Liz Morgan: from Sydney to Cape Town, demand for growing food has ballooned

MOPOKE – A series on habitat

by Liz Morgan

FAVOURITES – 6 April 2009 – “When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands.”

–   Ralph Waldo Emerson, essayist, philosopher and leader of the American transcendentalism movement in the early 19th century

When I go into my community garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration that I am lucky enough to have a teeniest patch of land, in inner-city Sydney, that provides nourishing organic food; somewhere to take my kitchen scraps to be composted; spend hours exercising in fresh air and sunshine, not to mention the companionship of fellow gardeners and a strong sense of community belonging — all for a paltry $30 a year.

I am one of the lucky ones: my partner and I chanced upon the garden in 2000, and within a month or so of putting our names on the waiting list, we were invited to take our pick of several plots that had become vacant. Today the waiting list has more names on it than the number of plots in the garden, and it is not uncommon to wait four years for your name to reach the top of the list.

It’s the same story in whichever city you care to look at, from Sydney to London to Los Angeles, from Copenhagen to Cape Town. The demand for space to grow one’s own food has ballooned, and the reasons for that demand are as many and varied as the kinds of people who want to garden: growing concern about industrially produced food, ill-health, allergies, obesity, diabetes and so on; a yearning for our children to know what food looks like in its natural state and how we have to nurture it; a desire to cut back on so-called ‘food miles’ and curb greenhouse gas emissions — to name but a few.

When I remember how much I adore my little garden plot (it’s not much bigger than a good-sized wardrobe, laid on its back), I’m reminded of a scene from Woody Allen’s 1975 film, Life and Death. Allen, playing a hapless Russian soldier, Boris, is reminiscing about his father.

“In addition to our summer and winter estate, he owned a valuable piece of land. True, it was a small piece, but he carried it with him wherever he went.”

The camera cuts to an old, bearded patriarch proffering a tiny rectangle of turf on his outstretched hand. “This land is not for sale,” his father’s ghost says. “Some day, I hope to build on it.” To which the 19th-century American essayist, Charles Dudley Warner, might add his tuppenceworth: “However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep; and that is a very handsome property.”

Understandably frustrated by seemingly interminable waiting lists for a space in an established garden, some people are taking matters into their own hands, digging and growing wherever an opportunity presents itself.

Any vacant plot of land will do, no matter how big or small: median strips on roads, nature strips on pavements, roundabouts, rooftops, railway sidings, unused commercial premises, fenced-off space around street trees — whatever the eye spies and the imagination transforms.

Often called ‘guerrilla gardeners’, most of these individuals and groups that surreptitiously vegetate land that is not their own consider themselves peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Although their activities are technically illegal in most countries, few are prosecuted. The British website, (motto “Let’s fight the filth with forks and flowers”) is engaged in a self-proclaimed “war against the neglect and scarcity of public spaces as a place to grow things”. It offers advice on how to get started in guerrilla gardening, and showcases guerrilla gardening stories from around the world.

In inner-city Sydney, sustainability consultant Michael Mobbs (See our agitators columnist, The Bathurst Burr)  has led the charge in a largely residential street in Chippendale, where he lives and works.

As a way of bringing attention to concerns about the encroachment of housing and industrial development on agricultural land around Sydney, which still produces a significant percentage of the city’s fruit and vegetables, he and other residents have dug up the street’s nature strips and planted them with fruit trees, vegies and native plants as a sustainability statement.

“We don’t need chain stores to feed us…we have got to get used to having our food grown closer to us,” Mobbs says. There’s no more local than right outside your front door.

…and with Thelma (or Louise) in the backyard

Elsewhere, formal and informal arrangements are being struck between people who have land but don’t use it, and those that want to garden but don’t have the land, usually with fresh produce offered in return for the use of the land. Websites like (run under the auspices of the London Development Agency) and act as the ‘dating agencies’.

There are formal vetting procedures, training to avoid conflict, and dispute resolution resources, should things turn sour.

Existing urban spaces are under enormous pressure as cities’ populations continue to swell, and we will, as a civil society, need to come up with creative ways of making our cities healthy, sustainable and enjoyable places in which to live and work. We could start by taking a leaf out of the guerrilla gardeners’ book.

“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

“The mopoke,” Liz Morgan tells us,” also known as the Southern Boobook, is Australia’s most common owl; a lovely little creature that still thinks our cities and towns are worthwhile places in which to live, and a fantastic indicator that these urban environments can still provide adequate food and shelter for a fairly high-order predator.”
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