expanded our social circle greatly and we know a lot more about gardening."

At Turner, a "city farm" aims to teach Canberra gardeners techniques for keeping their gardens flourishing without chemicals and in often difficult weather.

Just over the ACT border, the Queanbeyan Sustainability Group operates the Railway Park Garden.

These examples demonstrate the future for community gardens in Canberra looks bright, and the movement will attract further attention as more people dig up their nature strips to plant veggies.

Unlike community gardens that have private plots, Lyneham Commons is creating a sustainable, tree-based food forest for the community.

It is situated on unleased territory land behind the Lyneham Primary School, adjacent to Sullivans Creek storm water drain.

About 30 varieties of fruit and nut trees are being planted, transforming a bare piece of under-utilised public land into a thriving public orchard.

Gardening guru Costa Georgiadis described the initiative as a "project of national significance".

It's not a new idea, but it's a good idea – undoubtedly there are many other places in Canberra where public land can be planted with fruit and nut trees and passers-by can pick a fresh apple.

Canberra could look to the example of English town Todmorden where a group of residents began Incredible Edible in 2008 as an open source project. Because it aims to increase the amount of local food grown and eaten in the town, passers-by are invited to help themselves to the fruit and vegetables growing in 40 public gardens.

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