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Growing and learning from your community

Community gardens do more than make use of empty lots, they can be multicultural and inclusive social spaces. Studies have shown that while cities and urbanised areas experience more acute socio-environmental problems, the suburbs with high participation in community gardening are linked to improved health, wellbeing, social and sustainability outcomes1. In short, community gardening is good for the community, the planet, and the soul.

For people like Yousef, gardening is more than a hobby, it's a mode of cultural expression. Having struggled with the move from the Middle East to Australia, Yousef turned to gardening as it reminded him of his home and quality time spent learning to harvest with his father. Driven by a desire to help others like him, Yousef developed a keen interest in different cultures, migration, and people's journeys through resettlement. Since 2009, Yousef has been involved in the Mount Druitt Ethnic Communities Agency (MECA) and has helped refugees, migrants, and youth through a range of community projects, including gardening. 

After rallying with the council to acquire an underused car park, Yousef and the MECA volunteers transformed the space into a lush produce garden. Together, they built the garden with the goal of uniting the broader community; As Yousef says, gardening “unites different people from different backgrounds, it helps people feel that they belong.” 

Throughout his involvement in the MECA garden, Yousef has grown to appreciate the difference gardening can make on the livelihoods of all Australians. Based on his experience with a diverse group of gardeners, Yousef has learnt many valuable lessons and has shared his top five favourites. 

Plant produce from different cultures

Australia is a melting pot of different cultures, religions, and stories. It’s incredibly rewarding when you incorporate the gardening influences of other cultures, Yousef believes a community garden must "reflect the multicultural community and diversity of Australia."

When choosing what to plant, speak to your local nursery about which exotic fruit and vegetables are suitable for your garden’s climate. For example, Yousef’s community garden grows Armenian cucumbers, Mexican chillies, curry plants and various herbs. Through this great range of produce, the MECA gardeners feel closer to their cultural roots and can introduce their peers to an authentic style of cooking from their home countries.

Work with nature, not against it.

When gardening, it’s always important to consider sustainability. The environmental movement of permaculture is guided by sustainability, using natural ecosystems, and reusing energy in several ways. For example, purchasing protective mesh will help prevent hail damage to your plants, while also collecting rainwater and reducing water waste. Yousef also recommends maintaining a large compost bin, growing your own seeds, and placing sugar cane near your garden beds to attract snails away from your vegetables

Not only is sustainable and organic gardening great for the environment, but it also improves the quality of your fresh produce. The fruit you would purchase from the supermarket is treated with pesticides to prevent bruising and stimulate growth. However, when your edibles are grown organically, they will keep for longer as they don’t require transportation. Yousef explains how when you “buy from the shops, fruit will stay fresh for maybe a week, but when you pick it yourself, fruit tends to stay fresh for three or four weeks because it's organic”. 

Know Your Tomato Variety

​​Yousef believes many gardeners choose not to grow tomatoes as they take time to grow their fruit, yet patience is rewarded as tomatoes can produce a plentiful harvest.

The first step is to select your variety of tomatoes.  Each variety will produce its fruit at different times depending on the surrounding climate. Cooler climates with shorter summer periods suit varieties including cherry and yellow tomatoes, whereas warmer climates are optimal for heirloom varieties. Another consideration is what you intend to do with your harvest. For example, Roma tomatoes are brilliant for purees as they are full of flavoursome juice whereas cherry tomatoes are an easy add to fresh salads.

The MECA community garden boasts a huge range of tomatoes used frequently across many multicultural dishes such as Fattoush and Tabouli. The garden now has over 15 different varieties including Black Russian & Grosse Lisse tomatoes and shows no sign of slowing down.

Learn how to Graft

Known as tree surgery, grafting is the process of taking a piece of an existing tree and attaching it to a receptive root to form a new tree. An Afghani friend and fellow gardener taught Yousef the art of grafting where he successfully grew a citrus tree from two separate branches. One of the branches produced limes and the other oranges. However, there are limits to what you can graft. The two branches must be from the same species as Yousef shares, “you can’t have a lemon and plant it in a fig tree!”

To start grafting, ensure your rootstock is suited to your area's climate and soil. Rootstocks can be bought from specialist nurseries, or you can grow them yourself from seed. Make sure to take the root, chop it with a knife to create a V-shaped wedge then bind the split rootstocks together with high-quality grafting tape. Yousef applies honey to the joint to stop the branches from drying. Not only does honey have antibacterial properties, but it’s also a great energy source for helping your grafted roots grow strong . With water, honey and sunlight, the tissues of both trees will come together… just like surgery!

Learn from your community and get involved

Yousef encourages participation in community gardens as they provide many benefits to your gardening skills and community. Being involved in community gardens provides you with access to fresh and diverse foods groups you may not have considered for your own garden. It also helps boost the urban ecosystem, improve air quality and reduce neighbourhood waste through composting.

However, you can’t experience the benefits of community gardening if the community aren’t willing to get their hands dirty with you. Whether it’s local retirees, multicultural communities, religious groups, or schools, the most important element for all parties involved is to collaborate and learn from each other. As Yousef believes “in order to grow anything, you must love what you are doing".

Community gardens across Australia are sustainable, social and unite people from all walks of life. By collaborating with gardeners of different nationalities, you’re helping build a culture of inclusivity while also gaining influence to apply to your own garden. Watch Yousef's story and see how you too can learn from others and grow fresh produce of your own. 

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1 “You feel like you’re part of something bigger”: exploring motivations for community garden participation in Melbourne, Australia | bmcpublichealth

2 9 Interesting Uses for Honey in Your Garden |

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