And then the pandemic came: A tale of two community gardens

Last year was meant to be the year when the Bourke Street Community Garden in Woolloomooloo could finally house the prized chickens for which the gardeners had been waiting for.

To mark the occasion, they had planned to hold a chicken festival, an open day to showcase the inner city garden with its new additions. It would be the first of the 23 community gardens in the City of Sydney council area to have livestock.

Georgina Bathurst in the Bourke Street garden.Credit:James Brickwood

The chickens finally arrived in March. But so did COVID-19.

"It was very disappointing," Georgina Bathurst, the garden coordinator said.

The festival plans had to be scrapped. It was the first of 23 community gardens in the City of Sydney council area to have livestock.

But the arrival of the chickens played a key role in helping the garden flourish during a time when many Sydneysiders would experience loss and hardship. The garden’s membership doubled to more than 50 during the pandemic and more residents took notice of it, which can be easy to miss as it is in an area that is far from peaceful: the garden is under a railway bridge and sits next to the Eastern Distributor.

“Often I’ll be in with the chooks or something, I’ll look up and there will be a gaggle of people at the fence looking in,” Ms Bathurst said.

“And it’s amazing too because a lot of them have said, ‘I didn’t know there was a garden here’.”

However, not all community gardens in Sydney have blossomed during the pandemic.

At the end of a quiet street in Rosehill, near Parramatta, is John Irving Park Community Garden. Its membership numbers had halved and the garden was neglected when the pandemic hit.

“When we first went into lockdown, it was really hard because people were frightened,” Jill McCawley, a gardener and horticulturist, said.

Jill McCawley at the Rosehill garden.Credit:Rhett Wyman

It’s only recently that the members have returned to do a big clean-up of the garden.

Last month, they filled a skip with rubbish and weeds. Young people have also pitched in with mowing and weeding. “We just needed to get it done,” Ms McCawley said.

Parramatta lord mayor Bob Dwyer said there was a “sense of community that comes with being involved in a communal garden”.

A spokesperson from the City of Sydney Council said community gardens provided opportunities for people to meet and connect “which has been especially helpful for communities impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”

City of Sydney councillor Jess Miller said this was particularly important in areas with high-density housing, such as Woolloomooloo and Rosehill.

“It’s really important to be able to have as many opportunities to bump into people and talk to people and meet your neighbours,” she said.

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