Brisbane Local Food

Growing local

Since we've completed two terms gardening at the local primary school -- and are about to tackle a third --  I thought I'd offer a few dot points on the experience.

  • The 'garden' had been going almost three years but proved difficult to sustain, given term periods and holiday breaks. It had been established, fenced off...There were three beds, a shade tunnel and a spear pump that didn't work. It was over grown with weeds and the cause of much frustration for the P&C.
  • At a local community meeting those of us into gardening --who had been trying to establish a community garden in town -- got into an exchange with the P&C president and we decided to take on the patch, renovate and run it under the format of a 'community garden'.
  • One of us was a retired horticulturalist and that gave the project traction and confidence. We topped up the volunteer pool. The children dug over and weeded the garden in a working frenzy and we commenced the second term by planting out herbs and vegetables. 
  • As we consolidated the routine we arranged to supply fresh veg and herbs to the local community club and an in-town cafe in exchange for meal vouchers the P&C could raffle off. In consultation with these outlets and the school tuck shop we planted out to suit produce demand. Indeed, aside from capital outlays, the garden makes money to sustain itself through these P&C fundraising activities.

  • As the number of plants under cultivation grew and the maintenance routine consolidated,  the project was utilised as an opportunity to run complimentary programs: we planted out vines in the school grounds to attract the threatened Bird Wing Butterfly; the school began a cooking program run by a professional chef (and parent) using some garden produce in the recipes; the tuck shop ran highly successful special food days based on garden produce(sandwiches, muffins, egg slices); the butterfly theme was taken up in a series of mosaic pavers the children created. The old gardens at the Prep school and the next door Creche and Kinder were renovated.We made scarecrows and invited the under 8's to plant out and harvest.
  • Not every child has garden access. Working in the garden is a privilege and a reward. It is also used as a cooling off space for problem behaviours. Some outdoor classes are held there and the children take on major gardening tasks like planting, watering and turning over the soil when required. The garden is busy each morning from 8.30am when it is routinely attended, watered and worked.Other occasions during the day are also spent in the garden. It is a special place which we try to make engaging and 'magical'. 
  • Finally this term we should get chooks. We've secured access to a Stingless Bee Hive and that should be erected soon.  A partnership and exchange program will proceed with a local high school's agriculture program. We have a new snazzy pump which has greatly reduced our labours. Soon enough the whole school will be put on a recycling and vermiculture program which will create compost  for the garden. 
  • We harvest roughly every fortnight to supply produce to our 'clients'. As well as the local outlets, we are now distributing produce to the broader school community  especially as the children are so enthusiastic about their vegetable harvests. They're taking home the thrill and their knowledge of fresh produce and how it is grown. This term coming we hope to begin seedling production for broader distribution. The perspective of the tuck shop has shifted more to fresh produce and 'fresh produce' menu  days are very popular. (The tuck shop's Zucchini muffins pictured right)
  • The School 'Community Garden'  has been met with a massive endorsement from the community as a whole and drawn attention to the school  and its programs. It is used as a recruiter for school enrolments and as an exercise in  emphasising the role of  the school  in  the town over all. The garden program may also be a contributing factor to the school's high attendance record compared to other primary schools in  Queensland -- although there are other reward mechanisms in play. It is showcased on open days and special event occasions and is an enriching partnership unfolding, that so many are proud of.
  • The only handicaps to running this activity are that (a) volunteers must be inducted through the school's volunteer program and are required to have a Blue Card before they can participate;(b) generally , gardening is limited to school hours --although volunteers access the school for gardening duties during vacation periods. Nonetheless, the shared labour and shared knowledge & skill  among the adults has a 'community garden' dynamic with the ongoing delight of working with the children growing so much fresh produce. Their energy, commitment and enthusiasm is thrilling. 

The garden in June

My view is that school  gardening like this may indeed be a way around the practical and political problems often faced by  'community' gardening initiatives. A partnership is needed between volunteers, teaching and ancillary staff but if there is enthusiasm among teachers -- who recognise the pedagogical and behavioural  opportunities offered by gardening at school -- then the dynamic takes off. Indeed, I cannot envisage a school gardening project like this surviving without such a conscious partnership being worked at and engineered.Having  a professional horticulturalist on hand also helps heaps. We all learn.

Similarly, the garden feeds a broader focus on fresh produce and un-alienated food that has nutritional and health consequences long term. It's clear that the children shift their menu preferences more toward the vegetable universe when they can relate to the growing of  fresh food.

The garden in September

  • For the gardeners out there: At present we have beds dedicated to tomatoes, pumpkins, garlic, and corn. We have a large walk through mixed garden full of herbs. We grow salad greens in three beds, spring onions in two and around the patch we are growing cucumbers, radishes, carrots, spinach, silver beet and zucchini. We grow kale and pole beans. There is a bank of vertical gardens -- not very successfully & I hate them -- a line of lavender; and this week we plant out sunflowers again.One bed is green manured. The only plant that didn't perform well this year so far was our potatoes.

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Comment by Dave Riley on October 5, 2015 at 9:22

I use a weekly email newsletter to keep folk on the same page. That means any one can attend the garden any time and know what needs to be done. Unregistered volunteers don't have access and the children are selected to participate according to various criteria determined by the teaching staff.

We have tumbler locks on the gate and shed and only the adults know the code for access.(In theory anyway).  We have primary sessions on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and run off a core volunteer base of 5. That suits our needs without having to worry about finding things for folk to do. The core tasks are watering and weeding. Planting and harvesting are occasional events. We also distribute the produce if its off school grounds.

I'd say that the main activity that drives the engagement is hand watering.That has been very labour intense but it is a sort of ritualised engagement that draws the children into relentless participation. We've even been hand watering using watering cans--to and from the tap -- before the new pump was installed! So it has been a celebrated responsibility that the children have embraced keenly.

We've started to meet once per term to lay out the trajectory and theres' an ongoing discussion between teachers, principals  and volunteers over possibilities. 

The teachers' gardening skill set is very shallow...but they are learning. It can get difficult projecting tasks with the mixture of inputs, but consensus seems to work primarily because the ruling factor is the children. 

The keen driver is the P&C which pushes the program more generally through the school and funds it In a sense the volunteers are working for the P&C ..and without these volunteers, it's very clear, there'd be no garden. 

Our garden is quite large and has a keen production schedule ...but size can vary in other contexts, other schools. I think the focus on harvest and distribution is crucial. The logic kicks in. We go on about learning possibilities in way of horticulture and botany and biology but the school curriculum hasn't fully integrated those opportunity aspects of the  garden yet.

So we're all learning...and the project is very open ended and has to be flexible. That we are anchored by a strong knowledge base among the vols is very useful as that saves a lot of hit and miss. All a teacher need do is ask if we could do something and we have a fair idea whether it is doable. That's why i love flexible beds..and reliance on annuals! The P&C has purchased soil and we access compost from the school grounds. Mulches are easily accessible too...and we use a lot of weed mat...but no sprays.

Comment by Phil on October 5, 2015 at 8:51

Great work there Dave. Must be satisfying to be able to share and promote your passion for gardening with the kids and ultimately enrich the wider community.

Comment by Lissa on October 5, 2015 at 8:43

The FB page seems active.

Comment by Lissa on October 5, 2015 at 8:41

Is Vera St CG still functioning? There's nothing beyond April 2014 on their website.

Comment by Dave Riley on October 5, 2015 at 8:29

The great advantage of investing energies in a school garden is that it is ongoing as it is part of  broader project -- education -- and sponsored by a major local institution.Your standard 'community garden' in contrast is very vulnerable.You need space, water, insurance and incorporation..and enough admin and hands on the ground to sustain it independently of anything else. 

I'd like to see community members,P& Cs, and teachers looking at this option and adapting that. I've spoken with some school garden teachers -- in the Sandgate area -- and they have immense problems sustaining their project purely as an aspect of school run extra curricula. 

I'd think that if a group of bods went to a school and said , "We'll volunteer -- let's make a garden.' the prospects would be very good for success. Initiatives like the Kitchen Garden Foundation miss that option and try to promote an expensive formula.

The one problem with the template we use is that if your work 5 days/week you're excluded from access and contribution. I've tried to work around that but school protocols are not flexible...But the Vera Street Community Garden does work a variation that suits that interface there with a  local high school. Deagon's Green P -- which has just run into major problems with its PCYC sponsor -- has an ongoing partnership with various stake holders including the local high school. 

Comment by Lissa on October 5, 2015 at 6:42

Excellent blog and project. Truly an inspiration to others who might be wanting to do the same.

The fact you have such talented vols would definitely help as you say. Hopefully the learning will spill over to others who can continue the work even if your most talented vols ever disappear. Think of those kids who are being inspired to grow their own. Hopefully some have taken the desire home with them and started gardens there.

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