One Hawthorn resident has rigged up a plastic greenhouse in his backyard to propagate manna gums that he surreptitiously plants in nearby open (read, too open) public land. Over in Brunswick, locals are digging up slabs of footpath and planting olives.
In Caulfield, someone’s cultivating the strip alongside the rail tracks, while another gardener in the city is making public planters out of discarded televisions and toasters.
Just as English gardening writer Tim Richardson established this year’s Chelsea Fringe as a way of highlighting that gardening in Britain is no longer a backyard pursuit alone, gardeners in Melbourne are increasingly turning the soil outside their fenceline.
While such activity largely stems from locals taking it upon themselves to lay claim to neglected, underutilised land, councils are increasingly getting in on the act.
Last year, the City of Yarra adopted guidelines for ”urban agriculture activities” – steps to be considered (location, liaison with neighbours, plant selection) by those wanting to grow food in public places with the council’s support.
Similarly, the City of Melbourne recently drew up a ”draft street gardens policy” for community-operated gardens on nature strips, footpaths, median strips and the like. Last month it produced the booklet, Sustainable Gardening in the City of Melbourne, which includes a section on planting in laneways ”for those that have limited space”.
And then – moving into actual gardens now – the council has just unveiled a community garden at Docklands, an area not known for its verdant spaces.
This highly designed expanse of raised beds, running water, seating and a barbecue – a joint initiative between the City of Melbourne and Places Victoria – shows just what can be achieved, no matter the cranes and high-rises, in this still-developing locale.
But while the garden came ready-planted with citrus trees and herbs, there are still plenty of spare (mulched) beds, suggesting it is yet to be embraced by the flat-dwellers surrounding it.
City of Melbourne urban landscapes manager Ian Shears says he is confident the gardeners will come and that the important thing – with this and other initiatives – is to encourage wider community involvement.
”People are rethinking what makes a city liveable,” Shears says. ”There is an increased understanding of the benefits (environmental, social, health and economic) of greening and, as we become increasingly urbanised, more people are wanting to interact with nature. This has happened over a relatively short period of time – 10 years ago we wouldn’t have even been having this conversation.”
Thirty years ago in New York, though, one Adam Purple was bucking the system by transforming five vacant city-owned lots into an elaborate arrangement of fruit trees and flowers. He had concentric rings of garden beds that – with his constant attention – managed to be both elegant and vigorous. In 1986, the entire creation was bulldozed and replaced with apartment buildings.
The ambition (not to mention lingering notoriety) of his garden still serves to highlight what has long been achieved when residents engage with the idea of ”greening” (council-approved or not).
Residents such as Sam Steenholdt (aka La Pok), who has taken it upon himself to plant such unlikely spots as a graffiti-covered wall in Little Latrobe Street (he installed a discarded printer brimming with succulents) and the corner of Degraves Street and Flinders Lane (he suspended a toaster popping cacti).
Steenholdt says he doesn’t consider himself a guerilla gardener so much as a ”street artist who uses vegetation as his medium”. Like Shears, he says he wants to inspire others to ”actively green our city”. His aim is to highlight the strange places that plants are able to grow and gardens exist.
It seems to be working, with such experimental forays now occurring in our private gardens as well. Paul Hyland, who runs the Glasshaus nursery in Richmond, says people are increasingly planting in spots not previously considered for growing – on high-rise balconies, for instance, or in garden beds that bolt to walls.
But as British academic George McKay tells it, everyday gardening life has never just been ”patio, barbecue, white picket fence, topiary, herbaceous border”. In his Radical Gardening, published last year, McKay argues that gardens have always embodied some of ”society’s most pressing problems and solutions”.
Politics, social activism, and the counterculture generally, he says, have all fed into gardening.
”Though a slow culture, the garden is not fixed, and can change remarkably,” he writes. ”I am not thinking season-by-season … I am thinking about its ideology.”