In a little mountain community in northeast New South Wales (Australia), a new community garden has sprung up these past few months – complete with a specially designed seat that’s part of a statewide food waste reduction experiment.
It’s all thanks to a group of local go-getters who wanted their small Nundle township to have better access to fresh veggies, local seeds, composting and knowledge sharing.
The garden spreads across what was once 400m2 of lawn between the local library and council depot, on a bit of land owned by the Tamworth Regional Council.
Its formation began when the local Upper Peel Landcare Group got back together with a few new faces – folks who “have a passion for sustainability and practical solutions”, says Rachel Webster. She’s one of the key instigators, and got thinking about all this while studying our Permaculture Living course. Cool, huh?
So – the group managed to secure two grants totaling $10,000, from the Tamworth Regional Landcare Association and Tamworth Regional Council, and with that, they were off.
We spoke with Rachel and fellow organiser Karlee Burgess about how they made the garden happen, and what this new garden space means for their somewhat isolated community…
Hello to you both! So, this garden actually grew out of a local seed library?
Rachel: Yes! I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of having shared community spaces to grow food. Then Karlee made the suggestion that a community garden would work well with the existing seed library…
Karlee: The Nundle Library has a Seed Library, which is actually part of the Central Northern Regional Libraries (CNRL) seed network. The seeds are distributed to a number of participating library branches across the state.
Though CNRL does get donations from kind gardeners, a lot of our seeds are from commercial suppliers. This is an expense, and in the era of economic rationalism, libraries are not exactly awash with money. But such a visionary project has the capacity to really help. In some of these communities, the means to grow free food could be game-changing.
So the question in my mind was how to cut the cost, but continue to expand the service.
I love permaculture and veggie growing, so when I came to work at Nundle Library it seemed like a no-brainer to have a community food garden supplying a portion of seeds to the network as one of its many uses. And of course, we can raise seeds to supply the garden.
So, Rachel and the rest of our amazing team of Upper Peel Landcare volunteers, CNRL and Tamworth Regional Council have developed this partnership.
Tell us about your community composting strategy, collecting food waste from cafes. And what the heck is a Cool Seat?!
Rachel: I’m so glad you asked! It wasn’t planned, but the Cool Seat has become a focal point in our garden.
When planning our garden opening event, we wanted to a well-known keynote speaker. Michael Mobbs immediately came to mind – he has driven the suburb-wide transformation of Chippendale in Sydney, which includes edible gardens on the road verges and a community composting system. Michael suggested we might be able to install a Cool Seat at our opening event.
The Cool Seat is essentially a compost bin that sits within a self-watering wicking garden bed. The compost bin is embedded in the centre of the raised garden bed and is topped with a lid that becomes a bench that you sit on.
The design is such that the decomposing food is completely odorless. So you can happily sit on the bench, eating your lunch, maybe adding a few herbs from the garden that surrounds you. If you have any leftovers you can lift the bench/lid, pop them into the compost bin and the food waste will then be turned into wonderful compost and essential nutrients for the plants in the garden, thanks to the effort of 1000s of worms. It’s genius!
There are several of these Cool Seats around New South Wales including in Orange, Bathurst, Chippendale and now in Nundle.
The goal is to reduce food waste from local cafes. For every 1kg of food waste that is recycled, CO2 emissions are reduced by 3kg. We recycle about 20kg of food waste from two Nundle cafes and a guest house every week.
The amount of waste that is collected is recorded and this is forming data to help paint a better picture of the amount of food that is wasted from cafes. As Australia is one of the Top 3 countries in the world in terms of emissions from food waste, this is a great strategy and I’m so proud of our local businesses for being involved.
Sounds awesome. And you had quite a crew turn up to the official garden opening in June this year?
Rachel: Our opening event, called the ‘Winter Solstice and Garden Launch Lunch’, captured the spirit of this garden entirely. About 60 people from our region came together to listen to local music, learn, become inspired, swap stories and share fresh, locally grown and prepared food.
It was important to us that our garden opening was a celebration of not only community and growing food but of our connection as humans to the seasons and to nature as a living, breathing being.
It was a gentle, joyful day with children running and playing, music and laughter floating across our village, and people swapping food and produce that they had grown.
It’s heart-warming to see how bringing a diverse group of people together can be the seed that fosters all kinds of connections and sustainability outcomes.
What types of food are you growing in your little mountain garden?
Rachel: To start with, we put in the usual winter greens – spinach, rocket, pak choy plus some herbs, chives, onions, shallots and a lemon tree.
The climate of Nundle is similar to Tasmania in that it gets very cold up here in these mountains. The winter growing season in Nundle is quite challenging and I myself am still mastering the timing of planting. Unfortunately, we were just a little bit late to catch the early autumn planting, so the seedlings we put in have been a bit slow to take off.
One of the most important things I learned in the Permaculture Living Course was about observing your environment. Trial and error is an important aspect of gardening, but sitting back and observing the movement of the sun, studying the flow of water through the landscape, all of the subtle cycles in nature, can save time in the long run.
We will certainly know this for next year based on what we have observed in our garden over this winter season.
We are limited to raised garden beds due to existing underground infrastructure, but we will keep adding more beds as we go. At the moment we have about six raised beds including our Cool Seat garden bed.
Nundle’s a small town in a regional area, so folks have to drive a bit to access fresh food – is your garden something of an antidote to that?
Rachel: Yes, Nundle is located 50 minutes from the closest regional centre of Tamworth, so growing food here is a logical solution to minimise both the cost and hassle of travelling into town to buy fruit and veggies.
We don’t expect to feed the whole of Nundle from our garden but we hope to inspire and encourage people to grow their own food – because it’s a critical step in solving many issues, such as energy costs due to broadscale food production and transport.
The keen gardeners in Nundle have so much knowledge to share and we must pass this on to our next generation. I personally have gained some great little tricks around growing food more effectively in this climate from a friend who has lived here for a long time and is in her 80s. This kind of knowledge is priceless and is a key to growing food successfully.
Plus, finding excuses to bring people together and support one another, especially in times of hardship, is essential in small and isolated communities. Rather than focusing on our differences, when we come together in celebration of food, arts, innovation and knowledge, we can turn our mindset from negativity to one of positivity and hope.
Building relationships and sharing ideas is so powerful. Already our group is planning some bigger projects, such as a community solar project and a fuel recharging station for electric vehicles.
We *love* that you were studying Permaculture Living as you created the community garden. Did our course influence your decision-making in any way?
Rachel: I started the Permaculture Living course during the first lockdown in 2020 and it was such a time of inward reflection. Yet this was beautifully complemented by being reminded to look up, look around and observe what is happening in nature.
The first permaculture principle – ‘observe and interact’ – has been the most powerful one for me personally and certainly a huge motivator in helping to establish this garden.
Less time locked to a screen broadened my world and enabled me to reevaluate how I could make a meaningful contribution to the world. It quickly became clear that this endeavour is not something to do alone. A little SWOT analysis helped me to recognise that one of the strengths of our mountain community is that there are many highly resourceful people with amazing skills in making a lot out of not much.
‘Capturing and storing energy’ is the second permaculture principle and in our community this is particularly relevant in the area of knowledge and skills around gardening and preserving food. In the country, people are often more isolated and so there is much more of a necessity to store your food and make the most of whatever is in season.
Creating a central place in Nundle village to share these skills, whether it was in pickling, making jam or relish, seemed like an opportunity just waiting to be realised.
Have you faced many challenges in setting this all up?
Rachel: It’s been tricky to navigate the endless red tape when working with a government body (the regional council), but individual staff members linked to Nundle itself have been very supportive.
Fear of judgment is also a challenge for a new project in a small community. Our little village has many different community groups which all have a critical role to play to keep our community a healthy and productive one. The challenge is to maintain the relationships between all of these groups and to ensure that everyone is feeling empowered by growth rather than feeling threatened by change.
In the current climate where the world has gone a little bit mad with the thirst for money and power, it seems ever more important that little communities such as ours continue to work together and build strength and resilience.
As permaculture teaches, humans are just one small part of an entire ecosystem and I think we often forget that.
What’s been the best bit about your community garden so far?
Rachel: So many connections have grown out of our opening event and the garden itself – and we are full of excitement for the future.
Our little garden may be small but we are cultivating change on a much larger scale.
I like to imagine that, just like the mycelium that lives, breathes, and weaves its tiny threads through the soil beneath our feet, this garden is sending out tendrils of love and hope for a better future.
What a beautiful thought. Anything else you’d like to add?
Rachel: We’d love to express our gratitude to Milkwood for your inspiration to become active participants in the quest to live more at one with our planet.
Megan (a member of our Landcare Group) and I, completed the Permaculture Living course last year and it was absolutely transformative and definitely a catalyst for growth and change.
Thanks for your positive leadership in the world of permaculture, for reminding us to slow down, to cherish all that nature provides and to find joy in the equally simple and invigorating act of gardening.
Aw, aren’t they just the loveliest? If you’d like to follow this ace little group as they continue to grow this project, check out the Nundle Community Garden on Instagram.
Here’s some resources Rachel gave us, which inspired her and the Nundle Community Garden team:
- Michael Mobbs’ website – which has full details of how he renovated his inner-city Sydney terrace to make it almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy, water and waste disposal.
- Sustainable House by Michael Mobbs (book).
- Sustainable Food by Michael Mobbs (book).
- Life Uncontained – a YouTube channel about a couple building and living in an off-grid home.
- Mary’s Nest – an American YouTube channel with tips and recipes for home cooking, fermenting and more.
- Self-sufficient Me – a YouTube channel full of gardening tips by Mark, a great character who lives in Northern NSW.
- Milkwood’s Permaculture Living course – yep, our self-paced online course to skill you up and get you living with intention.
The Cool Seat mentioned above is essentially an in-garden worm farm, with a seat on top! If you want to build your own:
- Here’s a video about the Nundle Community Garden version
- Here’s our Beginner’s Guide to Worm Farms which includes a DIY in-garden worm tower (smaller version of same concept)
- Here’s an in-garden worm farm we built into a wicking bed in Alice Springs (back in 2010!)
- And here’s an off-the-shelf version you can buy – the Australian made Subpod
About the author: Koren Helbig is a storyteller, urban permaculturalist, Marketing Manager here at Milkwood, and keeper of The Local Yum, an Adelaide (Kaurna land) city honesty stall full of homegrown produce.
Photography: Thanks to Sally Alden Photography for the lovely photos featured in this article.
We acknowledge that permaculture owes the roots of its theory and practice to traditional and Indigenous knowledges, from all over the world. We all stand on the shoulders of many ancestors – as we learn, and re-learn, these skills and concepts. We pay our deepest respects and give our heartfelt thanks to these knowledge-keepers, both past and present.