Community garden road-trip
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 22nd December 2012
Last month, Steve McGrane, President of the Coffs Harbour Regional Community Gardens Association, and a team of fellow gardeners headed north for a few days’ exploration.
They were on a mission, to visit half a dozen community gardens between here and Brisbane, in order to see what others were doing, learn from their experiences, and lay down a vision and goals for the Coffs garden at Combine St over the next few years.
The trip exceeded all expectations. “It was amazing to visit so many community gardens in such a short space of time. There were such big contrasts”, said Matt Downie, co-cordinator of the Combine St garden.
Among the lasting impressions the team took home, the presence of garden art, such as murals, sculptures, ceramic displays and decorative signage, was especially striking. Clear notice boards introducing the garden and its key people, as well as tasks, projects and how to get involved, are also now on the Coffs ‘to-do’ list.
Even though most of the gardens were thriving sites of diverse food production, the team felt that it was the social aspects that were most important. Community gardens are all about building community, and activities like ‘swap meets’, where gardeners exchange surplus produce, is just one way in which this happens. They are also multi-functional sites with a strong educational focus, places where gardeners and visitors alike can get to know where their food comes from, and rediscover their connection to it.
The team visited gardens in Lismore, Nimbin, Tuntable Falls, Mullumbimby, Northey St City Farm in Brisbane, the Seed Savers’ Network in Byron Bay (run by Michel and Jude Fenton), and Yamba. They also briefly stopped by the combined market and community garden run by Gold Coast Permaculture in Ferry Rd, Southport.
The gardens varied in longevity, with Northey St, now in its 20th year, the oldest. So one of its most attractive features, which makes it a great place to spend time, are the well-established fruit trees, such as large mangoes, that provide excellent shade areas, for meeting and socialising.
Most of the gardens were considerably younger. The garden in Lismore, like Coffs, had been set up in the last couple of years, while Nimbin’s garden, located in a church on the main street, had been going for about 10 years.
But, according to the team, Nimbin’s garden appeared to be on its last legs. The garden looked dilapidated and un-cared for. Through talking to some locals, the team discovered the reason for the decline: political in-fighting. Things had gotten so bad that a virtual state of civil war had broken out, with one group actively sabotaging the garden projects and efforts of the other.
There was a very clear lesson here for the Coffs garden – and any community garden, for that matter: the need to maintain open channels of communication at all times, allow complaints to be aired and dealt with, and have good procedures for mediating conflict.
While in Nimbin, the team learnt of the community garden in the nearby intentional community of Tuntable Falls, which was not on their original itinerary. But it was a moment of serendipity. Not only was the Tuntable Falls garden a beautiful contrast to Nimbin, with abundant art and creative design; it was the passionate and strong community that had built it, as well as a food co-op and a huge common hall, that most impressed the team.
The Mullumbimby garden also stood out, for its wonderful art, excellent signage and paths, and strong volunteer core, self-organised in 20 different ‘pods’. As well as smaller plots, the Mullum garden had larger spaces, up to 400m2, which were being leased on a semi-commercial basis, as a market garden.
All the gardens, the team noted, had started with some form of public grants. The most successful ones had built a strong and collaborative relationship with their local councils, and had also developed ways of becoming more self-sustaining financially. Northey St, for example, had a consultancy and design service, available to local schools and private householders; and they also ran permaculture design certificate courses several times a year. It also had a large and successful nursery.
As the Coffs team plan their priorities for 2013 and beyond, this trip has provided fertile material for inspiration.
To find about more information about the the Coffs Community garden and to join, visit http://www.coffscommunitygardens.org.au/.