Melbourne has
experienced a steady population rise to well over four million people, and an
accompanying demographic shift is occurring as space in inner-city areas are
increasingly under commercial pressure. For a growing number of urbanites,
community-based gardening projects are providing a much-needed connection to
both local communities and the earth.

Veg Out gardens in Melbourne, Australia.
A community plot: Veg Out gardens in St Kilda, Melbourne. Photograph: Veg Out

A sign at the entrance to Veg Out reads: “Gardening is an act of faith in the future.” Apart from the
ocean of artfully decorated garden beds, the first thing that hits you when you
walk into this prospering St Kilda community garden is the smell of fresh
compost mingling with the sweet and pungent whiff of fresh herbs and
vegetables.

Yet it has taken more than just faith to
ensure the survival of this former bowling club on the site on a $30m-plus piece of land right next to the famous Luna Park and just metres
away from the St Kilda beach foreshore. Garden co-ordinator Rob Taylor says the
garden initially encountered a lot of scepticism that it would be able to
survive in such a prime commercial location, but he says the key has been hard
work and always remaining open to the public.

“In the early days it was about locking the
gate, but then we realised we needed to open it up. This is essentially public
parkland and it’s now open every day of the year. If you lock these places up
they wither and die and become elitist and exclusive. A community garden is not
a fashion accessory – that’s not what community is about.”

Veg Out is financially independent (mostly
through funds generated from a monthly farmers’ market) and hosts more than 150
garden plots on just under two acres, all set to the sounds of the Big Dipper
rattling away in the background. It features affordable artists studios, a wood-fired stove, live music stage and children’s playground.

“We have over a thousand members and an actively engaged community here
and we are always open to newcomers,” says Taylor. “The best way to get a plot
is to come along to a working bee held on the first Sunday of each month and
make yourself known to us. Everyone is welcome.”

The gardens on the roof of Federation Square, Melbourne.
‘Nothing here is permanent’: the gardens on the roof of Federation Square.

Fabian Capomolla, co-founder of the garden on the site of a disused concrete car park at Federation Square,
describes his unique urban community garden model as being a bit like joining a
gym – a user-pays system in which people get as much out as they put in to it.
“Nothing is sustainable unless it makes money,” says Capomolla. “But we find
that because people are paying they are more likely to remain engaged.”

Sitting between skyscrapers and train lines
on one side and the Birrarung Marr park and Yarra river on the other, the site boasts
120 plots that consist of composted soil inside former fruit and vegetable
crates. For about $3.50 a day, many of the crates are taken up by city
restaurants such as the Taxi Dining room, Little Creatures Brewery, and the Press Club to grow fresh specialty
garnishes and edible flowers such as borage, nasturtiums and violas.

“This is a trial for us to find out if this
model is scalable – it’s a modern-day garden plot concept,” says Capomolla. “No
doubt this piece of concrete could earn more money as a car park, but there is
plenty of temporary unused land in every city. We are building a community here
– but nothing here is permanent.”

Cultivating Community garden, Melbourne
At Cultivating Community, the biodiversity of the crops reflect the ethnic diversity of its gardeners. Photograph: Jon Osborne

In the shadows of Melbourne’s concrete, almost
Soviet-style housing commission flats, around 800 mostly refugee and
migrant
gardeners share 19 inner-city community gardens through a project called Cultivating Community. Each garden hosts between 12 and 126 plots, depending on location. To apply for a plot, you
need to be a public housing tenant.

At one of the larger gardens in Highett
Street in Richmond, I meet Domingos Mac, an East Timorese mother who has gardened
here for over 20 years. “I have more time now that the kids have grown up, but
I’m not as fit as I used to be,” she says. She shows off her crops of taro, white cucumber, gai lan (Chinese broccoli) and aloa vera. “These
ones are good for blood pressure, circulation and skin infections,” she says
casting her hands across verdant, fecund garden beds.

According to Cultivating Community project
manager Sharelle Polack, one of the extraordinary things about the public
housing gardens is how the diverse backgrounds of the gardeners is reflected in
the biodiversity of the crops.

“The gardens give public housing
tenants access to land that they use to grow their own food and the ability to
connect with their culture through the food they grow,” Polack says. “Although many don’t
speak English, they can speak the language of food, cooking and gardening.”

Rushall Garden, North Fitzroy
In full bloom: Rushall Garden in North Fitzroy. Photograph: Rushall Garden

Tucked behind a grassy knoll beside a curve
in the railway track between Rushall and Merri railway stations, Rushall Garden was formed a decade ago by local residents after six years of negotiations with the Yarra council. It houses 62 garden beds and provides communal plots for people on the waiting list.

Despite sitting in the midst of one of Melbourne’s
most gentrified areas of the middle-class inner-northern suburbs, Rushall
gives priority to low-income residents with no garden of their own. The site features composting toilets and water tanks that gather run-off harvested from a nearby
electrical substation roof – and has also recently become an official
composting hub for local cafes and restaurants to bring their food scraps.

Garden secretary Kathy Chambers says the main incentive behind Rushall is the opportunity to have direct
control and choice over the food we consume. “For many of the local families
that have plots here, that extends to educating children to build an awareness
of the effort that goes into producing delicious, organic produce. In my view,
community gardens should be much more widespread so that people have a genuine
choice about where their food comes from and have greater control over their
food supply.”

Planting a cliff site extension on Edgars Creek, Melbourne
Planting a cliff site extension on Edgars Creek, Melbourne. Photograph: Friends of Edgars Creek

Guerrilla gardening along Melbourne’s creeks and tributaries

For those who don’t want to wait for a plot
in an established community garden, a quiet revolution is taking place along
Melbourne’s waterways. Here an active movement of local gardeners
are taking matters into their own hands by revegetating eroded creeks with
indigenous plants.

According to Patrick Belford, freelance
landscape gardener by day and part-time guerrilla gardener, “the key philosophy
behind the planting is the attitude of being custodians of the land”. The aim is to combat the erosion of creek banks and suppress weeds while
providing a habitat for birds and other wildlife.

“There is a very strong underground community
around revegetation. It’s restorative for both people and the environment. For
example, planting days for the Friends of Edgars
Creek
in
Melbourne’s northern suburbs occurs every month, and these events are always
popular. The group and sense of community is re-enforced by the observation and
care of the plantings already established,” says Belford.

“Our degraded urban spaces provide the
best community garden there is. We just need to be audacious and brave enough
to bring our neighbourhoods back to life. In a sense, revegitating our local
areas is the most immediate and direct environmental action we can take.”