Garden Plots @ Happy New Life Community Garden, Richmond
by Daniel Moss
Growing your own vegetables is increasingly being seen by a large number of community members as a small personal action they can take to reduce food miles, and develop both personal and community food security. Awareness is now growing that a redefinition of water wise gardening to include edible plants is also necessary.
When people think of growing their own vegetables, they often think of the need to provide large and sufficient quantities of water to make a garden productive. Sadly, as the early signs of climate change see high temperature and low rainfall records continually broken across south-eastern Australia, some have hanged their garden shovel up in the shed. Water restrictions on vegetable gardens have become a contentious issue.
It is seen as irresponsible to use water on the garden. However, giving up on the vegetable patch and buying the produce instead from the supermarket does not hold well statistically for water conservation. It is easier to physically see the water coming out of your garden hose than to conceptualise the embodied water contained in commercial food production. Home food growing has been researched and advocated by David Holmgren and the Food Gardeners Alliance as being significantly more water efficient than reliance on commercial agriculture.
Redefining edible gardens as waterwise; and the need to develop support networks for home and community gardeners growing their own; were two significant conclusions from a university research project I conducted on sustainable, self sufficiency gardening in Melbourne, in the active season of Spring, 2008. A diversity of community gardens and educational opportunities were evaluated to determine the options available to community members, and opinion was sought from many participants at the forefront of educational garden activities in the Melbourne community. Over 80% of respondents considered that there was a trend apparent in the community toward growing their own produce, using sustainable gardening methods.
Respondents attributed a variety of interconnecting variables and themes that were leading to this increase. One of the most common suggestions from respondents was that growing environmental awareness in the community had led more people to make the connection to growing their own food. Drought is having a strong impact. According to varied views, climate change is encouraging people into self sufficient gardening, while its impact on hydrological regimes is significantly deterring and impeding others.
Food plants do require a lot of water, and water restrictions were found to be a significant problem for food growing at home and in community gardens. There is both need and opportunity for water conservation in the vegetable patch, with many in the community moving toward sustainable gardening practices before giving up altogether. Permaculture and organic gardening is more widely embraced by Melbourne gardeners to reduce environmental impact, and more mainstream recognition of this is deserved.
These maturing movements are important, as before we all head for the hose and seed packets, widespread community education is needed on how to grow food ourselves, and how to best conserve water while providing enough produce to make it worthwhile. Gardeners need support in keeping their food gardens producing in a drying Melbourne climate. A grassroots network called the Food Gardeners Alliance has been developed for this purpose, primarily challenging current water restrictions on vegetable patches.
Many local projects are being developed that could be considered examples of bioregionally based relocalisation. Bioregional approaches orientate communities and their organisation to the landscapes and watersheds they live in. Food and community garden maps are being developed. The Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL Project) has developed the VEIL Melbourne Food Map for this purpose, with an interactive internet site allowing community members to identify local community or market gardens. The Community Harvest Project is a project in Melbourne’s neighbouring bioregion, the Yarra Valley, seeking to connect the community with local food sources, and had an overwhelming response from the community.
Another example is the Sustainable Living Project, which is attempting to connect community members across the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, as is the inner suburban Cultivating Community/ Yarra Community Food Systems Project, with urban agriculture and food security components. Sustainable Gardening Australia are organising new local home produce networks, and Sustainability Street, Permablitz, and urban harvest swaps are neighbourhood networks with growing grassroots popularity. With so much activity, it appears necessary to now network the networks.
These local and bioregional networks are testing frameworks that will be necessary to have in place for a cohesive transition toward community supported agriculture, which includes the community tending gardens for self sufficiency in home and community spaces. Established networks like the Australian City Farm and Community Garden Network, Seed Savers and Permaculture Melbourne also provide opportunities for these new projects to feed into larger networks of garden allies.
Public access community gardens are also growing, with Cultivating Community, the Collingwood Children’s Farm and Melbourne University all reporting an increase in advice and support requests for both school kitchen gardens and community gardens. Unfortunately, this growth has occurred as other community gardens suffer through either a lack of water, funding or volunteers, highlighting again the need for support networks.
There appears a strong move by school teachers toward environmental education that is preparing the next generation for the world they are to inherit. At a Food Gardeners Alliance forum held in Spring, Jane Edmunson (Gardening Australia) explained that through learning how to grow their own food, “kids are growing to be really confident. They know climate change. They know much more than we give them credit for.” Environmental awareness is being embraced by children, who recognise their strong stake in a healthy future.
At school, the kitchen garden offers them a local venue to learn how to grow their own food and gain a greater connection to nature. For some children, this is the closest they get to nature, whether it be kids living in flats, or kids with parents that struggle to find money or time. School kitchen gardens are also providing educational inspiration to adults and allow for a feeling of local community to develop amongst parents.
Community food security is necessary. Growing the food where we are living reduces embodied carbon emissions (food miles) and water in food production, and builds community networks. Growing our own food allows us to preserve heirloom varieties in the community, and gives us diversity of foods on our plates, harvest sharing between friends and neighbours, and more balanced food nutrition on a limited budget.