Thursday, January 21, 2016

The other MCG: Milson Community Garden

One of six stories behind the 'In the Garden' interviews from the 2015-16 Summer Series of Talking Plants on ABC Radio National (copied from ABC RN homepage).

The other MCG: Milson Community Garden

Wednesday 6 January 2016 2:10PM
Tim Entwisle
Though it's not as famous as its Melbourne namesake, the Milson Community Garden in the northern Sydney suburb of Kirribilli provides its volunteer gardeners with a place to interact with nature and get out of the house. Tim Entwislereports from a veggie patch with a view.
A few years ago we sold our family home and bought a small apartment on the more modest side of Kirribilli, an otherwise well-to-do suburb jutting into Sydney Harbour near that famous bridge. When we visit Sydney we walk to a small park nearby, Milson Park, on the waterfront.
[It's a place to] drift, muse, think about plants, or simply look at the sky and clouds.
This 100-year-old park has beautifully lush lawns all year round, a small cluster of tall cotton palms, a couple of stately Moreton Bay figs and some lovely old frangipanis. But what has always intrigued me is the small vegetable plot on the sunny side of the park.
Granted, it's as neatly manicured as the rest of the park, but how and why is it there?
I visited on a Sunday morning, when a dozen or so volunteers—and their eager children—were hard at work watering, weeding and picking. It was a typical day in the Milson Community Garden, or MCG (a sacrilegious acronym in Melbourne but here either cheeky or oblivious, I'm not sure which). 
Six years ago a group of dog walkers met and mused about establishing a community garden in the area, daring to suggest it could become a part of this popular municipal park. To kick things off they planted herbs in some of the garden beds to see what local interest they could generate—today we'd call it guerrilla gardening.
They attracted interest all right, but from the council gardeners, who promptly removed these weedy plantings. The dog walkers replanted, the gardeners re-weeded. And so on.
To break the impasse, the fledgling community garden group approached the then mayor of North Sydney, Genia McCaffery, who responded enthusiastically. She and her fellow councillors suggested they put in a submission and, well, there is now a community garden in Milson Park.
As befits a garden in such a prestigious location, the design is very formal, almost medieval. There are also practical considerations. Beds are raised high to make it easier for the more mature volunteers to tend the garden—no bending and back straining here.
The plantings include the usual suspects—tomatoes, beans, lettuce and common herbs—along with a selection of exotic and heirloom varieties. It seems there is a strong Japanese influence, led perhaps by Yumi Sakauchi, the garden's operation coordinator.
One of the highlights on my visit was a small purple shrub called shiso (Perilla frutescens). Its leaves, green or purple, are used as a salad or sashimi garnish and as a flavouring for pickled plums (umeboshi).
Alongside the Asian greens (and purples), are heirloom varieties of more common vegetables, such as the impressive tromboncino, a type of zucchini that looks like its musical instrument namesake. Like your regular zucchini, the fruit is better eaten when young and small (Sakauchi does recall a 60 centimetre long tromboncino that was quite edible, but not in one sitting).
There are lots of pretty flowers as well, some deliberate companion plantings to discourage pest insects or, in the case of purple flowered plants, to attract bees. Others appear spontaneously from windblown seed or in fresh compost, and if they are pretty enough they stay.
I asked Sakauchi whether everyone has their own patch within the garden, as is the case with London allotments. The answer is no. Here everyone contributes to a common harvest and the work and produce are shared more or less equally. At the end of today's session—a sticky Sydney summer day—the ripe fruit or vegetables will be shared among everyone who's there at the end. Supporters can pick any herbs or leaves they want during the week.
The gate is always open, so some uninvited harvesting is inevitable. Thankfully, though, most visitors respect that volunteers are running this garden and the produce is part of their reward.
The other big attraction for volunteers is simply the chance to spend time outdoors, with friends and among plants. Bruce, a regular for four years, lives in unit without a garden. He says it's innate to want to grow things, and a few pot plants on the balcony are not enough.  
For Bruce, and for Sakauchi, the MCG is a place for interacting with nature in the middle of a vibrant city. As Bruce puts it, '[It's a place to] drift, muse, think about plants, or simply look at the sky and clouds.'

A gardening show with a twist. Talking Plants is a witty and at times provocative discussion show on all things botanical.

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