On the verge of really good things Reply

Carolynn King in the lush and productive verge garden she started in her street.

by Brendan Gallagher

At the intersection of Windsor and Elizabeth Streets, on the nature strip created by the resulting cul-de-sac, sits a chair. It looks derelict, yet it has managed to appropriate a sense of belonging, aided by the pine box that sits in its lap, holding straw-covered soil hosting two strawberry plants, a solitary fruit just starting to redden.  Across the strip, a rusted wheelbarrow rests jauntily back on its haunches, dark green mint and nasturtiums sprouting from its bellyful of soil.

Behind these two sentinels, a lightly constructed fence cordons off much of the remainder of this incidental convergence of two city streets. The fence maintains the rustic theme; interwoven with dwarf sweet peas whose red and purple flowers crown its head, roughly hewn blocks of sandstone at its feet and tiny electric blue, edible flowers peeking from the folds of  its skirt. But it serves a purpose as well, because within its confines, taking up most of this incidental convergence of city streets, is a burgeoning kitchen garden.

The fence increases the surprise of such a lush productive spot by slightly concealing it until you’re almost upon it. But the sight of these verge gardens is becoming more common to Sydneysiders, especially those in the inner suburbs, where living space is tight. Community gardens, where vacant blocks of land are gated and given over to a number of communal vegetable plots, have established themselves as a feature of the streetscape. Now, they are accompanied by verge gardens that are sprouting up wherever like-minded residents can find a few spare metres of land.

The wooden sign outlining the rules of the garden (herbicide free, organic, no pets, all are free to, pick, plant, water and weed) identifies it as the Windsor Organic Residents’ Meet (WORM). But the initial idea for the verge garden belongs to local resident Carolynn King. She was spurred to action by a council garden that already occupied the spot.

“It was stuffed full of very unattractive cactus and something came over me and I though it would be a really nice spot to share growing some edible plants.”

Ms King wrote to the local council, but after receiving a positive initial response, there followed a drawn out period of fitful progress.

“It took over 18 months for them to write what they called a ‘Verge Garden Policy’, which I hadn’t even considered they might need to write because there already was a garden on the verge.”

Woollahra Council already had community garden policy, but needed to develop it to allow for the variations that verge gardens introduce. While Carolynn King was getting frustrated at the apparent inaction, it turned out the Council was dealing with a variation of verge requests.

“It got held up for a few months because they realised that the verge gardens were becoming popular, and that people had different concepts about what a verge garden was,” Ms King says.

The Council had to wrestle with the possibilities of chooks and bees and even goats, but eventually knocked together a verge garden policy.

And despite the delays, Ms King says the Council was encouraging and urged her to stick with the garden. When the garden was approved, the Council provided extra sandstone from the Council depot and even suggested she apply for a $1000 Woollahra Council Community Environmental Grant; WORM did and has now received it two years running.

Half of the initial grant went on the typical pitfalls of public amenities; WORM had to become incorporated and take out public liability insurance.

But with the legalities sorted, the fun could begin. Carolynn King letter-boxed and organised a digging bee, where the existing garden was dispersed to various backyards and windowsills. It was decided that the verge garden would be completely organic, so through a family connection, an organic expert was brought in to supervise the preparing of the soil.

“And then we planted,” Ms King says. “And we made mistakes. We planted everything too close together, then we got massive amounts of rain and I thought the whole garden would float away, but it didn’t. And to cut to the end of the story, it’s extremely bountiful and verdant and green and going really well; and cabbages are coming up and cauliflowers and people are absolutely loving it.”

Ms King says had she known all the paperwork and legalities she would have to to go through to get the verge garden up and running, she may have thought twice about taking it on.

Even modest patches of earth are being turned over to verge gardens.

But having done the work, she says, residents are now reaping bountiful rewards.

One of the most positive things to spring from the garden, she says, is the new friendships that have formed.

“I’ve met people, who in 10 years living here, I’ve never seen, and they say, ‘well, we walk this way now’, because they like to see what’s been growing. They actually come past it to see if the cabbage has come up yet.”

Apart from a couple of greenthumbs, most of the residents involved are new to growing crops, and the verge garden has provided them with an experience it is hard to find in the inner-city.

“The kids absolutely love walking in the garden,” Ms King says. “I’m not sure why, but they do. They walk on the stepping stones, they crouch down and they find the little tomatoes and the little things growing. When the sugar snap peas were growing they were eating them straight off the vine, their mothers said they’d never seen them eat them in their life.”

Carolynn King plans to schedule an informal WORM meeting at Christmas to discuss the garden’s future direction.

“We’re going to meet around the garden with a bottle of champagne and discuss what we’re going to do next.”

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