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From trash to treasure: Youth students’ community garden gift

By Fiona West | March 16, 2023

A group of Navitas Skilled Futures youth students have turned a dull concrete car park into a sustainable community garden of diverse plants for the education of school students and enjoyment of others.

The recently completed 18-month project was a collaboration between NSF and creative reuse centre Reverse Garbage, supported by Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and NFP native plant nursery IndigiGrow.

Fairfield Youth Class trainer Camilla Portela (above right) said the “Seeds of Dreams” project was a labour of love for the students, who travelled 30km each way to Reverse Garbage in Sydney’s inner west, in their own time and at their own expense, to complete the project, which began as a classroom education program and “bloomed into something beautiful” for the wider community.

“The students gave so much, and they learned so much. It was definitely challenging,” Camilla said. “But they have come away with increased knowledge and skills, and have gifted others a useful, beautiful sustainable garden with a variety of plants as diverse as they are, that will continue to live on.”

The self-wicking garden, made using only recycled and donated materials, was proposed by Camilla to Reverse Garbage when they moved to their new site in Marrickville, as a mutually beneficial Project-Based Learning (PBL) activity. Along with learning language and phrases around gardening processes, students needed to consider project planning, building, OH&S, problem solving and teamwork. Most importantly, according to Camilla, it gave them real world work experience and confidence, while volunteering their time, without fanfare, to help others.

Fairfield Youth Class on their first excursion to Reverse Garbage Marrickville.

Reverse Garbage CEO Kirsten Juno said the 3x3m garden and surrounding outdoor area was a welcome addition to the education spaces at the environmental co-op, which helps teach creative reuse to children, adults and community groups. The garden demonstrates the principles of sustainable gardening practices, such as water recycling, self-wicking garden beds, 100% use of recyclable materials and donated plants.

“Once plants were established the native bees and butterflies moved straight in, much to our delight,” Kirsten said.

“The space is also utilised by visiting school groups, providing an extra classroom, as well as volunteers and staff to sit and have their lunch.

“The space certainly brightens up an otherwise dull concrete carpark.”

Fairfield Academic Team Leader Chen Zhao said it was amazing to see how the garden project had evolved over time from an online webinar during lockdown on growing your own vegetables at home, to a guided education session at Royal Botanic Gardens, to the larger-scale collaboration with Reverse Garbage.

“The students were able to use knowledge and skills learned throughout the whole process and it’s been a wonderful journey for students and educators,” Chen said. “The constant developments and evolvements when planning and delivering a project is one of the most challenging but rewarding parts of project-based learning.”

The students learned a lot throughout the process about building a sustainable garden, using only recycled and donated goods.

Camilla said when she first took her class on an excursion to Reverse Garbage to see the space they were tasked to transform, it was a little daunting – but also exciting.

“They were definitely up for the challenge,” Camilla said. “It wasn’t forced on them. It was the natural joy and enthusiasm of trying something new. They said, ‘OK, we’ll give it a go’, even though for most of them it’s not their thing.”

With youth students from a range of backgrounds, including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, India, Vietnam and Thailand, Camilla said many came from “disposable cultures where rubbish and recycling was a disgusting thing”.

“Some girls had never used their hands before, the Afghan girls had never used a screw before, never planted before. Many had lived in camps or in units, so to feel the earth was a really nice experience, and they came to be really excited about it. And they started to realise that recycling and reusing is a beautiful thing, and something they can take into their daily lives.”

After cleaning up the area and joining a full-day workshop at Reverse Garbage on self-wicking garden beds using IBCs (international bulk carriers), and creating a self-watering system using reusable water tanks, the garden gradually started to take shape, week by week.

Camilla said, surprisingly, the most challenging part of the exercise was securing plants, which, as part of the project ethos, needed to be 100 per cent donated.

“The students had to ask for plants from businesses and councils everywhere. We canvassed north, south, east and west, and it was just constant knock back after knock back,” she said. “This was OK for the students, it was another learning experience for them, because it was like, you don’t just get a knock back in job or a project and quit; you have to keep going. And that’s what they did.”

Initially the class had hoped to get plants that had cultural significance to them, but Camilla said the end result was just as good, if not better.

Collecting plants donated by IndigiGrow, a 100 per cent Aboriginal owned, run, and staffed, not-for-profit native plant nursery.

“I reached out to some Aboriginal gardeners with a fabulous place called IndigiGrow in La Perouse. It’s a fantastic organisation that works with Aboriginal students and grows traditional native Australian plants. And I sent them a message like I did everyone else. But unlike everyone else, they said yes!”

IndigiGrow, which encourages and educates the wider community to learn about local endangered plant species and how they can help restore this important plant community, provided 20 native plants for the project, along with education on the plant species.

Then through social media requests others started to come in, in “dribs and drabs”, with a range of plant types and colours, from roses to sunflowers and succulents, making it a true community garden.

While more than 30 Navitas students participated in the project, taking turns to attend the centre and grow the garden, it has now been fully turned over to the community and has taken on a life of its own.

Camilla said on one of the students’ last days they were lucky to see a group of school children enjoying the garden.

“It was wonderful to see the school students enjoying it, sitting there having their lunch and talking about the plants. It was such a cool vibe, and everything we wanted.”

“For this project there was no recognition, no media launch, this was just something quiet the students could do, for themselves, and for others. A very humble project that they can be proud of, that has enabled them to bring a little bit of themselves, in all their diversity, into another community.”

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