I’ve been a member of a community garden in suburban Sydney for about 12 years. I remember the day that the then coordinator proudly showed me around. He enthusiastically thrust tiny radishes and other earth-encrusted, often unidentifiable, edibles into my hands. I dusted off their soil jackets and obligingly popped one or two into my mouth. Others I surreptitiously dropped back to the ground.
I didn’t quite get it. But I had a romantic notion of toiling a small plot of land: pulling carrots, plucking pea pods, digging up bucket-loads of spuds.
It was years before community gardening became fashionable. The garden was a mess of unmanageable weed, with the odd bed planted with veggies. It was desperate to be tamed; the handful of members were desperate to attract others, which is possibly why they let a clueless journalist join.
The garden, which was originally an entirely communal space, has since transformed into a hybrid version with a number of individual plots.
We were then, as we are now, a disparate bunch: writers, PhD students, postmen, taxi drivers, scientists, teachers, travel agents, retirees, young families. Culturally we’re from all walks of life. And with diversity comes differences of opinion.
There have been quarrels — plenty of them, plots have been plundered, tensions have risen, tempers have flared, sides have been taken, and those of us who have sat on the fence have wondered if this laid back community gardening lark is all it’s cracked up to be.
I’ve seen members come and go. A bee hive come, and then go. An awfully handsome rooster come and very sadly go (he’s buried under a flower bed). My green thumb comes and goes. As does my patience with the politics that have pushed a number of members out.
But with diversity also comes indefatigability. Together we’ve weathered prolonged dry spells during which everything has withered, including our spirits; frequent flooding; a major land subsidence that closed off half of the garden for far too long while the council dithered and finally repaired; the worry of eviction; unneighbourly neighbours, attacks on our chooks, vandals, scandals and more.
We share and swap produce and tips, collaborate on working bees and morning teas, we roster shared responsibilities, and some (admittedly not me) pitch in almost endlessly. It works, mostly.
There are times when i want to throw in the trowel. When the bickering reaches crescendo or the extra curricular commitment in an already frantically busy life starts to bite. But something keeps me going back. I like the camaraderie, have learned to tune out of the rivalry, and have developed some survival techniques along the way.
Six top tips to community gardening
- Whether you’ve harvested a handful of carrots or a bucketload of spuds share the love. You’ll be paid back in spades.
- Where there are individual plots, don’t reap what others sow unless invited to do so.
- In the communal space, harvest a little and leave a lot. Don’t plunder an entire plot.
- Go bananas. Anyone can grow lettuce and basil. Try growing something different: asparagus, artichokes, bananas. Don’t underestimate your green thumb.
- Get your hands dirty. Don’t fret if you can’t be there as endlessly as others. But pitch in when you can, or when it’s needed.
- Perfect your fence sitting skills, or the bickerers will drive you bonkers.