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First Community Food Forest in the City of Melbourne

How an inner-city community food forest went from dream to flourishing reality

The Kensington Food Forest began with a dream to provide healthy nutritious organic food for our local Kensington community to build resilience around food security. Kensington is an inner-city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. We wanted to grow our own food to reduce pressure on farmlands, reduce food miles and the consequent use of fossil fuels in transportation, keep chemicals off our plate and create community.

After doing my PDC in 2011 and then my Permaculture Diploma, I was enthusiastic to make change. We can’t all run to the country, some of us actually need to clean up our cities, so in the last few years I have focused my permaculture efforts on building food security in my neighbourhood and moving it to transition to an energy descent future.

I approached Deb Wilson, Community Manager at Unison (then Urban Communities, a community housing organisation) in 2015 with an idea to build a food forest on the Kensington Estate. The Kensington estate was a redevelopment that offered integrated public, social and affordable home ownership for low income households. We submitted an application to the City of Melbourne Community Grants for a Food Forest and heard we were successful in late 2015.

 

In the city, one of the critical challenges we face is lack of space and contaminated soil. Most of Melbourne is apparently built on landfill. The council’s way of dealing with contaminated soil has been to cover it up or build on top. This creates impervious surfaces and problems with frequent flooding in the city when we have extreme weather downpours (predicted to increase). There is also resistance to growing food in the ground.

I approached Unison as they had some sizeable pieces of land that we could build a food forest/food garden on. It was important to us that we brought residents from the estate and the wider community along with us to create community ownership for sustainability of care, education about food security and environmental restoration.

We developed a Community Engagement and Resident Communication Plan to achieve this. Our first information session was held in August 2016 and we invited attendees to participate in any of the three stages of building the Food Forest; 1. Soil testing/vegetation count; 2. The establishment phase and; 3. The care and maintenance phase. About 20 local members undertook soil testing in October 2016, we sent soil samples to Vegesafe at Macquarie University in Sydney to ensure there was no heavy metal contamination, we did pH tests, plus field observation such as colour, fertility and drainage.

There was a delay of about a year before the state government department of Human Services and Health (DHHS) approved us establishing a food forest on its land. We had suggested an oddly shaped area of roughly 52m long x 4m wide which was under utilised (i.e. covered with grass). I then designed the food forest and this design was approved in June 2017. We moved quickly as we wanted the plants to establish themselves in spring before the hot weather of summer.

The design

The design converted the current land from grass to a polyculture of 25 productive tree species and supporting guilds (including five Tagasaste for nitrogen fixing and mulch), vines, berries, a medicinal and herbal tea garden ( for colds and flus, women’s health and overall well-being), insectories (strategically placed to confuse pests and invite predators), native and bush foods and an irrigation system.

 

The species were selected, combined, and delivered to produce all year round as well as provide a diversity of nutrients. These plantings were arranged according to their growing conditions, form, function and outputs. Our maintenance plan was for minimum inputs, so the soil and pest management plan included:

  • no bare earth (mulched or covered with ground covers), no tillage, chop and drop (use of green manure and plants for mulch)
  • natural pest control using plants to repel pests and attract beneficials
  • maintain healthy soil full of microorganisms
  • watering techniques
  • drip line for minimum evaporation and drift. Perennials for soil stability and companion planting/guilds. Rotation of annual vegetables for high production and diversity. Use of local, street composting bins for compost and local worm farms for worm juice.

The design created spots to sit and contemplate and watch the changing seasons. Critical to the design was that the forest was publicly accessible and not locked, with people encouraged to meander along the paths exploring the variety of species. Signage along the way would educate visitors about the various species and functions of the plants. An easy to operate, manual, centralised watering system was important to ensure the forest care team could respond to weather conditions.

Each tree and plant in the forest is doing more than one thing – that is, as well as providing food, it is sinking carbon, reducing stormwater runoff, raising the water table, providing shade, lowering the heat island effect, cleaning our air, increasing precipitation and providing a home/place for multiple organisms.

Site summary

The delay allowed the suggested site to be observed over the seasons.

The site is in a temperate climate – it is located inner city and is impacted by the heat island effect from the built surfaces of asphalt roads and concrete buildings so is frost-free and has increased temperatures in summer.

Climate change and the summer/winter sun arc were important factors. On the north side of the site there is a high-rise building which creates a big shade arc in the winter afternoon. This high-rise building created wind turbulence as the wind wrapped around the building. Other local conditions created a wind tunnel that buffeted the NE side of the site. We erected a Mediterranean espaliered olive grove here to counteract this.

 

A number of microclimates were present on the site. Some wet and dry spots were observed alongside human interaction and movements through the site. The soil results came back as below Australian contamination levels. The pH levels ranged across the site varied from 6 to 8 ½ . Overall, the soil was quite different across various sections reflecting varying levels of soil life and nutrients, plus compaction. As a result of our soil tests, soil-enhancing work was needed prior to planting out with trees and understorey.

Once the design was approved, an Occupational Health and Safety plan was drawn up for the construction of the food forest. The design was also then presented back to the community and they were invited once again to participate in the two remaining stages: Establishment of the food forest i.e. planting in and mulching and Forest care and maintenance.

We broke ground on the 4th August using a mini earthmoving machine to remove the grass and shape mounds and break up some of the compacted earth. We removed 10 to 15 cm of the top layer of soil, separated grass and gravel, then shaped this into mounds, added compost and lucerne and left everything for a couple of weeks to do its magic. Worm juice was also applied. The wooden structures for the espaliered olive windbreak, berry arc and kiwi fruit support were installed.

On two community plant in days in August all trees and supporting understorey and guild plants were planted in (some community members donated plants on the design plant list). The crushed rock and sand pathways followed and a forest care team was established early in September 2017. This team was key in spreading 18m3 of recycled wood mulch across the site.

To activate soil life we planted in a spring green manure.

In the temporary space amongst the plantings of trees and perennial plants, until the canopy grows, we are planting in annual seasonal food. In October we planted in over 300 summer seedlings including eggplant, chilli, tomatoes, basil, corn, pumpkin and beans.

Our community Food Forest launch day was 28 November 2017. It was a joyous celebration of our diverse community coming together because of something we all had created.

One Comment

  1. I have just brought my daughter home from Melbourne after finishing her 3 yrs at UNI, 14hrs of driving, we are a country family & having a panic attack in the hustle & bustle of the city traffic, the one thing that was a huge comfort to me & enabled me to breath, was the little pockets of community gardens throughout the outer suburbs of Melbourne. Even for those of us who don’t live there it is a huge aphrodisiac to us country folk passing through. To all community gardeners out there thankyou.

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