On the first Sunday of every month, the members of Dig In Community Garden hold a working bee. “We make compost and we tidy the place up,” says Ann Rocheford. “Then we retire to the barbeque and open the red wine – it’s good community-building time.”
The Port Melbourne garden, in Murphy Reserve, has been running since 2003. There are 51 plots and well over a hundred people who regularly stop in. The members reflect the mix of the suburb, from old-timers to newly arrived apartment dwellers. “In the garden they all speak a common language: it’s about how their crops are going. That helps people get to know each other,” Ms Rocheford says.
The plots range in size from four to ten square metres. “It’s amazing how much you can grow on a small amount of land if you look after it properly,” she says. On her plot, she grows “more than enough” for her and her husband. She has finished her winter planting and although it’s a slower time of year, she still tends her patch at least once a week: watering, harvesting and tormenting white cabbage moths.
“You have to be there regularly. It’s a constant thing – community gardens have a ‘use it or lose it’ policy. In summer, you’ve got to be able to water your plants three times a week.”
But the returns on that commitment are many. As well as reinforcing your sense of community, regular trips to the garden are good for your health. “Bending your back and doing some work is very beneficial – if you really want a good workout, try making compost,” Ms Rocheford says. “Also, the vegetables are organic. You pick them, put them in the pot that night and eat them. It’s terribly healthy.”
Ben Neil is the president of the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network. He argues that these gardens are a crucial part of the bigger push towards sustainable living. “If we are to face the challenges of climate change, then urban agriculture and community gardens have got to be part of the solution.
“They tick so many boxes: they give you an opportunity to meet your neighbours, improve your mental and physical health, and grow and eat locally produced, organic, fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Melbourne’s oldest community garden, in Nunawading, has been running for over three decades. At last count, in 2006, there were 75 gardens across the city. They’re sprouting. “There’s tremendous demand for new gardens,” Mr Neil says. “A lot of councils now are developing policy to deal with the requests.”
The start-up process is never quick and easy – establishing a group, finding land and gaining council permission is more likely to take years than months. (The South Australian neighbourhood house association, CANH, has released a comprehensive how-to guide.)
One thorny objection is that starting a community garden means privatising open land. Mr Neil says groups can keep the wider public involved by running regular tours, workshops or growing fruit trees anyone can harvest.
“But the reality is that land is going to become harder to find,” he says. “The natural progression is the sharing of backyards. Many people have more space than they need and are happy for others to use it.”