I have to pinch myself. I'm here in the dead centre of Australia (visiting my daughter, who works and lives here) and it turns out it's not so dead. In fact Alice Springs boasts the most productive and attractive community garden I personally have seen. Semi-retired dentist Bruce is a keen volunteer and agreed to meet me at the gardens for a tour.
Bruce tells me his own garden at home is also lush and thriving (I have an invitation to come visit and I hope I can fit it in - lots to see and do in AS in one week). Not an easy feat in a town where any green grass is only there thanks to vigilant and regular watering by automatic sprinklers.
The gardens were originally set up around five years ago with funding and encouragement from the Arid Lands Environment Centre (ALEC) and some donations from charities - which funded assistance in the beginning from PT project officers to help establish the garden.
Below is the original plan for the gardens. Swales and "dunes" were included with Acacia and Mulberry planted on these to stabilise the area and funnel rainwater and reduce erosion. The Acacia were meant to be coppiced and mulched but this hasn't work all that well - a commercial mulcher is needed to cope with trimmings. The Mulberry roots have proven to be invasive and many are now being removed.
Quite beautiful mosaic and stucco work on the raised bed edging has been provided by the Work for the Dole scheme workers. These photos hardly do the work justice.
Mandala garden and cob pizza oven...
There are many (50 or more) beds, all on auto watering systems, which goes far to explain the luxuriant growth - a few beds are neglected, as you will get at any community garden - but the majority thriving with the same veg that does well at this time of the year in Brisbane - asian greens, broccoli, broad bean, spinach and even a Cardoon in one bed. Most of the beds are open to the elements but some have PVC tubing covered with shade cloth. The average annual rainfall is about 11.3" so the watering system is necessary.
Bruce tells me they have had drought periods where rainfall has been less than say 6" for a number of years. Interestingly the 'evaporation rate' is 120" a year. So rain water tanks aren't popular and almost all water used in Alice, other than bottled water, comes from underground aquifers
Cost of membership for the gardens is $30 per year for ALEC, $50 to join the community garden and $20 per month for access to the compost/manure mixes and self watering system.
I asked if they have a fruit fly problem in Alice and unfortunately they do. Queensland Fruit Fly. As a Queenslander I felt the need to apologise. I had so hoped they didn't have this problem there.
While some seeds are sown direct, seedlings are mostly purchased from commercial outlets - local nurseries and Bunnings!
Bruce pulling weeds, edible ones. I could hardly restrain myself from suggesting he keep them for eating. Celery does well here, interestingly.
Some incredibly good heads of broccoli.
Soil is created using cow manure bought cheap locally that is mixed with organic material including grass clippings in compost bays. Horse manure used to be preferred but nematodes proved to be a problem.
An old refrigerator serves as an excellent and thriving worm farm.
Covered work area.....
Strawberry patch showing the self watering system in each bed. Watermelon also grow well...
The main fruit trees that thrive in Alice, according to Bruce, are citrus (I've seen many orange, lemon and mandarin trees laden with fruit), mulberry, stone fruit, figs and grapes.
Some of the excess produce is sold through FOOD FOR ALICE a local food distribution project which advocates for sustainable and ethical local food.
Introduced Buffel Grass is quite a problem and locals work at eradicating it: Buffel grass grows wild around Alice Springs. It constitutes a serious fire hazard and needs to be cut regularly. In conjunction with LandCare, local gardeners have had great success collecting cut Buffel grass and using it as mulch. Try cutting it yourself using a whipper snipper with a metal blade.
Honeybees were plentiful in the garden but I saw no sign of native bees.
Bruce sent me on my way with a gift of thick leafed lettuce of unknown variety.
Thank you to Bruce for taking the time to meet with me and provide information about the history of the gardens. From your gardening friends in Brisbane Local Food we wish you and the garden the best for the future. Please feel free to join our online group to access information collected and shared over the years by our members. Membership is free.
Ask away if you see something you would like to grow out here in Alice and I'm sure someone will oblige with sending seed.
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