A gardening friend is getting ready to breathe life into a neglected communal food garden, so I’ve sent him these notes I prepared for Gardening Australia.
In 2007 – 2008, there was a spike in oil prices. Since the bulk of food is produced using petrol-dependant technology (oil-based fertilisers and pesticides, petrol powered irrigation, harvesting, packing and transportation, etc) this price spike caused the cost of food to rise significantly. Suddenly the media discussed ‘food inflation’. Many conventional farmers started looking at fuel efficiency: ceasing the use of expensive oil-based products and oil consuming tasks.
The fuel-driven spike in fuel prices generated a rise in home food production to save on household bills. Some city gardeners lacked the space to do this at home, consequently queues for vacant plots in existing community gardens lengthened.
To manage the squeeze, many city gardeners keenly sought new land to create new community gardens. Here are some of the common challenges encountered in the process of creating a successful new community garden.
Where do we start?
Before deciding which potential site is most suitable, visiting existing successful community gardens is the first step. Gather and record information from each garden, noting the challenges, strengths and weaknesses. Discuss which plants are most suited to your local soils and the growing conditions they need. Make a list of them.
What do we need to find out?
After gathering information from existing gardens, visit the potential sites for your new community garden. Every potential site will be different. What has the site been previously used for? Remember most land made available for community gardening has probably been rejected by a developer, possibly because of restricted access, awkward plot shape or levels. A common reason is that the land is subject to flooding.
When analysing a site, determine if it is exposed to winds or if it is sheltered. Is there good access for truck or ute deliveries of bulk materials (like mulch and construction materials)? Is there sufficient space for storing composting materials and building a compost bay? How, where and for how long does sunlight fall on the site over a year?
Analyse each site’s strengths and weaknesses. Starting a new community garden takes a lot of energy and good communication. Converting thoughts and dreams into a written plan really helps to clarify what is achievable, and what the majority feel is best for them and the site. Are there language problems, or does everyone speak English? Decide early on how you will overcome language barriers. Everyone should feel welcome and included in discussions. Success involves learning and making decisions together.
New gardens benefit by starting their own gardening library, a tool store, seed store – and possibly a printed or on-line newsletter.
How do we use the information?
It’s important to debate if there is an overall preference for the style of garden. Permaculture usually works best where labour for maintenance is limited, unskilled, and access to water is restricted. Over time, these gardens tend to become more resilient to drought and flooding. Since permaculture gardens look very informal, some landowners may prefer them to be located on sites with a low public profile. Residents and businesses may oppose a permaculture garden.
Organic food gardens are more productive and – generally – look more orderly, but they also require more labour, more water and skill.
How do I grow healthy food?
Nutrient deficient soil means nutrient deficient food. Simply growing food organically doesn’t guarantee healthy, nutritious food. The more reliant people are on food grown in a community garden for their overall diet, the more important soil testing becomes to ensure nutritious, healthy crops.
Apart from understanding the soil type, it’s critical to learn as much as possible about the site’s history – was there a factory on the site beforehand? At my home a former resident stored old metal and car bodies there, and I was concerned about heavy metal pollution, such as lead. Possibly old car batteries might have contaminated my soil with cadmium.
Soil samples can be readily tested to check the soil pH, using a pH test kit. Samples should also be laboratory tested to identify nutrient deficiencies. Both affect plant growth and the nutritional value of produce, and test results help guide soil improvement.
The National Measurement Institute can advise about and conduct laboratory testing for soil contaminants, which may be necessary to identify persistent pesticide residues, perhaps from termite treatment that may have occurred years ago. Heavy metals, like lead, may also be present on soil close to freeways. Together, these test results may ultimately determine a site’s suitability for food growing.
Where do I get supplies from?
Local councils often provide compost, compostable materials, like lawn clippings, and mulches free and in bulk quantities. Find out if these are chemical free before agreeing to accept them. So-called ‘selective’ herbicides commonly used on lawns take a very long time to break down, and remain harmful until they do. Easy access for deliveries and dedicating space for a storage area are both valuable. It’s equally important that bulk stored materials are not abandoned to grow weeds. They must not leach nutrients into creeks and stormwater systems, nor should they generate offensive odours. Keep your neighbours happy. Never store bulk materials under trees since delivery vehicles will compact the soil, killing trees roots. Heaps of sand and gravel can suffocate tree roots too, and the leachate from lawn clippings, mulches and manures can poison tree roots and render the soil anaerobic.
How do I water my plot?
In Australia, the annual rate of evaporation exceeds our average rainfall wherever you live. Compost rich soil and mulching are essential for extending the benefits of rainfall, especially when you’re growing rain-fed, not irrigated, food.
Expect drought and watering restrictions. Plan for the inevitable. The general formula for an intensive organic food garden is that 100 square metres of good quality soil can provide the bulk of the fresh produce required by an adult. A plot of this size needs between 10,000 and 15,000 litres of stored water to keep it irrigated and productive all year round through periods of extended drought. Rainwater tanks need space to accommodate them, ideally in between the biggest and nearest roof space(s) and the food garden. Tank capacity should allow for heavy or prolonged rain events with long dry periods between. Think BIG.
How do we get our group organised?
The Australian Community Gardens Network is an informal, community-based organisation which helps connect and advise people who are interested in community gardening, while the Garden Clubs of Australia can help with establishing and running a garden club.
It’s important to understand which laws apply to your community garden and this depends on where you garden. For example, keeping honeybees is regulated countrywide. In NSW, QLD and the NT, buying and planting bananas is regulated. In NSW and QLD control of citrus gall wasp on citrus trees is mandatory. In all cases, relevant information is available from your local department of primary industries. Every local council maintains a list of scheduled weeds and they and your local department of primary industries can advise which weeds must be controlled, and how to do it.
How do we work together?
There’s a variety of tasks that are best dealt with collectively. These include security, controlling weeds, deterring vermin, and agreeing where bulk materials should be stored. Installing security fencing can be costly, but the expense is sometimes essential, especially when establishing a new garden in public open space.
Promptly repairing vandalism and removing graffiti generally reduces repeated damage. By actively developing good relations with adjacent neighbours, supportive residents keeping a watchful eye on a food garden can be far more successful than fencing.
Serious pests, like citrus gall wasp, and weeds that impede cultivation, like nutgrass, can spread between poorly managed plots or invade from neighbouring properties. Where footpaths are grassed, installing effective mowing strips prevents creeping weeds infesting plots.
Creating a seasonal maintenance plan helps ensure significant problems are dealt with equitably and in a timely fashion for the benefit of all.
What are the benefits?
The most successful community gardens positively influence their neighbourhood, reducing feelings of isolation, increasing a sense of belonging. Petty crime, such as graffiti and vandalism, is often reduced and well presented community gardens can increase local property prices.
While neighbours living beside a community garden may not wish to actively garden, inviting them to events, sharing and trading produce with them can significantly boost support. Where land is made available for temporary or trial use, this support can be critical for renewing tenure. A monthly barbecue can become a cost-effective, influential ambassador.
Involving, educating and helping willing neighbours to manage pests, diseases and weeds in their own gardens is a valuable form of community outreach. If it works, and the community garden and the gardener living beside it start gardening synchronously, collectively you can control many irritating problems.
But the best thing about community gardening is learning and growing together…and that’s what you’ll discover…if your community garden has a decent start.
* Information on domestic (non-commercial) banana growing in Queensland see:
* Information on weeds that must be controlled in the Brisbane City Council regions see:
8th April 2012