Driving down the dirt road to the Betty Cornhill Community Garden is a treat when an event is on in the adjoining equestrian park and a woman is cantering on a large white horse. The gates have been unlocked at the gardens for our visit.
As gardener Minh Chu walks over to her plots with me she says her rhubarb is of Amazonian proportions. It is. Among a jungle of rhubarb leaves, the stalks are as long as a forearm and up to 6 centimetres wide. Each stem would make a meal. Minh uses them to make turmeric and rhubarb chicken, samosas with rhubarb, potato, carrot, peas and spice paste, a tart rhubarb sauce and she shares a favourite slow roast lamb and rhubarb recipe with us.
Convenor of the Canberra Organic Growers' Society Betty Cornhill garden, Peter Rouse, says the garden started in its current location around 1983. There are now 42 gardeners and all plots are taken. There are 25 plots in an extended section which has only been worked since 2020.
Minh Chu joined the garden six years ago when it was called Cotter Garden. She was convenor last year and stepped down as secretary of the society at the AGM last month as she could not commit to making the meetings. She hopes to be setting up another society community garden in Dickson/Watson to meet the demand as there are long wait lists for people in Canberra's inner north.
Minh Chu's family are from Laos and they came to Canberra in 1979 when she was four years old.
They were the first Lao people to come here. Minh's mother has always had vegetable gardens here, growing Asian vegetables and herbs that were then available. She was always an organic gardener.
The family would go fishing and the fish were gutted and filleted in the garden - using the wise action of chop and drop - and outer leaves of harvested vegetables were left on top of the soil.
They kept chickens, ducks and pigeons and their manure went into the garden. They lived in that house for 17 years and, when they moved, they took with them the fertile soil which Minh's mum had built up.
Minh moved to an apartment and wanted to grow vegetables and flowers, particularly peonies, lilies and bearded iris. so joined the Canberra Organic Growers' Society. Her self-seeded silver beet is huge, the leaves reaching up to her shoulder and the Korean zucchini, known as ae hobak, a species of Cucurbita moschata, is enormous. There are one green and two purple artichoke plants which are pickled by Minh's friend and both white and blue borage plants which attract the bees.
For winter into spring she is planting garlic, carrots, broad beans (for eating and as a green manure crop), daikon to make daikon kimchi. She has free access to horse manure, has used rabbit, chicken and alpaca in the past, and buys cow and sheep manure. Every winter she collects about 12 garbage bags of leaves to use as mulch and reading about carbon sequestration has her trying to capture as much carbon as possible in the soil in her plots. Woodchips are used to raise the rows. As they break down, the woodchips absorb the smell from kitchen scraps she added to the plots.
The latest addition to her soil is Grind to Ground, launched last year, an initiative from a group of community development students at CIT with spent coffee grounds mixed with sawdust from CIT carpentry department. Minh wants to support this great enterprise for the environment, saving spent coffee grounds going to landfill, and social inclusion as they encourage engagement of people with a disability. Her hessian bags were ordered through the Facebook page and had a tag with the name of the volunteer that bagged it. You can also order by trailer load or buy Grind to Ground at a stall at Hall markets.
Slow roast lamb with rhubarb
2kg lamb leg roast
4 cloves garlic
1 knob of ginger
3 stalks of rhubarb, chopped
3 red onions
2 tsp Chinese five spice
100mls rice vinegar
500ml ginger beer
- Put all the ingredients into a large baking tray and place in a low oven (160C) for four hours.
- Turn the lamb over after two hours. Remove the lamb and, using a stick blender, blend everything in the baking tray which then becomes the sauce for the lamb.
- Serve with bread, mashed potato or rice - or, says Minh, if you are like me and can't wait, eat it when it has just come out of the oven.