Community Gardening with Urban Farmer Justin

Community Gardening with Urban Farmer Justin

Adriana Camilleri

The thought of gardening can be challenging for those who have never dabbled in the pastime before. For the majority of us who live in highly populated suburban cities, starting can seem almost impossible due to limited or absent backyard space. Justin O’Brien, print machinist by trade and avid veggie gardener at heart, has discovered his passion for gardening through his perseverance and experiential methods trialled at the Camden Community Garden.

On a sunny spring day, Justin O’Brien welcomed the Hoselink team to the Camden Community Garden nestled on the outskirts of Camden town centre and the Nepean River. Camden is located south-west of Sydney’s central business district and has an estimated 107,003 residents. With housing in the area increasing along with the population, the lack of green space means that the possibility of gardening becomes ever more difficult, which is why residents so treasure community gardens.

Community gardens offer a unique networking system for like-minded individuals to share their knowledge and passion for gardening. Community gardens encourage us to get back to nature, get our hands in the dirt and relish in the pleasure of homegrown veggies, flowers, herbs, or whatever else our green-fingered creativity inspires.

In the 1990s, Camden Community Garden was bequeathed to the Camden community by Llewella Davies, who donated her family’s dairy farm as a piece of land to enthuse the local community’s agricultural pursuits. Camden Community Garden is now a place for exchanging gardening ideas, and where people of all ages, backgrounds and skill sets can come together to lavish in the pleasure of gardening.

Justin is a Camden Community Garden member and has been for the past seven years. He owns two plots, which means he can grow and harvest crops all year round for a small annual donation. Justin explains that one of the many reasons he is passionate about growing vegetables, in particular, is because it gives him more control over what he, his wife Chantelle and their young daughter Amelia cook and eat in their household. Justin enjoys the entire process from sowing seeds to water management and harvesting. Not only is the community garden a place for Justin to grow the family’s favourite foods, but it provides him with his own space to get creative. Justin recounts all the reclaimed pieces such as vintage bikes and wooden ladders that he has added to his plot, much to the amusement of Camden Community Garden President and good friend Steve Cooper. Steve says that Justin brings a breath of fresh air to the community garden, and he laughs that there is always something new in Justin’s plot that brings a smile to his face.

There is a lot of timely care that goes into maintaining Justin’s plots, and it is no wonder other resident gardeners seek his advice. As we walk through the community garden, it becomes clear that Justin is a sort of celebrity in this setting. An older couple with their dog approach Justin and ask for help reaping their crop, which includes an abundance of broccoli and spinach. They engage in happy chatter while snipping, digging, ploughing and collecting the harvest together.

From the few hours the Hoselink team spend at Camden Community Garden, it becomes apparent that the place is rarely left untouched with the likes of young families and their children coming down to get their hands dirty to passers-by popping in to see what’s going on. It’s not just the love of gardening that draws people in but the yearning to be outside close to nature, which is difficult to obtain through an ever-growing suburban style of living.

The Camden Community Garden holds more than just garden plots. As we meander through the hedges, an impressive chicken coop comes into view. The chicken coop has a dozen resident hens who lay a variety of coloured and speckled eggs available for Camden Community Garden members, like Justin, to take home for cooking. The hens get a chance to scratch around in the garden while Justin takes us down to the beehives.

Justin’s latest hobby is beekeeping and Steve shares this passion. Both Justin and Steve agree that beekeeping is not for the faint-hearted as it is common to be stung when disrupting the hive to harvest honey. The pair joke that they have a tally of how many times each of them has been stung. This larrikinism doesn’t stop with the bees, Justin and Steve have a running competition to see who can scare the other the best by pranking and playing practical jokes on each other. A few of the Hoselink team were witness to Justin leaping out of his plot after discovering a rubber red-belly snake curled up amongst his silver beet bush. It looks like Steve has done an excellent job at pranking Justin this time!

The community drives Steve and Justin. They love being able to share their knowledge with beginners and encourage them to ask questions. The Camden Community Garden offers working bees on weekends and other community-based activities such as workshops and barbecues. Both Justin and Steve translate their first-hand knowledge on Instagram, where they share interesting educational content on veggie gardening and beekeeping.

Justin’s top tips for beginner gardeners are:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of good quality soil – try not to go to a nursery or retailer and buy cheap $4 potting mix because you will get what you pay for. Good quality soil will mean that your crop will be stronger, more nutrient-dense and will have a better chance of actually fruiting.
  • Mulch is essential – there is a myriad of mulches from bark and straw to sugarcane mulch. Find out which mulch works best for your garden by researching your type of soil and the veggies you want to grow. Mulch is essential in the hot Australian climate for moisture retention in the ground and keeping weeds away. Mulch will eventually break down and improve the quality of your soil and helping to produce a better crop.
  • Plant for the seasons – stick to planting winter seeds for winter and summer seeds for summer. In winter, start by growing broccoli, garlic, carrots, onions and peas. In the next few months, plant tomatoes, corn and zucchini for summer.

Justin’s reasons why everyone should try gardening:

  • Who doesn’t love fresh produce? There is nothing like cooking a meal using 100% of your homegrown produce. This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s very satisfying.
  • For me, when I am in the garden, it is very relaxing. Day jobs can be very stressful at times, and I find gardening is a perfect release and escape from the stress of everyday living. Sometimes in the afternoon, when you’re in the garden by yourself, and you’re just pottering around, you might not even be doing all that much, but you find yourself in a zen-like state because you have nothing on your mind and you’re focused on the moment. I always feel relaxed and leave the garden feeling refreshed.

Follow Justin’s gardening journey on Instagram: @urbanfarmer2570

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