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Growing Community Gardening in the Top End


This article is about the little network that could. A low-key, flexible organisation made up of permaculturalists, community gardeners, teachers and Northern Territory Department of Education staff working together to make growing and cooking organic, local food a key part of daily life in the Top End. Throw in a bit of resilient communities’ action, and sustainable design and practice, and we are really getting somewhere!

There are many joys of living in the Top End and many challenges, and often these are the opposite sides of the same coin. The climate is more like that in South-East Asia than in most of Australia. Top Enders, like most Australians, love eating at Asian restaurants. However, if you look closely at those Asian dishes you are more likely to find broccoli, celery and potato in them than snake gourd, winged beans or sweet potato. Hence the challenge: to share with Top Enders the information and skills to help them grow all sorts of amazing foods, and to cook with them.

There have been dedicated permaculturalists in Darwin for many years. However, in the last ten years we’ve seen an amazing increase in the number of keen permies and local foodies. Partly because of another challenge – remoteness, and the huge amount of ‘food miles’ and extra costs associated with buying food. But also because of broader community interest in growing food more locally and sustainably.

A critical mass was reached when Rosemary Morrow taught a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) here in 2008. In the next year three community gardens were started in the Darwin area. Some of the members were PDC graduates from Darwin or elsewhere, some were keen gardeners and some were just keen to be part of it all. Jana Norman and Gai Nowland were PDC graduates from 2008 who started the community garden at Nightcliff Uniting Church, turning a dirt and rock car park into a thriving abundance of tropical foods called The Mulch Pit because of the tonnes of mulch needed to create the soil.

Jana saw the need to connect with other community and school gardens. She called an informal meeting for people interested in collaborating, and the Darwin Garden Education Network (DGEN) was born.

At the time, I was heavily involved in starting up Lakeside Drive Community Garden (LDCG), just around the corner, on two acres of land leased by Charles Darwin University from the City of Darwin Council. LDCG is growing slowly but surely, using a permaculture design for the land. Most of the garden is communal, rather than allotments, which has helped with education, one of our key goals.

LDCG jumped at the chance to join DGEN, and the benefits have been enormous. But before I describe DGEN’s methods, I’d like to mention something that many other permies working on community garden projects have had to grapple with – whether to work on a purely permaculture level or basic school gardening, or a mix.

Even though DGEN has taught two PDCs and a few ‘introduction to permaculture’ courses since 2009, my focus has shifted to how to plant the seeds of growing food, sustainability and environmental action in as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Time is running short, and larger social and cultural change is desperately needed! Schools and established community groups have been the most successful way of achieving this goal. Through DGEN we have hopefully achieved an effective balance by teaching gardening and sustainability from a permaculture perspective, piece by piece, filling in the permaculture design ‘jigsaw’. This approach will help to fill PDCs for many years to come.

DGEN is best summed up by the permaculture principle of ‘integrate rather than segregate’, or for our situation we could also say cooperation not competition. In business – and in permaculture – competition can lead to waste. A cooperative approach has not only reduced waste – especially in time, resources and labour – but allowed three community gardens to grow successfully, at the same time and close to each other. It has enabled us to work to each garden’s strengths, share the running of courses including PDCs, and to work with, inspire and help build perhaps fifteen to twenty new school gardens within four years! Importantly, cooperation and integration has built much more resilience into the gardens and communities that we work in.

Anne Goodman, an active DGEN member explains, ‘The benefit of DGEN from a Departmental perspective is that it upskills and connects our teachers to increase the number of schools with food gardens. I first became involved as the Health Education Consultant for the Department of Education as I believed the best way to teach kids about nutrition and healthy food choices is to eat fresh produce they have grown themselves. Schools gardens in the Top End have also begun to influence food choices for families and productively engage students into the lifelong journey of healthy living.’

DGEN is an informal group; members come and go. We have to work with the transitory nature of the population here rather than fight against it. Meetings are semiregular, include old salts and fresh new daisies alike, and the outcomes suit the needs of those who attend. Our style was once summed up as simply joining the dots.

Photo by Lachlan McKenzie

Clockwise from left: Emily Gray popping up from behind a mung bean planted swale in the wet season at Wulagi Primary School garden. Vanessa Spinelli with local food taster plates at the Tropical Garden Spectacular Community Village Cafe. Making a raised garden bed with recycled garden border at LDCG Open Day workshop. Working bee at mulch pit garden. Bindi Isis harvesting galangal at LDCG. LDCG members enjoying a rainy working bee. Mosiac garden path pavers workshop at LDCG open day.


Some of our work has included:

  • making, promoting and distributing education materials
  • supporting community gardeners and teachers
  • supporting and sharing curriculum development around using school gardens and general sustainability
  • working as consultants in schools with the teachers and students
  • connecting gardens, teachers and gardeners with needs – such as resources, knowledge and skills
  • working with the Remote Indigenous Gardens Network to share knowledge and materials
  • promoting schools gardens for physical and mental health
  • networking for events
  • using permaculture design for garden development
  • connecting the growing of local foods with information about how to cook them
  • teaching trainee teachers how to include school gardens in their work.

As an example of DGEN’s collaborations, Susan Kilgour, Principal of Wulagi Primary School shares her experience:

‘Wulagi Primary, with 263 preschool to year six students is in the northern suburbs of Darwin, NT. A whole-school priority, in line with the Australian Curriculum Priority “Sustainability”, is to develop curriculum that inspires students to be creative and innovative “green leaders” who are empowered to take on the challenges of global warming and climate change, social inequities, unsustainable lifestyles and the urgent need to switch to a renewable-energy-based economy.

‘The school is also committed to actively developing school partnerships between schools, parents, businesses, local community organisations and disciplines outside education, which lead to a range of positive outcomes such as increased skills development, wellbeing and resilience, greater engagement with learning, more positive attitudes and improved transitions.

‘To achieve those goals, community meetings in late 2012 resulted in forming the Wulagi Community Group, which aims to work in partnership with the School to promote sustainable practices through a school garden and community allotments. DGEN is a significant partner with Wulagi School and Wulagi Community Group providing mentoring, guidance and hands-on support in its initiatives.

‘One notable initiative inspired by the Wulagi Community Group is the swaled fruit and food forest. Led by DGEN, who provided the expertise, the community gardeners along with some teachers and students designed, mapped, dug and created the new orchard. It is now thriving after a big wet.

‘Other projects include: kids’ garden beds in the old cricket nets; an outdoor classroom space next to the garden; a vertical food forest on the perimeter fence for community grazing; “My Patch” allotment style beds next to the school garden, including two waterwise wicking beds, which are “owned” by community members; the year 4 Japanese garden and the preschool shadehouse project. The Wulagi Community Group and School run a monthly Car Boot Sale and Produce Swap, which spreads the sustainability message. With all its projects, DGEN is an invaluable resource of human endeavour, wisdom and advice.

‘Without DGEN, and the connections DGEN creates between schools and community groups, Wulagi Community Gardens/School and their related projects would not be as strong and vibrant as they are.’

An amazing collaboration has also evolved with the nursery and garden industry in the NT, which is very progressive and keen to promote food production and sustainability in school and community gardens. For the last three years we have been working together at its annual showcase event at the George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens called the Tropical Garden Spectacular. DGEN runs two areas of the festival, a Community Village and a Kids Grow space where we: run a community café as a fundraiser for all of the community and school gardens that participate; build pop-up demonstration permaculture gardens complete with things like wicking beds, worm farms, herb spirals, ponds and Australian plants; run gardening workshops, local food cooking demos, sustainability and fair food discussions, kids’ workshops, animal petting, music and art; and generally try to infiltrate the mainstream minds of those who come along with ideas for a different, healthier way of living. As with DGEN’s methods, we run everything in an integrated way, which improves the end result and reduces workloads, and also creates a community feel which people really respond to.

And what’s next for DGEN? We are going to build a simple website, continue to work with other networks, slowly add more permaculture and environmental layers to the school gardens and curriculums, promote the school and community garden conjoined model, while generally staying informal and low key. We might work more with other festivals to create more community villages. We’ll certainly enjoy the Green Living award we just received at the NT Environment Awards, for our work supporting community groups and schools involved in sustainable education in the Darwin region. We might even change our name to TE-GEN (Top End Garden Education Network) as the group naturally grows and evolves.

Happy growing everyone, andhappy seed planting too!

Lachlan McKenzie lives in Darwin, NT, teaching permaculture and working with community and school gardens. See page two.


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