As the sun shines longer and flowers blossom, TARA McGRATH finds out why community gardens are the best place to sow your seeds this season. Pictures by ROB CAREW.
FOR many people, working in the garden by themselves is a small slice of paradise. But others prefer to feed off other gardening enthusiasts — both novices and professional — and a community garden can be the perfect place to do just that.
The Knox Community Gardens in Boronia are all about inclusion, socialising and helping one another out, says president John Di Danna. The gardens have been open since 1985 and, nearly 30 years on they're so popular there's a waiting list for plots.
There are 120 plots at the site and 150 people are involved, from older retirees to young women and their children. Regular social functions and an annual Christmas party ensure the focus isn't just on gardening but on meeting new people and keeping active.
The garden also provides a sanctuary for local students with intellectual disabilities who visit the garden weekly to tend their plots.
A retired school principal, Mr Di Danna says he loves ensuring the children are enjoying their time in the garden.
So much so that he's spent the past few months building a tractor from a broken down ride-on mower for them. "I couldn't get it to work, so I've put a steering wheel on, and an exhaust. It's something different for them to have a go with."
He also spent many long hot days last summer scouring industrial estates for materials to build planter boxes for use while planting. "I collected scraps from industrial areas and then filled them with dirt and manure, and painted them — it means [children] don't get as dirty and can stand and help."
But plants need tending to more than once a week, and that's where Mr Di Danna and his trusty volunteers lend a helping hand. "We like to help out the groups down there. We'll weed, maintain the plots, plant some new fruit and vegetables during summer holidays."
The Ashwood College Permaculture Food Garden is a little different because, instead of individual plots, a group of dedicated volunteers manage a communal 2000 square metre site.
Lush with all the varieties of lettuce you could name, more than 50 fruit trees bearing apricots, peaches and nectarines, as well as a beehive, pizza oven and pergola, the garden is a flourishing testament to people power.
Mariette Tuohey started the garden more than five years ago because of a passion for sustainability and permaculture. "We only have one planet and we seem to be using it up as fast as possible. We're not even considering what we're leaving behind for our grandchildren."
Despite the focus being on having a place to garden and socialise, Mrs Tuohey says talk inevitably leads to how each person can lower their carbon footprint.
"Talk often does revolve around that. We discuss buying produce from farmers' markets so you know it has come from nearby. There won't be any asparagus from Venezuela for sale at those markets."
There are two open sessions at the garden each week — Wednesday and Saturday mornings — but once a person becomes known to organisers they can have access on other days.
Mrs Tuohey says one of the main reasons behind the decision to have a shared community garden was to use chickens to develop the site.
Chookdomes — mobile chicken enclosures that provide a mobile weeding and fertilisation service — will soon arrive at the site. They have a diameter of about four metres and are made of PVC piping and chicken wire with a shadecloth door, a tarp over the top to keep them dry and a bamboo roost for chickens to sleep on.
This roost is suspended more than a metre above the ground, keeping the birds safe from foxes. Each dome has several nesting boxes that were recycled mower catchers.
"If you've had any experience with chickens you'll know that they can be very destructive in a vegetable garden," Mrs Tuohey says.
"But if you can contain their 'efforts' to a specific garden bed, they will weed it and fertilise it effectively with much pleasure and gusto. When the bed's cleared you move the chooks on and plant out where they've been."
The Ashwood garden received state and federal government funding when it was set up but now relies on money from workshops to keep it going.
Mrs Tuohey offers classes on food gardening topics, such as compost and worm farms, and says they're all "practical hands-on workshops".
In the Yarra Valley, residents can get their hands dirty at the Healesville Community Garden, managed by Yarra Valley Community Health. There are 22 plots at the Healesville site and so far seven have been leased, but that's expected to increase during the warmer months.
The garden opened in March and YVCH dietitian Jo Stanford is hoping to use the site for a number of activities to improve the wellbeing of Healesville residents. She says clients with chronic disease, low income or mental health problems can benefit greatly from pottering around the gardens.
Ms Stanford says some of the benefits for low-income earners include access to low-cost fruit, vegetables and herbs and encouraging families to use healthy cooking methods while saving money on unhealthy takeaway meals.
People with disabilities or a mental illness can improve their communication and fitness skills working in the garden, while they learn about the environment, nature and nutrition, Ms Stanford says.
Many of the programs are still in their infancy, but with spring unfolding, the list of events for the garden is ramping up.
A dream for people involved with the Healesville garden is using the fresh produce for emergency food relief and serving it at community meals for those in need.
With the days getting longer and the flowers beginning to bloom, community gardens can be the perfect spot to improve those green fingers, no matter what your age, lifestyle or gardening skills.
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