Nature strip gardening such as the Urban Food Street has seen a resurgence in Australia.
Evoking an association of ginger for many people, Buderim today has grown into an urban centre on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. However, in recent years it has also become known in some quarters for a groundbreaking food production initiative known by locals as ‘Urban Food Street.’
Urban Food Street began in 2009, when two neighbours were taken aback by the excessive cost of limes in the shops. Duncan McNaught and Caroline Kemp began by planting lime trees along their street verge, and this later expanded into other citrus. Their project has grown to take in a network of eleven streets, with a focus on the use of nature strips for growing a wide variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruit.
The only neighbourhood food cultivation initiative of its size in Australia, it has about two hundred families involved, and the numbers are growing. Some residents living in the project area are less focused on growing food, but they are encouraged to help in other ways such as watering.
Urban Food Street operates on a collective basis, without a defined structure. As there are no defined committee roles, bureaucracy and egos do not get in the way. Importantly, because it is entirely self-funded, governments cannot shut it down through funding cuts.
With a Queensland subtropical climate, bananas are an important crop, and one street is lined on both sides with banana trees. In 2015, roughly 900kg of bananas were harvested, and 2016 is likely to see this quantity double. The fruit is shared among local residents, who are free to pick anything that they find growing in the neighbourhood.When deciding on which crops to plant, one primary consideration is high yield, with ginger, turmeric, and avocados all chosen for this reason.
Chemical-free growing techniques are used, with a nod to permaculture (a food-growing movement that seeks to mimic natural ecosystems). A high level of plant biodiversity attracts birds that naturally control insect pests. The verge gardeners produce their own mulch, and recently installed a beehive to encourage vegetable pollination.
Health & community benefits
A hands-on project like this offers a wide range of benefits. It encourages a healthy unprocessed diet, tackles obesity, and provides food security. Local residents are connected to where their food comes from, and have an opportunity to get their hands dirty. Community connections are encouraged across the generations, with children regularly joining in. Environmentally, less car trips are required to the store, and if herbs are needed for an evening meal only a short walk is required.
In pursuing nature strip gardening, Buderim has the major advantage of grass growing all the way from gardens to the street edge, in place of kerbs. A swale system naturally slows down water runoff, and soaks it up, where it can be taken up by trees.
Urban Food Street is attracting a lot of attention, and now has more than 27,000 Facebook followers. To replicate Buderim’s model elsewhere requires an existing sense of community together with shared pro-environment values. Cairns in the north of the state is working on its own urban food street plans.
Nature strip gardening has seen a resurgence in Australia, and was the focus of Costa Georgiadis’s On the Verge segment of his Gardening Australia ABC TV show. However, some factors need to be considered before going ahead and planting. Councils that are actively supportive are often located in inner-urban zones and include the City of Sydney, Marrickville (NSW), Fremantle, Vincent (WA), and Subiaco (WA). In 2016, Brisbane changed its policies and is now a verge garden supporter.
Challenges to expansion
Some councils are open to verge gardens, but require obtaining written permission first. Some are in a regulatory limbo, with no stated policy. Others such as Rockhampton and Peppermint Grove in the greater Perth region are opposed to residents taking over the nature strip.
Perhaps the major weak point for a long-term nature strip garden project is that the council may change its policies; Sunshine Coast Council itself was initially supportive, but has very recently taken a harder line, prompted by public liability concerns. It remains to be seen how this issue will be resolved.
Busy streets present a problem for verge gardeners due to toxic diesel particulates and high lead levels dating back to the leaded fuel era. One way to get around soil contamination is via container gardening. The combination of wide roads and noisy traffic also has the detrimental effect of eroding the sense of community that is more evident on narrower quieter streets. However, for roads with a good combination of factors, nature strip gardening is well worth pursuing.
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
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