It’s 2 years since we started transforming a bare patch of city rooftop into an award-winning, thriving community garden space. Now seems like a good time to look back at what worked, what didn’t and what’s growing now.
The 107 rooftop garden, incase you haven’t seen it, is a 140m2 patch of rooftop in inner Sydney. It’s lined by a curvy set of garden beds with seating on the brims, made from waste brick fragments and topped by wooden seats from our old sheepyards in Mudgee.
The garden is planted with a myriad of mostly perennial herbs, and has a grove of willows that provide cooling shade, weaving materials and mulch. There’s an aquaponics system, shiitake mushroom logs, worm farms, vertical gardens, a pond and a native beehive. The cafe downstairs comes up regularly to harvest herbs for their menu and flowers for their tables. It’s a much-loved space, created for the community
Of course, like any community garden, the story of the 107 rooftop garden started long before the installation period.
In summary, in 2013 City of Sydney tendered for the top level of 107 Redfern Street, and 107 Projects, a community arts organisation who had been doing great things with the downstairs area already, got the gig to run the upstairs space. We offered to build a garden in the upstairs outdoor rooftop area for 107 Projects, they said yay, and off we went.
Designing the Garden
To design this space we collaborated with Jennie + Chris from Fresh Landscapes, a clever landscape architect crew with lots of experience in designing effective and award-winning multi purpose gardens – here’s their design notebook from the build.
There was a lot of needs and goals to consider, like what 107 Projects wanted to use the space for (events for up to 50 people, open central space outdoor cinema and so on) and what we wanted the space to be (permaculture learn-scape, workshop space, demonstration garden, food garden, pollinator habitat, community green space).
And then there was what we could and couldn’t do from the City of Sydney’s perspective. Roof loadings, drainage and so on.
As a result, the eventual design looked like the above.
We were all pretty happy with the outcome. We got the education outcomes, gardens + shade areas we wanted to build, 107 Projects got their open central space for large groups, and the city council got a design that ensured their engineers report requirements were met.
Yes, it was a slightly tangled process, but we got there in the end. And guess what? Fresh Landscapes just won two gold and one silver awards for this garden’s design! Whoohoo.
Anyway – we ran a crowdfunding campaign to help with the installation costs and absorbed the rest (ie the majority) of the installation costs with Milkwood’s cashflow. Somehow. Now it was time to build it all!
We went ahead and started building the gabion garden bed walls, taking care to lay down protection for the roof’s waterproof membrane beneath. It took a lot of rocks. Or waste bricks, actually.
While labour intensive, we were happy with this wall building method. It used 90% waste materials to build and resulted in a super sturdy wall/seat arrangement that would definitely stand up to the wear and tear of events, kids, and whatever else for many, many years to come. All while looking great.
We topped the gabions with the weathered redbox boards we’d saved from the sheepyards at our old family farm out Mudgee way. A sturdy seat with lots of memories in each board.
We designed the willow grove to add instant green + shade to the space in a super cost-efficient way. Big trees cost big money in Sydney. Willow bough cuttings, however, cost nothing, if you’ve got the right friends and a ute.
We planted the willows in barrels of water so they would grow green and remain happy and healthy, while also pumping water (via transpiration) in the space to cool it on a hot summer’s day. And lose their leaves in Winter to create more sunny nooks.
Then it was time for the soil, to fill those garden beds. Oh my goodness – that soil.
Getting 5 tonnes of soil from Redfern Street up to the roof at the back of the building turned out to be a bit tricky. Cranes weren’t an option (and we couldn’t afford it anyway). So we went in the front door. With multiple truckloads of soil, 50 fantastic helpers, and a whole lot of buckets.
The soil up top day will stay with me forever. We had four hours to complete the job, and no idea if we could do it in time. But out of the woodwork came 50 amazing Sydneysiders who spent their early Saturday morning shovelling, passing, carrying and emptying. They didn’t stop until it was all done.
And we somehow did it, with time to spare. What a pack of legends.
Following the arrival of the soil we held planting days, decked out the gardens with irrigation (thanks, Urban Growers!), installed vertical gardens on the southern wall, and built a DIY bathtub aquaponics system.
We also installed a bunch of wicking bed micro forest gardens in some big planters, that could move around with a pallet trolley, which were designed to provide mobile shade solutions around the space as needed.
By the end of the 107 rooftop garden’s first summer, there were native bees buzzing in their hive in a shady corner, shiitake mushrooms poking their heads up out of the logs, herbs to spare for anyone who wanted them and plenty of pollinators buzzing about and making sure we had tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums to share.
Since that heady Spring of installation in 2014, the 107 Rooftop Garden has shifted, grown, settled and bloomed.
We filled the space for yearly Passata days, and community garden bees, and courses. Others held summer lunches with chefs gathering from the garden, and parties and events big and small.
The garden has remained green throughout. Sometimes with more veg and sometimes with less. But always with herbs, shade, bees, fish and a sunny + a quiet spot to sit and enjoy nature in the middle of the city.
A lot has changed at our end since this garden was dreamt up – we moved Milkwood from our family farm in Mudgee to the south coast of NSW. More recently we’re working between Melliodora near Daylesford in Victoria, and Sydney.
Gardens, family plans, schools and states have changed for us in that time, but the 107 rooftop garden has stayed green and good throughout, with all the bees a-buzzing in the basil.
Where to from here? The fabulous Heather McCabe who runs the Sydney end of Milkwood is also the 107 Rooftop Garden manager.
If you live near Redfern and think that volunteering in the garden (all the mint and parsley you can eat! Plus strawberries, sometimes) could fit into your week, get in touch here.
If you would like to hold your own special event in this garden, you’ll be supporting 107 Projects by doing so – get in touch with them to have a chat.
A huge thank you to everyone who has contributed to this garden’s first two years – whether with online donations, hands in the dirt, gear, advice, or by attending one of our Milkwood workshops (which has funded the garden these last two years). Thank you from the rooftop of our hearts!
May the next two years be as full of mint and sunshine as these last two have been. If you want to read all the how-tos, here’s the full history of the 107 Rooftop Garden.
Do you dream of designing community gardens or turing unused city space into food systems? Our next Permaculture Design Certificate is coming up this Autumn – it’s 2 weeks of awesome + intensive permaculture design training. More info here…