EVELYN Kunoo grew up in southern Burma with a large, lush garden where her parents grew mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and most everything else the family liked to eat. But from the age of 17, Kunoo spent 22 years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border, where gardens were not quite the oasis they had been in the family home. She found places to cultivate plants all the same, and grew leafy greens as well as herbs, rice and other staples.
Evelyn and her husband, Kert (they married in the camp), have been living in Hoppers Crossing for six years. They can only garden in pots at their rental property, but for the past few months have helped establish an abundant kitchen garden at the Werribee Mansion.
Just as Werribee Park is a place of ornamental parterres and monumental sculptures, this is a kitchen garden in the French potager vein: aesthetics are critical. An ornamental space as well as a productive one, the garden is designed to appeal to passing cyclists, golfers and the park's hotel guests, as well as to the gardeners themselves.
Beds are arranged in formal geometric patterns, and are bounded by weathered picket fences with pretty metal gates. One bed has been built to fit perfectly within an old duck pond, the angled brickwork of which falls away to a bed of water spinach. All around the garden are heritage bluestone buildings, lawns and mature trees, including a National Trust-classified Moreton Bay fig, the canopy of which is so voluminous it sweeps the ground. A fine 19th-century ha-ha, or sunken wall, is not far away.
James Brincat, the ranger in charge at Werribee Park, says the kitchen garden was designed and established about six years ago but never took off because of a lack of expertise and maintenance. In recent years the beds have yielded only weeds. So when - during winter - Adult Multicultural Education Service (AMES) volunteers weeded and replanted the mansion's parterres, they were so swift and thorough, Brincat thought they might like to help re-establish the kitchen garden as well.
A deal was struck whereby the Mansion Hotel & Spa would buy all the seeds and seedlings, Parks Victoria would provide the land and materials and the AMES volunteers would work in the garden. The produce is split between the hotel and the volunteers, who also have a room to meet and share meals.
''The garden is a great leveller,'' Brincat says. ''We have women with literacy issues even in their own language, as well as qualified horticulturalists. We are not doing individual plots; everything is shared to encourage community.''
Along with familiar herbs and vegetables used in the hotel kitchen, there are also luffas (part of the cucumber, or Cucurbitaceae, family) and pungent mustard greens brought in by the volunteers. To cope with Melbourne's comparatively dry conditions, the volunteers grow Vietnamese mint in pots with no drainage, have lined the water spinach bed in plastic to retain moisture, and plant lemongrass in the plastic sleeves used in revegetation projects to create humid microclimates.
Potager enthusiast Su Laird says that while the French first took to the idea of the vegetable garden as a landscape feature, the potager ''can be any ethnicity you like''. ''You can make them seem French with topiary pillars and box balls,'' she says. ''Or you can make them much more relaxed. It just depends on the plants and how you set them out.''
Laird, who eight years ago dug up the lawn in her Glen Iris back garden to make way for a rose- and fruit tree-edged potager full of vegetables and flowers, has teamed up with fellow potager-owner Kim Roberts to run a workshop in April on designing such gardens.
At their workshop, part of Open Gardens Australia, Laird and Roberts will discuss the history of the potager as well as the different ways of laying it out.
The productive garden will also be examined in the horticultural courses that are about to start at Werribee Park, with the aim of providing skills and accreditation to help participants find jobs.
Brincat says kitchen gardens and associated activities help people learn new skills and meet others from the wider community. He wants to see them widely established in detention centres, in parks on the urban fringe, and in new housing developments. ''These gardens work well because people manage the land: weeding, mulching, fertilising, watering and [constantly] harvesting,'' he says. ''Gardens take skill and devotion: they are high labour and high activity, and lead to community safety and a sense of ownership.''
■ Information about the potager workshops on April 19 and 26: opengarden.org.au.