If you've ever driven or walked by a lush green garden sitting in the middle of a park or neighbourhood (and looked in awe at its fresh tomatoes and lettuce), it's probably one of many community gardens in your local city or town.
Community gardens might seem like a secret club that no one else can be part of, but joining a community is easy and a great way to meet people, grow your own fresh produce and learn about gardening.
“Community gardens have become a real interest for the neighbourhood community,” Manager of City of Sydney greening and leisure Joel Johnson told The Huffington Post Australia.
“People join for different reasons. A lot of times it’s about growing fresh food and having a local space. For others it’s about the real social network that develops around these community gardens.
“We have lots of gardens that have regular catchups and food nights, as well as working bees that meet to do the weeding and cleaning and sponsors who come along to bring food for them. Some gardens even have pizza ovens,” Johnson said.
“People really enjoy the social aspect of it. I once spoke to two community gardeners, one elderly lady and a young woman, who said they met through the community garden. They only lived five doors away from each other but hadn’t crossed each other’s paths and now they catch up once a week for coffee.”
For those who can't keep a plant alive however hard you try, you’ll be pleased to know you don’t need to know a thing about gardening to join -- and you’ll turn that brown thumb green in no time.
“Just bring yourself and be ready to learn," Johnson said. "There are some people who are experienced and might have a horticulture background, so they’ve got a lot of great ideas and help the people who haven’t got any experience.”
One of the great things about community gardens is that they give us garden space which most of us don’t have when living in apartments.
“One of the big issues with living in high-density cities is there’s not a lot of space, so to have a little green space near where you live, and where you can grow food, is a real opportunity for a lot of people,” Johnson said.
Joining a community garden not only provides fresh food and a great social network, it also encourages us to eat more veggies and improves our neighbourhood environment. In a time where less and less children know where food comes from, becoming part of a community garden also helps kids to learn about, and connect with, the food they eat.
“It’s exactly that issue -- learning where food comes from,” Johnson said. “Particularly for city kids, a lot of them might think food just comes from a truck, so getting involved is great.”
How do we find a community garden and how do we join?
“Joining one is fairly simple, really. You just need to find your local garden community, make contact with those people and ask them how the garden operates,” Johnson said.
If there are no community gardens in your area, you might consider establishing a new one with a group of committed friends by getting in touch with your local government authority.
“Generally there are some criteria when starting a garden -- making sure you’ve got solar access, a good size that has space to accommodate a garden, good access for people and good passive surveillance for community observation on what’s happening in there,” Johnson said.
Community gardens are usually on community land, so part of an existing park is a great spot to start with.
“Once you’ve chosen a site, a community garden coordinator then meets with the group and goes through the potential issues on that site. And if that all works well then we either help them set up or let them do it themselves, if they prefer.”
Each community garden is self-managed and different to other gardens, so communication is key when joining or establishing a garden.
“Some of the gardens have different ways of operating -- they might have a focus on permaculture and organic methods of growing fresh food, and then there are others that are allotment-based, which means there are allocated spaces for everybody,” Johnson said. “But the most popular ones are the shared gardening models where everybody shares the garden bed and the produce."
“You just need to communicate about what’s happening in the garden and how it’s being managed and maintained," Johnson said.
"Some gardens have web pages, Facebook groups, rosters or even chalkboards, too. It depends on the communication network that the group sets up."
Keen as a green bean to get gardening? Here are 10 handy community garden commandments to get you prepared.