Some pretty cool things can happen when you step away from your screen. For example, we got to talk to Caroline from URBAN FOOD STREET (at the time she was getting fed up with the news). We might actually talk to some of our fellow neighbours. Find ourselves connecting to a community, and doing something epically awesome. Like growing food on our streets.
That’s what Caroline and Duncan did anyway when they started one of Australia’s most talked about urban (suburban?) food gardens. And while they may have created this truly special neighbour-food on the Sunshine Coast, we thought we’d pick their brains on how it could be seeded elsewhere.
Who started it all and how does the group operate now?
Duncan and I cofounded URBAN FOOD STREET in 2009. Unlike many of our contemporaries, we have no structure, meaning that we are not an organisation or group as such. We are a neighbourhood, just like any other neighbourhood right around the country. As a neighbourhood we get together and plant edible plants in our streets, for the people who live within this neighbourhood to eat. We decided on a model that embodied no structure because we were dismayed by the huge amounts of time that were wasted in processes associated with traditional organisational structures. In other words, we prefer to get things done by producing tangible outcomes rather than hours and hours of talking. At the end of the day we are doers.
We are a fluid model, meaning that we don’t value one form of participation over another. We believe that everyone has a skill to bring and we use the skills that are available within this hood. On a practical level, the model is easy. Everyone from the 220+ households within the neighbourhood is welcomed to forage from the crops we plant along the street edge, regardless of their level of participation. This is important because it immediately fosters inclusiveness. We have a monthly working bee during the cooler months of March to November where most of the planting is done. There are basically no rules other than we ask people to only pick what they need for their next immediate meal. This ensures that there are people on the streets, talking to each other, and that the crops are not depleted, or picked but not consumed.
You’ve encountered a fair few challenges – tell us a bit about how you keep calm and grow on.
When we know something is wrong we have an ethical and moral obligation to do something about it, to leave a legacy for the wee little people that that are being born right now. That legacy should leave a natural world that is no worse than what we have now. The degradation of our natural world is terribly wrong and there are so many innovative ways to tackle what is happening with our environment, that offer real solutions but are yet to be taken seriously and implemented. Growing fresh, seasonal no-food-mile sustainance on the verge is one of them.
Plus the people in our neighbourhood are thriving from the social cohesion and connection that has grown alongside the fruit and vegetables.
What are some of the most hilarious complaints you’ve had?
We don’t get many complaints although we did hear from a very reputable source once that a council staff member trying to pick fault with the project stated that it was dangerous because children would jump out of moving cars to pick the produce from the side of the road, particularly at intersections where cars slow. I guess it goes to say then, that when people drive past a circus or a school fete or a beach, children will jump out of moving cars, so that they can participate in the activity. So much of what is said is stupid when extrapolated into the general context of our contemporary society. We’ve had heaps of kids outdoors exercising and eating beautiful fresh food around these streets, but we are yet to see them jumping from moving cars. Sadly so many of our politicians are out of touch with the day-to-day the needs of the people that they represent.
The other big ticket times – Dogs and cats will poop on it. Where will people park? How do they disembark from the car? Where do women with children walk?
Really. In a world that is challenged by the implications of climate change and food and water insecurity, don’t people have more important things to think about? Like how do we grow food for people to eat without a secure life sustaining supply of water, and where is secure water coming from when it doesn’t rain?
What are some of the most common misconceptions about verge gardening that you’d love to clarify?
That verge gardening could be done anywhere. Verge gardening isn’t for every suburban block or location. Every verge is different and needs to be understood as such. Much like a site analysis in architecture, the physical, social and environmental parameters need to be thought about before turning the soil. Understanding context before doing is so important.
The other misconception is – “It would never work here people would steal it.” This hasn’t been our experience. In 8 years we’ve lost very little produce from redistribution. We’d rather not label it as stealing but rather as the redistribution of food to someone who needs it. When a person creates a catalyst for active and engaged streets (as gardening on the verge does) we begin to change the social expectation and matrix of an area. We’ve seen huge improvements in social behaviour including reductions in petty crime, in the streets that are URBAN FOOD STREET.
What’s an unexpected fruit or vegetable that grows really well where you are?
Dragon fruit grow really well for us. We grow them up the trunks of native palm trees. We also produce quite a good crop of tamarillo or tree tomatoes, and native raspberries as well. We tend to grow the things that people are familiar with and will eat readily because we feed so many people from the produce that grows in the streets, so we focus on things like cherry tomatoes, herbs, bananas, citrus and then seasonal crops in winter.
What would be your top tip for those starting out with growing their own food? Whether it’s a container of basil or a pumpkin vine?
Compost. Great soil is the elixir of life. Your plants will love you for it and the produce will taste amazing. Skip the potting mix and spend some time learning how to make your own soils using compost and other organic matters such as poop. Go organic.
Keep it simple and grow things that grow easily in your area and crop well. These are generally speaking, easier to manage as a new gardener. Learn lots, don’t fret the losses because there are bound to be some and most of all have fun and enjoy eating your efforts.
When all else fails, consult the Gardening Australia website. There are hundreds of great resources available to the new gardener. Use them!
Image credit: Urban Food Street