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project introduction

Case Study #5

Fern Avenue, Unley, Adelaide

A nourishing community garden

Set in Adelaide’s dense inner city is a garden with a difference.  At Fern Tree Community garden, not only are fruits and vegetables grown organically but the garden serves an important social role. 

The garden has an interesting recorded history.  It’s located on the site of the former Fullarton Jam Factory and orchards whose operation was scaled down in the 1920s.  The orchard, three miles from Adelaide’s centre once covered 10 acres of a 29 acre property.  Trees planted in the mid 1880s included oranges, apricots, peaches and plums.  The best fruit was sold in a retail outlet in Adelaide’s centre, whilst inferior or overripe fruit was turned into jams and preserves. 

On this site, which is a little over 2200 square metres (around three Canberra house block sizes) there are 30 different vegetable plots.  One area is set aside as a demonstration plot showcasing vegetable, flower and fruit cultivation.  A small orchard was established to demonstrate how it’s possible to grow fruit trees in small urban areas.  Three different space saving methods are demonstrated.

The first method is espalier, where branches are trained against wires or a wall.  This reduces the size of the plant and makes them easier to maintain, to pick fruit and protect from hungry birds.  Some trees demonstrate multi-grafting, such as grafting different apple varieties on one tree.  The least technical method is to plant a number of fruit trees in one hole.  This acts to dwarf the trees, and allows a variety of fruits to be produced at different times of the year, in a small space.

As well as edible foods, there is a chicken coop, composting and an area devoted to plants used by local aboriginal tribes. Plants commonly known as Grass Trees (Xanthorrea species) were used by many aboriginal groups throughout Australia.  For the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains, Xanthorrea semiplana served multiple functions.  It was used for food, weapons and tools.  Sweet nectar was collected from the flower spikes whilst the soft bases of leaves also provided food.  Some people even grubbed out the roots around the base of the trunk as a food source.  Stalks from old flowers were used as tinder in making fires and resin was collected from the bases of leaves and used as an adhesive.

The centrepiece of Fern Avenue Community garden is a community centre.  The building was constructed by volunteer labour using straw bales that were then rendered.  A range of community activities are held in this structure.  It is powered by solar cells and for convenience a composting toilet has been added to the site. 


So while the main focus at Fern Avenue, is on individual plot holders growing vegetables, herbs and fruit for consumption at home, it also forms a number of other beneficial roles.

An initiative Seeds for Health, was established to train cancer sufferers with skills to produce their own organic produce and thus take and active role in their healing.  The Adelaide Cancer Centre runs the eight week program.  The course has additional benefits such as reducing stress and anxiety of participants, greater independence and a sense of achievement.

Five years ago two local women were horrified at the number of established plants being destroyed when older homes were demolished to make way for new development.  They started Unley Plant Rescue project.  Plants which would otherwise be killed by an excavator or bob cat were dug up, potted, watered and basically loved.  As the women got older they were no longer physically capable of removing all the plants.  So they requested that the plants be delivered to them. Any uncommon plants are propagated. These plants are then sold on to raise money for worthwhile causes, the latest being the Flying Doctor Service.  The group meets every second week at the garden, to continue their work.

Fern Avenue has become an intrinsic part of the local community. Volunteers gather excess produce which is then cooked and delivered to people who are unable to leave their homes. 

Like CERES, members of the community have contributed to art work.  A mosaic fixed to the paling fence hails the community garden and historic site.  With the help of an artist, people with brain injuries and other disabilities helped put the mosaic together. 

So while in Canberra we have a number of large community gardens run through the Canberra Organic Growers Society many of them are in isolated places, like the Mitchell garden.  Their geographic location means they are less likely to become embedded into the everyday life of the community, unlike the Fern Avenue garden.

Horticultural therapy has proven benefits.  In order to get people out into their communities and away from a sedentary lifestyle, small scale community garden plots could be created within Canberra’s urban and suburban infrastructure. Many of the former school sites have vacant land which could be set aside for community growing plots and community centres.  Plots should be easy to access, easy to maintain and can help play a role in creating a healthy and socially supportive community. 

As food and petrol prices continue to skyrocket, embedding community gardens within the existing built fabric will help create a more resilient society. 


The Australian Community Gardens Network
American Community Gardening Association

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