A little corner of greenery is flourishing on a rooftop in Rushcutters Bay, and it’s nurturing more than just plants.
“I’m no gardener,” says Rob Caslick, the driving force behind the new rooftop oasis, as the sun shines on beds of freshly planted vegies and herbs. “So, admittedly, I said I wanted to have 80 per cent Australian natives and then 20 per cent plants from the lands of the people who were seeking asylum in this garden.” He’s talking about the freshly planted St Canice’s Kitchen Garden, growing thanks to St Canice’s Catholic Church and its Jesuit Refugee Service Centre, and making use of the centre’s previously unloved rooftop space.
The primary role of the garden is to give people seeking asylum and on bridging visas the opportunity to participate in something meaningful during the long periods of time they may be waiting for their applications to be granted.
The church is well known for running a lunch kitchen for those in need, as well as Caslick’s Wednesday night Inside Out Organic Soup Kitchen – which serves anywhere from 40–100 people per meal. The lunch service has been running for many years, the organic soup kitchen has been serving the homeless for the past three years. Caslick has a deep conviction that people should be as nourished as possible – not fed cast offs.
The passionate community reaching out from the church’s grounds was looking for the next step and the garden on the roof of the Refugee Services Centre was perfect. “The church really wanted to look at how they could better engage the community,” says Caslick. “I’ve always wanted to have a garden associated with the organic kitchen anyway, and that evolved into this idea.”
It’s taken a few years to get the garden up and running, but it was kick-started when a crowdfunding campaign raised more than three times the original goal of $15,000. Beyond the money to get the project paved, water-proofed and set with raised beds and watering systems on a heritage-listed site, there were donations of time and materials (water tanks, pumps and all plants), including designs from Built and support from The Royal Botanic Gardens.
“One of the great things about the project is the amount of support that people have offered,” Smiles Caslick, noting that the concept of the garden was designed under the idea of welcome and employed five asylum seekers for the build.
“I just think it’s a beautiful story for an asylum seeker to be growing natives … it’s about saying ‘welcome to our country, this is what we have to offer, our local produce’. That was the thinking behind it.”
The plants have only been in for a few weeks, starting with a community planting day on October 18, but the space is already looking lush and fertile. There is an array of plants from native pigface and wattle, to basil, lettuce and nasturtium.
The garden has also teamed up with local chef Kylie Kwong, among others, and will provide herbs and produce to the relocated Billy Kwong when it opens later this year in Potts Point.
“I’m going to be specifically using the Vietnamese mint, coriander, warrigal greens and nasturtiums,” says Kwong, who reached out to St Canice’s to connect with the local community, and who has a number of collaborations with projects in the area, from rooftop honey to local veggies.
“There will be weekly trips to these places for my staff. It’s about directly engaging in the local community and enhancing their services and to share their wonderful stories,” says Kwong.
While not open daily to the public, there are courses and workshops run at the garden that will offer various levels of involvement.