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Commoning Sense: Growing Food In Public Places

Photo by Patrick Jones
Photo by Patrick Jones
Photo by Kay Kerr

Clockwise from above: Pruning public fruit trees in Daylesford; Geoffrey Grigg and Marshall Campbell working at Littleton Gardens in Bega; Neighbours working together at Urban Food Street; Patrick Jones’ son Woody with locally foraged mushrooms in Daylesford.

Photo by Alana Beitz

The phrase ‘eating the suburbs’ is for many of us a rare pleasure. Most of the time, public vegetation means ‘don’t eat it’. Look at it, stand under it, breathe it in… but not too deeply in case your allergies flare, and whatever you do, don’t put it in your mouth. Eating from our everyday environment is far less common than common sense might imagine. There just aren’t that many public spaces purpose-grown to maximise edible yields.

The concept of growing food in public spaces seems stuck in first gear in most of our towns. As urban areas become increasingly dense and pricey, growing food in our private spaces becomes a harder ask. While pot plants, backyards, balconies and planter boxes are noble food growing efforts, what about those great big public spaces: parks, nature strips, verges, footpaths, even botanical gardens. Couldn’t we harvest those public assets?

A few folks around the country reckon we can and perhaps should. They’re inviting us to eat our suburbs and make our environment a whole lot tastier. They are the friends of fruit trees in Daylesford, champions of the council-grown carrot in Bega, and defenders of the pawpaw in Buderim.

Daylesford in Victoria is home to the grand folks of permaculture, David Holmgren and Su Dennett. Like many forest giants, they provide the conditions for an ecosystem of amazing species. Patrick Jones, also based in Daylesford, is a keystone species in the ‘commoning’ food movement. Patrick has been planting both indigenous and food-producing plants and trees in the Hepburn Shire since 1999.

‘Numbers are probably in the hundreds, but I’ve lost count,’ says Patrick. ‘For instance, there are 19 apple trees that I planted outside the public library at the time Coles moved into town. Guerrilla plantings with community friends have included oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, bunya pines, plums, Banksia marginata, musk daisy bushes, lomandra, poa tussocks, blackwood wattles, a range of stone fruit, passionfruit vines, quinces, pears, and numerous berries. I have organised the grafting of medlar fruit onto feral hawthorn trees in forest reserves on the edges of town.’ Patrick’s work is expanding the boundaries of land-use zoning by foraging, gardening and foresting food for common nourishment. ‘Much of this work carries on David Holmgren’s remarkable thinking, just with greater communitarian urgency,’ he says.

Littleton Gardens, Bega. Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Changing how public lands are understood and managed isn’t without its share of friction. While the local council is, according to Patrick, mostly supportive of what he does, there are sometimes issues. ‘Things come up, such as trying to bill us community gardeners annually for land leases, or spraying herbicides around public fruit trees we’ve planted,’ says Patrick. ‘Each year the lease issue comes up and I write to council again saying that we’d like to exchange our lease for all of the positive unpaid work we do that gives to community wellbeing and education around sustainable food practices, which council uses to promote itself as a “sustainable shire”. They know there would be a riot if they tried to close us down.’

Patrick adopts a ‘do, then ask for forgiveness later’ strategy. As far as he is concerned, “only the most unprogressive councils would try to halt such community food security work.”

One of the best-known examples of growing food in common land hails from Buderim, Queensland. Unfortunately, its success is now flavoured with sadness and frustration. Urban Food Street has received a lot of media coverage, including in Pip, for its success in transforming ordinary suburbia into a food growing haven. It has also attracted more recent attention due to the stand-off between some residents and the Sunshine Coast Council. The council’s policies are likely well-meaning, yet they have caused heartache for many residents, as their precious fruit trees fell. Bureaucracy literally axed fruits trees growing adjacent to ‘non-compliant’ residents, who said no to public liability insurance and other red-tape. For them, it was a matter of principle. For the council, it was a matter of enforcement and notions of ‘public safety’.

However, it would be remiss to pass over Urban Food Street as a prime example of food growing on public land. It is a tale still being told: of like-minded people tending fruits trees, vegetables, herbs and flowers to be part of an edible streetscape. It is a tough reminder of the counter-cultural nature of growing food where it’s apparently ‘not meant to be grown’.

Urban Food Street. Photo by Kay Kerr

While it might seem a no-brainer to some, dealing with old-school systems that are essentially risk-averse and experiment- shy can lead to serious consequences. Still, Urban Food Street survives and may continue to thrive. It seems that dealing with local bureaucracy requires a shire by shire approach. Like we design gardens with an eye for bushfire and flood, adding ‘human-hazard’ to our permaculture design framework might be prudent. In some places, government might form part of the solution.

Tucked away in an equally inconvenient distance from Melbourne and Sydney is Bega. For decades it has attracted farmers, thinkers, architects and gardeners. It’s fitting, therefore, that Bega’s town centre has become a food garden, Littleton Gardens. One of its cultivators is Geoffrey Grigg. ‘In Bega, the centre of town is a special place,’ says Geoffrey. ‘It’s a sacred learning place known to local Koori folks as Byamanga. It’s been a place where knowledge of country has been shared for millennia. We are tied to the land. It makes sense to make the centre of town a special place again; a place where students can learn about food, where people can admire the flowers and carrots. It’s a municipal space though. It has to be right, tick all their boxes.’

Geoffrey heads up a small team who cultivate 200 m2 of garden space in the middle of town. He’s got buy-in from Koori elders, rose lovers, high school students, the general manager of Bega council and 84-year-old Marshall Campbell, veteran volunteer gardener. Geoffrey claims that this coalition of good-will has made the garden a successful pilot, not only for Bega, but towns across Australia.

Geoffrey Grigg and Marshall Campbell at Littleton Gardens in Bega. Photo by Alana Beitz

Grown around permaculture principles, the Littleton Garden and its broader initiative, ‘Eat the Park’, comprises edible and flowering plants that integrate with existing mature trees and the fast-growing SCPA Farmers Market. Thankfully, according to Geoffrey, the Bega Shire council has been very supportive of the Littleton Garden and its integration with the farmers market. They fund the project’s materials and provide in-kind support. It’s a place where residents can admire, eat and buy seriously local food.

The edible town centre has even won over powerful detractors. “They were dead against it to begin with, but a majority [of councillors] supported us,’ explains Geoffrey. ‘As we’ve grown the garden, and as people have experienced the benefits, one of the councillors who was most against it came up to me and said “this is pretty good what you’ve got growing here”.’

These small victories show the hard work and range of approaches needed to propagate the idea that food on public land isn’t crazy, it won’t poison us and it doesn’t have to be unsightly. Indeed, food in the commons can act as a beacon for what’s possible. But it needs political support, before or at least after the fact.

Growing food in common spaces helps create different relationships with our everyday environment. It can remind us of what season it is, show us how food grows and help connect young and old to civic spaces. These are softly spoken interventions in an increasingly risk-averse world. The snapshots from Daylesford, Buderim and Bega are mostly positive results of ongoing experiments. Across Australia, there are people returning to and reimagining a practice never ceded by Aboriginal people: caring for country through commoning food.

Ananth is doing PhD research on the role culturally diverse refugees and migrants play in Australian urban agriculture and runs a training organisation, Polykala, focused on social adaptation.


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