The movement called “guerrilla gardening” has taken off around the world. It is usually gardening on an unused piece of public land to produce food or to add some beauty to a barren area. Frequently carried out at night to avoid detection, it has sometimes been done as a protest against land misuse or neglect. We tell here a story of turning a piece of private land into a vibrant, productive garden with permission of the owner.

“I love what you people are growing in there with those funny boxes!” and “What are you people doing in there?” are examples of what the local shoppers say as they walk by. “Can I buy that lemon tree? It’s looking good!”, says the frustrated gardener, after launching into a story about the early demise of at least two lemon trees in her backyard, as she speaks through the cyclone wire fence that surrounds the garden at the back of the Corner Deli in suburban Ashburton. “You people are crazy making a garden for the public …………..and not making any money”. “Thank you so much for making a garden and planting the flowers, it changes every time and I smile as I pass”. We, the gardeners, enjoy all the comments of the curious, but one of the most rewarding was, “You are making a garden in the backyard behind the shop I grew up living above. How interesting. How can I help?”

On August 11th, 2012, a group of friends, all keen gardeners, came together over coffee and decided they were in need of a project. Coffee and social events were not enough, we wished to make something tangible, something to provide a focus where friends could work together, be creative and learn from each other, have fun, and then drink coffee, and take home salad and basil for the evening pasta.

We saw a neglected spot that had been a tiny commercial nursery under the canopy of a magnificent river red gum. It had gone into sad disrepair, and its purpose now seemed to be as a dumping ground for large commercial bins. The owners, the marvellous Corner Deli folk, felt it was unviable to use commercially and kindly accepted our request to create and grow a garden. This aligned with their personal social philosophy of fostering a sense of community and being able to forage locally for natural ingredients.

One year later
One year later

We wished to improve their lunchtime experience in a greener backyard and decided to plant herbs, flowers, shrubs and vegetables. Hopefully the Corner Deli people would be able to forage very, very locally!

It can be a challenge to be productive in small urban spaces, but fortunately this one had lots of sun, and we were willing to give it two hours a week each and donate plants and other items from our home gardens! We started by creating a curved bed planted next to the timber fence with Australian natives.

!cid_FE77C64A-D375-4385-8840-83D5222E8A0F@BelkinVegetable gardening commenced with a donated metre square timber frame, and after deciding on a spot, placed layers of home-grown compost, potting soil and manure into it on the very hard pebbly ground. We added a bamboo structure, small climbing tomatoes, basil seedlings, regular watering and crossed our fingers. This experiment worked. Some of our vegetable plantings haven’t though – so we all have learnt a lot about soil health and soil creation! Our latest vegetable and herb growing endeavour is making ten small wicking beds from polystyrene vegetable cartons, black plastic, polypipe, potting soil and manure. The seedlings of herbs and vegetables are flourishing!

We grow everything organically, and usually use seedlings grown in members’ home gardens. Even a $5 compost tumbler from a garage sale has been installed, and now produces fabulous compost – although we have to bring the ingredients in! Occasionally, our social events include visits to the children’s farm in Dandenong in a member’s van to collect horse manure.

!cid_152C5B27-23AE-4275-B4E1-8758E547C3BB@BelkinAnother focus has been re-using materials on site to create garden spaces, paths and containers as well as carefully selecting items found abandoned on nature strips. We have used our artistic and design talents to fashion supports for wicking beds from upturned wooden benches and to make planters for trailing plants such as nasturtiums from hollow concrete bricks. At the bottom of the garden we discovered half buried pavers – no fairies to be seen, but the pavers became a curving walk the length of the garden to be planted with fragrant thyme. A Japanese inspired garden bed with a recycled ‘Tuscan’ style urn has brought life to a neglected, but very public, corner.

!cid_EAF0D76F-9FF6-4522-BD49-BCB3AEDAA05B@BelkinRecycling went one step further when, on a holiday, one of us photographed a sculpture constructed with old gardening tools. Inspired, we decided to start collecting to make our own. We found rusty forks, spades and hand trowels and someone said, “I knew that old gate was for something!” and an idea was born. Designing by committee was a challenge. Once we had a layout, unexpectedly a welder came into our orbit. With one night free before returning to uni, he kindly assembled the sculpture. Our members then added other parts with a hand drill.

Decisions of what to do and how are made collaboratively, and there is a flow of respect for each other’s ideas in our decisions. We meet weekly with email I between. It has turned out to be a good thing for the Corner Deli folk to be able to forage for and use the herbs in their fragrant dishes, and to sit and enjoy the ambience at lunchtime. And, some unusual requests from people can be easily accommodated. “Do you have any organic, Australian-grown fresh thyme?” “Well, yes, we can help you.” Just a minute, a few steps into the garden, and, in no time at all, there it is!

The garden has been going for two years now: two summers to share the watering through and two autumns under the mellow sun watching the ripening tomatoes; and we have many more ideas to put into place. Any garden is an evolving project. Topiary dragons? Vertical fern walls? Amazing assembled seats? This garden brings a bit of joy to all of us directly involved – fun, good rapport with friends. And it may well brighten up the day for a member of the passing public. These days, as we create and nurture the garden we say, “This is sustainable, satisfying, light-hearted and fun; now, is there time for a coffee?