Co-Greening the Suburbs
Pt 1: taking over the footpath
Walking along a busy road, deep in the south-east suburbs of Melbourne, I was instantly drawn to the smell of rosemary bushes heating in the sun, and white butterflies hovering over beds of flowers. For a moment, you forget about the noise and congestion of the road behind you. I am looking at an established garden, which cleverly utilises every bit of communal space in the entry way to an apartment block. This is the hard work of self-taught gardeners, Keith and Clare, who moved into the building five years earlier. After establishing a significant garden in the yard of their ground-floor apartment, they soon turned their sights to the underutilised space in the common area of their building. Where a series of bland yuccas once lined the central path running between all the apartments, Keith and Clare have since turned into a thriving, lush, edible garden for all their neighbours to enjoy. Though the pair never set out for it, their hard work has received quite a bit of attention online – on the hugely successful Instagram account (@suburban.existance) Keith runs documenting both gardens – and from other residents in the area.
In their small, but massively impactful slice of suburban heaven, the couple have set a great president for what can be achieved with soil and neighbourly diplomacy, and the impact that greening common (or public) space can have.
Keith and Clare kindly opened up their impressive garden, before sitting down to talk with us about their experience …
When and where did your passion for gardening begin?
Keith: My parents where always into gardening - dads a gardener. We had an early bonding moment way back when we were at a party together – somebody was embarrassed that their parents grew veggies in their garden. And Claire responded that that’s something to be proud of, and I thought, oh I like this girl. She’s got a future similar to mine. And then we moved out together to a share house and made some attempts to grow. We then moved back home to our respective parents. We started watching this comedy show from the 70’s, 'The Good Life', about people who drop out of society and grow all this stuff in their backyard, turning it into a farm. And we decided lets do that, lets do it to our parents houses. So we got out and planted a bunch of seeds…
Clare: And I had a whole veggie patch going at my parent’s house at the time. And both of our grandparents had been veggie growers in their backyards too. So it was really instilled in us.
Keith: Yeah, my Pop made a business growing tomatoes out of his backyard. So we always knew what was possible.
On starting out -
Keith: Trial and error is definitely our policy, and the way to learn. If someone tells you, you can do something or you can’t do something, don’t believe them: try it yourself.
How did your garden progress into the communal space?
Keith: When we moved in it was just yuccas and nandinas, your classic low-maintenance vegetation. We were only the second owner-occupiers, it was more a renters garden. We then went to the buildings AGM and saw the numbers of what the gardener was charging us. And I observed what he was doing, which was just using a wiper-snipper to mow the lawn, put some weed-killer down and blow some leaves around. And I thought that is just outrageous. So at the next AGM we said, we’ll do it – better and for cheaper. There was some trepidation, but others said lets give them a three-month trial and see what they do. So we started doing it, bit-by-bit, and now people love it.
What has been the response from your neighbours (in the apartment and the street)?
Clare: We get a lot of passers-by’s just wandering up, and ad-hoc conversations. Even the person who owned it before us has come up to talk about it. Because it is quite inviting, a lot of people feel like it is public. We’ve had people steal flowers and rhubarb.
Keith: Yeah it has certainly made it feel like it is part of the public realm. We had people from California walk by and say ‘we saw the poppies and had to come up, its our states emblem’. We’ve met all the people from the laneway project nearby. Our neighbour who is a young mum takes her daughter up and down the communal path once a day to smell all the flowers. Other neighbours in the apartment have said now they have a reason to open their blinds.
Did you notice a change in the dynamics between the neighbours (yourself included) once you began work on the communal area?
Keith: Yeah it is a talking point, and a sharing point. If I am pulling out some crops, ill distribute it through to the neighbours, or they’ll pick it. Or they will see me out there gardening and they will come and pick some silverbeat or some lettuce. I certainly think it has contributed to bonding.
Clare: I think a really nice example recently that struck home, was with some neighbours who have just moved in and are recent migrants to the country. We talked to them about the different herbs and different uses for herbs, it was such a nice conversation that wasn’t intense. It was a different focus. We were talking for twenty-minutes but it wasn’t so much ‘what do you do’ or ‘who you are you’, but rather ‘we use this for digestion…’.
Keith: Yeah and then they came down and asked if they could pick some flowers for Diwali festival.
I still can’t believe people wander in …
Keith: Yeah it was so surprising!
Clare: People ask questions a lot. Old local shop owners have stopped and wanted to talk - often I will just hear Keith talking to strangers! A lot of people say they like to walk past and watch the seasons change. People have given lots of good feedback.
Have you had any issues?
Keith: Other than the rhubarb being dug up, not really.
Clare: Sometimes people leave rubbish in the front garden bed. Because it is a brick fence, sometimes people sit on it and then put their rubbish in.
Keith: I feel it’s because it hasn’t been beautified yet. Like broken windows theory, I think if we made it look better people would respect it more.
What’s been your motivation for starting and sustaining the Instagram?
Keith: My sisters were on Instagram, and I hadn’t been on for years, but I thought I could give this a go with my garden. I would just whack stuff up and nothing really happened, and then one picture just got over 200 likes. I don’t understand how the algorithm works, but it really just built from there. The strongest reaction I get is definitely from before and after pictures, which I think show people what’s possible
And what kind of reaction do you get on Instagram?
Keith: When I post photos of the communal path I get questions like ‘how did you navigate the body-corporate?’, ‘do the other neighbours help out?’ or ‘do you share the food?’, and that is really the point of interest for those posts. Otherwise, the other common questions are around the bricks and pots, and the garden elements, more than the veggie growing (I think there are probably better feeds to get your advice on planting seeds).
It seems, based on the feedback you get, like there is a hunger from people wanting to do something similar with their neighbours, but not knowing how to navigate it …
Keith: Yeah! I think they think that there really is a big barrier. I mean we had the advantage of being the second owner-occupier so we were able to create the agenda at the AGMs. But I don’t see why you couldn’t do it.
Clare: We went to an expo on high-density living years back, and there was a session on how one apartment owner navigated getting solar panels on their roof, which provided some interesting background on how strata’s work and the way different laws apply. It seems quite daunting when you first move into it all, but once you’re living in it, I think you realise it is more simple then what you first thought.
Keith: I think body corporate managers are usually, almost useless. They are essentially a bursary – money in, money out – but we meet with the tradies for all work, we do essentially all the project management. And we have really taken ownership of that. I feel that if you have a bunch of owner-occupiers who want to improve a place, you can get stuff done just in conversations in the common area rather than waiting for an AGM to decide on something.
What advise would you give to anyone trying to start a project in a common area or underutilised space?
Keith: I would suggest going through formal channels first, and just putting your case first. I am ‘less-guerrilla’ and more about going through the formal channels and not putting noses out of joint.
Clare: And I feel these days there is a bit more of an appetite. I think people realise that it’s a good thing to do (…hopefully).
What are your thoughts on the guerrilla gardening movement, though not identifying with it yourself necessarily.
Keith: Oh, I love it. I am very inspired by people who take, not necessarily the risk, but the sense that your garden is going to be temporary, and that your garden could be raised to the ground at any point that a development gets up and running.
Clare: Gardens are seasonal, stuff sits fallow for so long it’s good to get some use out of it, even for just some amount of time.
Have you found starting and maintain this garden project has impacted your experience of the neighbourhood and as local? Has it changed your perception of what it means to live in this area?
Keith: Yeah for me it anchors us here for more than just a fleeting moment of our lives. We could easily say, ‘oh it’s just an apartment, we’ll upgrade and move somewhere else’. But now it makes me feel like this is our home. And meeting all the neighbour’s cements that even further.
Clare: Putting in fruit trees! Because you want to see them root.
Keith: Yeah putting in fruit trees, that’s for the future children.
Clare: Also through the skills you learn, it makes it really enjoyable walking through the neighbourhood and noticing other peoples gardens. I spot the interesting gardens around the place more than I used to.