Hannah Morrice, 26, lives in a seven-bedroom Fitzroy share house. She’s always wanted her own veggie patch. First a student with an irregular routine and now a full-time researcher at Melbourne University, Morrice has been a perpetual renter. Moving from house to house, this good intention always ended up in the too-hard basket. Until now.
Morrice is one of 15 growers taking part in the first 3000 Acres urban food-growing initiative. A car-park at the south end of Smith Street, a site that will eventually be used for an up-market apartment block is, for the moment, home to raised-bed gardening plots for local residents.
3000 Acres is a not-for-profit organisation that unites people who want to grow food with empty, under-utilised land around Melbourne, reconnecting inner-city dwellers with food production and helping them make the most of their city. The organisation started in October of 2013 with a grant from VicHealth. The first planting, and the launch of its website, was in February 2014.
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“In Fitzroy there are so many people in the same block, but you’re all very isolated because of the way cities work,” says Morrice, who grew up in Canberra and noticed how insular life in Melbourne can be when she moved for university. “I realised I didn’t know who my community was. And I had no real desire to, to be honest. This has helped me understand who my neighbours are, and see the diversity.”
Morrice, who shares the responsibilities of watering and checking on the plot with her household and another friend who lives nearby, says she regularly cooks with what they grow, using only what she needs and wasting much less as a result. “Knowing how long it takes to get veggies growing has been eye opening,” she says. “Some of what we planted has gone really well, some hasn’t. It makes you think of vegetables as more precious.”
Hannah Schwartz is the executive officer at 3000 Acres and has a background in urban planning and community development. As we sit in the autumn sunshine at the front of the tiny but cosy Place Holder cafe – which shares the site with the 3000 Acres car-park garden and Slopes gallery – she says that even if you’re lucky enough to have your own space at home, she believes communal gardening is better. “You share skills and information with people who know what they’re doing. And that’s part of community building. Growing food is hard.”
Kirstie Nogeste is a full-time project consultant who works long hours in the city. She heard about 3000 Acres from the Collingwood Residents’ Association newsletter and since then, has never eaten so much kale in her life. “I have sage that’s taken off like crazy, thyme, silverbeet and basil,” she says. “And I have a beautiful patch of miniature marigolds. We’ve been eating basil by the handful and I cook all sorts of dishes involving kale now.”
Nogeste and her husband are keen shoppers of organic food. She says since getting her plot she is spending far less at organic food stores. “It has enhanced my living area and what I’m eating,” says Nogeste, who fits in the watering on her walk into and back from the city each day.
The car park in Fitzroy is a model, built in a neighbourhood of early adopters already interested in the environment, food security and increasing their connection to food. “There was some fear that it would only attract inner-city young people who wanted to grow bizarre breeds of heirloom tomato and Instagram them,” says Schwartz, “but we have a variety of ages and types of people and different vegetables growing out there.” One plot is growing a type of Italian green that cannot be found in Australia, a part of one grower’s culture that has been reintroduced into their cooking at home.
The future of the project hinges on the 3000 Acres website. It’s open source, and allows people to map vacant land then connect with others who are looking for sites on which to start a garden. 3000 Acres provides a step- by-step toolkit for growers, telling them how to find out who owns the land they have found and how to contact them. It also provides a draft lease agreement and suggests where to get insurance.
3000 Acres is working with the state government to change the regulations around growing food in the city and make it easier. “It took four months to get a planning permit for the site in Fitzroy for some temporary buckets in a car park – and that’s with the enthusiastic permission of the owner,” explains Schwartz in disbelief. Because of the occasionally baffling barrier to growing, 3000 Acres is also working with organisations that own vast tracts of unused land in Melbourne such as Vic Track, Melbourne Water and Vic Roads.
“Whenever I have guests over I’ll show them the garden because I’m proud of it,” says Morrice. “Everyone can do it. There is no politics or opinion behind it. It’s just human.”