Melbourne University has a Community Garden and You Should Know About It

The Melbourne Uni Parkville Campus (MUC) garden is tucked away in a quiet area off Monash Drive. You might have noticed the raised garden beds and lush vegetables as you hurried off the tram and towards class.

Whilst many people at the uni know that the garden exists, we at the Fair Food Challenge have found that most don’t know where it is exactly or how to get involved.  

We've been wondering Can anybody take vegetables? Could I grow whatever I want there? Are the green strawberries I keep picking from it sneakily actually ripe?

 

Luckily garden gurus Pippa and Katie here to answer all the questions we think you should be asking….

Can you please introduce the garden to students who may not know about it?

The Garden was established in 2013 after a lot of campaigning from the Environment collective. It was built on what had been a triangle of lawn in front of the Chemical Engineering building. More than anything, it is an educational garden to teach, inspire and empower more people to grow food! To achieve this end, we have as diverse a planting plan as possible: fruit trees, perennial edibles (plants that survive more than one growing season, like asparagus, rhubarb, blueberries and raspberries), annual edibles (plants that only survive one growing season, like tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, beetroot) as well as indigenous (or at least native) edibles.  

We also have compost, a worm farm and a glasshouse to teach and demonstrate other elements of gardening and have recently teamed up with bees@unimelb. The garden is mostly funded by the Environment collective but also with financial and practical input from the property and campus services team.

How can students get involved in the garden/ how does a community garden system work?

We hold events every week: working bees, workshops or social events, which are advertised on our facebook page and website.  I would suggest that students come along to those to learn about the garden and how to maintain it.  The garden is unfenced and unlocked, so we also encourage people to come along whenever suits them and to bring friends!  After learning a few of the weekly jobs from the working bees (weeding, watering etc), people can develop their confidence to do it alone.

Can anybody just walk by and take produce?

We encourage everyone to harvest from the garden respectfully: feel free to take some, as long as you are leaving plenty for others.  If there is anything that we particularly do not want harvested, we will use signs to communicate that.  That being said, coming to the working bees is the best way to share produce because you learn how and when to harvest (this avoids wastage by picking unripe produce).

Is everything grown there organic? Why do you think this is important?

We don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but I don’t think we would be able to get organic certification because the food scraps that go into our compost are most probably not organic.  We don’t use pesticides because we want to encourage a healthy soil and ecosystem in our garden - we don’t want all the beneficial organisms in the garden to be harmed in the attempt to kill the ‘bad’ ones.  We don’t use chemical fertilisers because they are not sustainable, and also because we have an abundant source of organic waste from cafes and kitchens all over campus - we have so much compost we barely need to use fertilisers.

What do you do to make the garden as sustainable as it can be?

Composting, rain water tanks (rain water is used for hand watering but not irrigation because it can damage the pipes) and we use recycled materials wherever possible for making signs, tying up tomatoes, taking produce home etc.  

Some of the aims of the garden include inspiring people to grow their own food, providing a place for learning about healthy food and building a strong sense of community - how does the garden do this?

At each of our weekly working bees we perform routine garden maintenance: planting, weeding, mulching, harvesting and composting. All of the volunteers who come along are show how to do these tasks and then learn by doing. Over time they gain confidence and pretty soon they are able to share the knowledge they’ve gained with new volunteers.  After the working bees our produce is shared between everyone who came along.  We also hold specialised workshops (on composting, seed sowing, growing herbal teas etc) so that if people have a specific interest they can come and learn about it for free.

By tasting and talking about the food we’ve grown, people learn the difference between home grown and commercial food - especially when we plant interesting varieties such as yellow cucumbers, black tomatoes and purple sweet potatoes or indigenous foods.  People can see and taste the difference!

Finally, community comes all on its own - all we need to do is provide a welcoming space and spread the word!

 

Why do you think having a community garden on university campuses in particular is important?

Because food is such a critical part of our daily lives it’s productions should also be part of our daily lives.  I think there should be community gardens everywhere because everyone needs access to this information and to home grown food, but a uni provides a particular opportunity to engage and educate a certain group: uni students, who will then disperse into the community and workforce and hopefully take their learning with them.

Do you think there is room for Melbourne Uni to have more community garden spaces/ do you have plans for another one?

Yes there is space, but for now there isn’t enough people power to maintain another garden. That being said, we are looking into the possibility of putting some fruit trees in a rooftop garden.

 What is your greatest challenge in keeping the garden going?            

1. People power - volunteers ebb and flow throughout the year so to constantly maintain the garden in a pristine state can be challenging.

2. Attitudes - productive gardens aren’t always beautiful but this garden is expected to be, so we have to find a balance between maximum productivity and amenity.

 Do you think it is important that institutions such as universities take on a more active role in creating Fair Food Systems?

YES. This is everyone’s responsibility.

What other environmental or social initiatives in regards to Fair Food would you like to see take place at the University?

I think the uni should use ethical and local food suppliers for all of it’s catering and I would like to see clearer information on the food being sold at food outlets on campus.