Many of us see gardening as merely watering the pot plants or keeping the backyard tidy but lately there has been a growing groundswell of support for gardening to become focused on food production.
Community gardening, school and kitchen gardens, permaculture and guerrilla gardening are the latest trend, helped along by celebrity chefs like “The Blue Ducks” who are spreading the word about how easy it is to grow and harvest food in your own backyard – even when that backyard is the back of a commercial kitchen in suburban Sydney!
Of course, growing fruit and vegetables in your backyard is by no means a new concept and many of you will be saying “I’ve done it for years, so what’s changed”?
Well for you, maybe not much. But for the broader community, which is being engulfed by an obesity epidemic, depression and anxiety, there is clear evidence that it’s time for a rethink about food production and our eating habits.
Our reliance on mass-produced food is becoming a health hazard and studies are now showing that food gardening is not just “nice to do” but essential.
Joshua Zeunert, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide’s School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, says we are moving towards a “potential crisis in food production” and has called for a complete rethink of our food production and supply.
- In 2004, Australia threw away $5.3 billion of food and 25-50 per cent of fresh produce is still currently discarded for not meeting the generic size, weight and cosmetic demands of supply chains.
- Half of the world’s population currently survives on the extra calories produced from synthetic nitrogen, a by-product of natural gas with the additional unpleasant side effect of acidifying the soil.
- Australia’s population is largely concentrated in urban centres, yet our agriculture takes place in the rural fringe – despite some of the best agricultural land existing within cities themselves (the Melbourne and Adelaide plains and the Sydney basin are three such examples).
- Forty per cent of Australia’s food is currently produced in the Murray-Darling basin which is under tremendous pressure due to water scarcity and politics surrounding mismanagement.
In the face of this growing crisis, Zeunert says the answer is to radically change the way we look at urban design and incorporate edible landscapes into all of our public spaces. That includes your local park, your own backyard and the nature strip outside your house!
There has been some evidence to support this theory and in the US there are whole communities that have embraced the philosophy of edible landscapes.
The emergence of community gardening in these communities has also been linked to improvements in well-being and health.
A new study in the US recently found that people who participate in community gardening are more likely to be in a healthy weight range than people from comparable backgrounds who are not involved with community gardens.
Crikey blogger Melissa Sweet writes that it is a well-known fact that community gardens provide many benefits to active participants. These include opportunities to relax, undertake physical activity, socialise and mix with neighbours. Then there are the benefits of sharing across culturally different backgrounds and religions, learning about horticulture and sustainable environmental practices and, of course, producing low-cost fresh food for a healthy diet.
“When you add in the findings of this research, which has demonstrated a considerable difference in BMI of gardeners compared with other community groups, community garden integration in our local suburbs seems to be what one of my younger colleagues described as “a no brainer”,” Sweet says.
Back in Australia, our community garden movement is swelling. The peak body for information has traditionally been communitygardens.org.au but at the time of writing this article, their website has been so popular, they’ve exceeded their bandwidth for the month!
In Sydney alone there are 18 community gardens and three footpath gardens, in Brisbane there are 34 , in Melbourne there are more than 36 and in Adelaide there are over 50 community gardens (click on your city to find out more).
Community gardens are doing a fabulous job of creating space for dedicated food production and at the same time creating tight-knit communities – which in turn leads to health benefits in the form of making friends, participating in healthy outdoor exercise and having a sense of a achievement and connection.
But, of course, you don’t have to be in a community garden to grow your own food.
By starting your own edible garden in your backyard, courtyard or on your balcony, you too can reap the rewards of living healthier!
There are some fabulous resources to help you get started, including:
Sustainable Gardening Australia – sends out monthly updates with tips and tricks on how to get your garden to grow.
Gardening Australia Edible Garden – videos and fact sheets on how to grow your own edible garden.
Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – find out more about the growing trend for school gardens and start a kitchen garden at your school.
Australian City Farms and Garden Network – when this website comes back online, it’s the go-to resource for community gardening in Australia.
Also click here to see a video from Australia’s pre-eminent garden designer Paul Bangay about food gardening and kids.