Anthony asks how can we Dig For Victory if the Council Inspectors get fussy?

The Australian Conservation Foundation has just released its From Paddock to Plate: Rethinking Food and Farming report. Along with lots of recommendations about how we should do food production in rural and peri-urban areas, it also contains a number of recommendations about food production in urban areas. For instance, it talks about food sensitive urban design, which includes how we might design new housing estates, but also, where urban planning calls for consolidation and medium-density housing, it might be useful to factor in community gardens, roof gardens and so on.


But this would surely require a change in the current approach of local councils and planning authorities. For example, a vibrant urban food production system directed at household self-provisioning would require some relaxation of current water restrictions. Here in Melbourne, water restrictions serve as a restriction on water use, rather than a restriction on water consumption, and water use for household provisioning rather than commercial profit is severely restricted.

Melbourne resident Marika Wagner has set up Friends of the Vegie Patch, a lobby group asking the State government to allow more watering time for domestic vegie growers. The group had a local MP table a petition with three and half thousand signatures in State parliament, asking for revised restrictions for domestic growers.

Meanwhile, the Diggers Club, a mail-order heirloom seed business based on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, has made even more incendiary claims. The government, it says, ‘has taken away our rights to grow our own food’. In response they suggest a civil disobedience campaign. They invoke the spirit of their namesakes, the 17th century English revolutionaries led by Gerrard Wistanley. Those Diggers seized public land ‘when greedy landlords denied them the opportunity to grow food to give to the poor’.

They go on to rile against the injustice imposed on ‘many of the poorer members of our community, who rely on their gardens to put food on the table’.

Yet I’m not sure that it is the poor who rely on growing their own food. Sometimes I like to think there was a transition in Australian urban life, when households went from being ‘urban peasants’ to being caught up in an industrial-consumer complex whereby food increasingly came from the supermarket rather than the backyard, and the backyard became a site for swimming pools and ornament rather than productive activity.

And talking to people of my parent’s generation or reading their memoirs, I’m struck by the reliance on backyard chooks, local dairies, rabbits brought down from up the country, vegetable gardens and backyard fruit trees (plums in Melbourne, mango and pawpaw in Cairns, figs everywhere). George Seddon has suggested that the pre-War backyard functioned as a gesture towards functional self-sufficiency, not complete but not totally dependent on a web of urban services as we are today.

But this was not necessarily a working class phenomenon. As Andrea Gaynor points out in her informative history of domestic food production, Harvest of the Suburbs, maintaining a vegie patch meant secure tenure of good, productive land, expenditure on tools and other ‘inputs’, and an inclination toward a diet of fruit and vegetables rather than meat: each of which was in short supply in the urban working class.

By the 1940s, Robert Menzies was able to declare that ‘the best people in the world are those who by thrift and self-sacrifice…hope one day to sit down under their own vine and fig tree, owing nothing to anybody’.

The reference to the ‘vine and fig tree’ was biblical, taken from the Old Testament Book of Micah. In its original context, it was a call for the equitable distribution of property within a peaceful polity (it comes just after the ‘they will hammer their swords into ploughshare, their spears into sickles…there will be no more training for war’ line). Menzies ditches the anti-militarism of the biblical exhortation, and in his hands it becomes a call to individualism, an appeal to what Judith Brett has dubbed the ‘moral middle class’. And in the context of mid-century suburban Australia Gaynor suggests the biblical verse might have been better glossed by Menzies as each person sitting down under ‘his own passion fruit vine and lemon tree’.

Has the ‘community garden’ worked to undo this individualism? When I first moved into my current house over 15 years ago, I discovered a nearby urban farm and environmental park which also included allotment gardens. I was bowled over by the patchwork of rickety self-made fences, because I had not seen anything like it:

a garden

garden 2

Today, if I catch the train from the city to my suburb I go past at least three other community gardens, and within a stone’s throw of a large public school that pioneered Stephanie Alexander’s kitchen garden scheme. These community projects allow those households which would otherwise be unable to maintain a garden some access to the pleasures of food production, but do they represent a genuinely co-operative endeavour? Instead they are often organized on the basis of individual allotments, what Gaynor refers to as transplanted patches of backyard that allow greater opportunities for people to ‘perform’ their independence in a public space.

Until recently, and counter to the model proposed by the ACF, local council regulations seemed to be closing in on these projects, and on ‘guerilla gardening’ initiatives in the inner suburbs more generally. One council report recommended the removal of all community gardens amid fears that toxic soils could make people ill and that the council would be held liable. But this past week, that same council (Yarra, which covers the inner eastern and northern suburbs of Melbourne), voted unanimously to support ‘creative gardening’.

By the by, one shift in suburban food production over the past forty years or so has been the decline of animal husbandry: again indicative of middle class values about how suburban land should be used.

But nearly ten years ago Belinda Probert pointed to another shift in the class refraction of domestic vegetable gardening. As the aspirant middle class, who now gain their higher salaries by way of more working time, become ‘time poor’ they have moved away from high-maintenance productive gardens to low-maintenance ‘hard’ landscaping. Current water restrictions and council planning guidelines might only exacerbate this trend to downgrade the productive garden, and suburban food production is more than ever in danger of becoming history.

(An earlier version of this post ran in Arena Magazine no 94, April-May 2008)


26 thoughts on “Anthony asks how can we Dig For Victory if the Council Inspectors get fussy?

  1. Anthony, this is a fantastic post, so many ideas to munch on. A few thoughts:

    My women’s group recently had a great talk from Keith Colls, the head of the Canberra Organic Grower’s Society. They have been around for 30+ years, and run 11 community gardens. They have individual allotments, but also a community area in each garden – usually where they have stuff like fruit trees. Produce is divided according to participation which no doubt brings some special moments. However they have in general a very strong community ethos, publishing a quarterly magazine, doing monthly “diagnose your crook plant” nights” (how handy is that? Anyone can turn up for advice about organic solutions to their particular problem), teaching CIT (aka Tech/TAFE courses) and other good deeds such as an active seed savers’ exchange. Canberra’s climate is so particular that it helps that there is an organisation that provides such a great mechanism to pass on expertise.

    I also see that community sense in the budding (sorry) Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden at my son’s school – before we were involved in that program, the school had set up an “environment courtyard” and community garden, engaging some of the local people in flats or aged care accommodation who missed gardening.

    Granted I live in a pretty bourgie part of town (the Inner North of Canberra), but the veggie gardening/chook keeping ethos is very strong here. The urge to extend the benefits of that is a big driver behind the SA garden.

    I remember Digger’s offering a special self-sufficiency pack for health care card holders, and they probably still do. The ANU Food Co-op has seed packs from the Canberra Environment and Sustainability Resource Centre for $12 which come with growing notes and, if you sign up, email advice and support.

    More broadly, I’m interested about how “individual” – in that sense of isolated or atomistic – those plots are. And in how many more meetings we might need to go to if we were to make them otherwise?

  2. Oh, and another thing – I did say that this was a thought provoking post – it’s interesting to consider it in the light of Michael Symon’s ideas that one of the big problems with Australian food/culinary culture is that we never had a “proper” peasantry.

    I wrestle with the idea. My strongest memory from my dad’s eulogy for my Nana 15 or so years ago is his talking about her being the kind of person who planted cabbages she knew she’d never eat.

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  4. Yeah, really liked this post. I’m not sure though that surburban food gardening, at least as an aspiration, is in all that much danger of becoming history. – for one thing, there’s the fact that Bunnings et al have clearly worked out how much garden equipment, mulch, fertiliser, wetting agent etc can be tied to backyard food growing. The range of varieties of vegetable seedlings produced by the big commercial suppliers is much broader than it was a few years ago. It actually annoyed me quite a lot last year to find, in Bunnings, Diggers-produced heirloom tomato seedlings of kinds I’d painstakingly been bringing up from mail-ordered seed.

    Digger’s regularly cite the massive growth of interest in food gardening as the reason they keep running out of things and being behindhand with orders etc. hmmm. Oh well, the main thing i read the mags for at this point is just to see who Clive Blazey is flaming this month.

    It’d be interesting to know whether the most recent groups of migrants to Australia are transplanting horticultural expertises into their new backyards.

  5. Produce is divided according to participation which no doubt brings some special moments.


    Laura, that’s a really interesting point about the most recent migrants. Many moons ago the parents of my Greek mates at school were very shocked and disapproving about the way ‘Australians’ didn’t use their quarter-acre blocks to grow veg, or even just low-maintenance (in the SA climate as it was then, anyway) lemons and olives.

    Fantastic post, Anthony.

  6. There was a recent article in The Canberra Times Food & Wine section, which is irritatingly not online, about a church charity group working with recently arrived refugees in developing an aquaponic garden to grow some of their traditional foods. I think they were Hmong people, but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember.

    It would be interesting to track how produce grown by market gardeners of Asian heritage has changed over time.

    And here’s another thing I can’t find – a Radio National program about a service in Melbourne that supports events where more settled refugee women prepare lunch for more recently arrived women. It starts off pretty slowly, apparently, but people open up gradually over food.

  7. There was a book published last year – and the name escapes me – about the food gardens of migrants at the public housing blocks in inner Melbourne. It was really fascinating -explaining the food plants of South Americans, different African countries, the Hmong, among others. Nothing most white Australians would recognise but things very important to their home cooking. Recipes were included in the book.
    Yes PC, about 10 years ago we visited an Italian friend at her parents house in Footscray – every centimetre of their 500m block was full of vegetable garden, fruit trees, vines and chooks. They bottled their own sauce, preserved fruit and so on. At that point we had very small children and no vegetable garden at our large eastern suburbs block- the parents were really aghast that we weren’t growing any food.
    Now on a 600m block and have vines, fruit trees, massive vegie garden and water tank. Not everything succeeds, but we keep trying!

  8. I remember stories from my Grandmother of her and her brothers taking rabbits to feed the nuns who had to rely on the local community for food during the Depression. She never ate rabbit again as an adult because it reminded her too strongly of her childhood. I think we certainly did have a ‘peasantry’ in Australia, mostly poor rural workers who worked on farms belonging to others.

    My grandmother always had a vegie patch and my mum remembers sausages being a really special treat because they were ‘bought’ from a shop and weren’t made on the farm. They also grew their own fruit and slaughtered their own sheep, chooks and calves. When my grandparents finally sold the farm they bought in the nearby village and bought enough land to have a substantial garden which my grandfather took over or rather he grew everything then expected my grandmother to cook/preserve/freeze it.

    I’m guilty of planting things that I don’t always eat, but as the weather warms up I’m looking forward to making a dent in the self sown cos lettuces that are everywhere.

  9. Produce is divided according to participation

    What a bunch of fucking commies. Where’s the price signal?

    Cracking article, indeed, Anthony.
    I don’t know if you’ve heard of Claymore in SW Sydney just outside Campbelltown, but they had a really very successful community gardening project in a Department of Housing lot, run by a bunch of Islanders as a cooperative. It began more a make-work scheme than a productive exercise IIRC, but everybody gets to eat the taro.
    BTW, I don’t know that local councils’ concerns about soil toxicity are that unreasonable. Where I grew up in the Sydney Inner West there’s so much leftover heavy metal that the oysters on the waterline and the shellfish are poisonous; quite a lot of the reclaimed land in Australian cities that’s so useful for guerrilla gardening used to be used for industrial manufacturing. There’s arsenic from lumberyards, mercury and lead and who knows what from paint factories, organophosphates, there are even uranium isotope “hot spots” in Hunters Hill. I don’t think I’d want to garden anywhere 19th or early 20th century industry had been.

  10. Thanks for the kind comments, y’all.

    The “urban peasant” thesis comes from sociologist Patrick Mullins, and it was one of the things that Gaynor explicitly set out to interrogate in her history. I don’t think he was using it as synonmous with the peasantry that Symons was pointing to. It was a qualified concept, which I think George Seddon’s observation captures quite nicely, whereas Symons, just back from living in Tuscany when he wrote Picnic, was pointing to Europe’s long history of rural peasantry as the basis for European cuisine.

    Good point Laura about the Bunnings factor: commodification of inputs etc. What I liked about the allotments I mentioned was their resolute DIY aesthetic.

    I’m also intrigued by the shift in nomenclature from ‘veggie patch’ to ‘kitchen garden’. What next? Potagers?

    Good to hear all the interesting stuff about various communal gardens. I think a lot do break away from the individualism of the ‘allotment’. And as librarygirl points out in response to Laura’s query, the gardens attached to inner city public housing estates in Melbourne definitely are used by recently arrived immigrants, who make up a big proportion of the residents. I will need to go and re-check Gaynor’s book to see what she says, if anything, about recently arrived migrant groups and backyard vegetable gardening.

  11. great post Anthony.

    Laura – “It actually annoyed me quite a lot last year to find, in Bunnings, Diggers-produced heirloom tomato seedlings of kinds I’d painstakingly been bringing up from mail-ordered seed.”
    Thanks for the reminder, i acted before posting and now have nine diggers seedlings from seven varieties. The Diggers seedlings in Bunnings does not annoy me too much, it iskind of appropriate as Winstanley ended up as an administrator for landed gentry after St Georges Hill got closed down. tho i reckon he was prob glad he survived the keffuffle and subsequent restoration.

  12. A year or two ago, when I lived in the city, a neighbour put a note in the letterbox saying something to the effect of “I have a patch of land I would like to grow veggies on, but it’s too big for just me, would you like to share it?”. She got 15 or so people along, someone organised free horse manure from the racecourse, someone had some black plastic, a few of us had tools to share, and there were a few people who’d never gardened at all. Her block happened to dog leg around a lane, and the communal veggie garden had a separate gate and was shut off from the rest of her property, so she was happy for people to come around and have a look, weed and so on when it suited them. I went, I shared tools, I helped them pull out the waist high weeds and me and the kid went round to check out the progress of the plants during the day fairly frequently. I never expected anything from it other than meeting the neighbours and being able to watch the plants grow. My veggie gardening experience is very social, I have friends who are gardening to suplement their megre scholarships, I’ve met people who garden because they’re retired home owners (ie. cash poor but land rich, relatively) and people who rent and grow everything in old olive oil tins on their balconeys. I love that they’ve got something to talk about with each other.

  13. Kate, your experience, like Zoe’s, suggests community gardens are about a whole lot more than growing veggies: there’s the sociability, the exchange of knowledge and so on.

    Some students have started a community garden at my university campus. They were having a fund-raising stall last week and I approached them and, a bit like Liam’s imagined Catallaxy interlocutor, my stupid first question was how did they decide who gets the produce. The woman looked at me slightly uncomprehendingly, as though that was the least important aspect of the whole endeavour.

  14. Hmmm, at the risk of harshing the communitarian mellow, the kolkhoz collective experiment wasn’t exactly a success…

    From those I know who do have allotments, the sociable side of things is a real attraction – it formally being a collective garden is not really an issue. There’s lots of chat and advising and support while avoiding those ‘special’ produce division moments.

    Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall of River Cottage is leading a campaign to link people with land to people who don’t have land and want to grow their own.
    The National Trust and the Church of England have signed up.

    I look forward to the day in my ‘forever’ house that I have a proper veggie garden and not just a pot of parsely on my cill.

  15. The guy from COGS – just to continue harshing the mellow here – talked about the continuing problem of vandalism and, worse, chook slaughtering. The gardens might have those lovely DIY fences inside, but in Canberra, there’s a whopping great steel mesh one on the perimeter.

  16. That was them Laura. They were selling pieces of a lovely banana and strawberry cake. When I asked the price they said I could pay whatever I felt like. Sheesh, were those kids messing with my head or what?

  17. About your paragraph 12 re. the allotments being separate – yes, but the gardeners still have the opportunity to meet each other, share tools / seeds/ bulbs, there will be much communal experience… but your comment #16 suggests this point has been addressed already.

    The Italian/Greek culture of giving over most of your garden to food production has probably contributed a lot to the popularity of home vegie gardening in Melbourne, where this is very strong even now.

    For me, I have a conflict with a backyard which suffers from harsh Western sunlight. We really need another large shade tree, but of course this conflicts with vegetable growing. My solution has been to focus on fruit trees instead of garden beds, but it’s not going well – the Feb heatwave killed two stone fruit trees (why? It’s so much hotter in Mildura / Swan hill where a lot of stone fruit trees are! WTF is going on?) and we’re in for another El Nino this summer – bleagh.

  18. Helen, our vegie garden and fruit trees are on the west side too and last summer for the first time ever in my gardening life I nearly gave it all up in despair given the weather we endured and lack of rain. This year I am starting to mulch everything in October while the ground is (hopefully) still wet. And I’m not planting summer vegies this year as we will be away for a month and back for the hot end of January – just not worth it. Having said that I’m a great supporter of winter vegie gardens, hardly needs watering, lettuce and spinach don’t bolt, coriander grows into bushes , rainbow silverbeet delicious and pretty etc.
    And cover your fruit trees on the hottest days, even if it looks peculiar. Italian and Greek gardeners don’t seem to worry how unsightly things look, as long as the produce is protected.

  19. And cover your fruit trees on the hottest days, even if it looks peculiar. Italian and Greek gardeners don’t seem to worry how unsightly things look, as long as the produce is protected.

    Absolutely no worries about the appearance Librarygirl. We need protection from fruit bats and possums as well. It was more my slackness (and really, I haven’t had the experience of a heatwave literally burning all the leaves off entire trees at one fell swoop.)

    The Almond olive and Feijoa survived OK – will plant another almond but not this spring because of El Nino. Good point about winter vegies!

  20. Fixed.

    We created a big polypipe and shadecloth shelter for the veggies last summer, and will put it up again this year. Our west-facing veggie garden gets so hammered by day after day of 30+ plus we couldn’t manage otherwise.

  21. Helen the problem for your fruit trees was probably the shock, humans and stone fruit can live in 47 degrees but you and your trees generally don’t, there wasn’t much water and there were really high winds. Try to make sure the shadecloth isn’t actually touching your plants though (tricky with trees) last year anything touching the shadecloth here got irredeemably burnt. You could also try hessian on hot days if you’ve got any, sort of surrounding small trees. Personally, I’d probably plant the shade tree and grow veggies under it. You might have lower productivity in a colder summer, but you’d have shade protection in the hotter summers. It’s not ideal, but you can still grow a lot of tomatoes in shadier spots.

    emica the communitarian mellow probably takes a hit if you’re actually relying on the garden for dinner, or feel like you’ve contributed a lot of time and money and are getting ripped off. If you’re just there for fun it’s easier to ignore someone else taking more than their fair share of the tomatoes.

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