When the coronavirus outbreak reached the Hunter, the Habitat in Harmony community garden closed the gates. It was the safest option at the time, but without the regular maintenance from the group of local gardeners who tend it, the patch soon went to seed.
As Hunter New England Health declared the region was clear of active and known cases last week, gardeners are eager to revive their beloved patch and to reconnect not just with the sustainable and natural practices, but the intricate web of local know-how that circulates among the green-thumbs.
"There are so many aspects of growing and being connected to nature; it has this really cool cultural content that we have just forgotten." Chris Brown works at the Belmont Neighbourhood Centre, which annexes the garden on the Pacific Highway at Belmont North, and for a time was employed to coordinate the plantation.
"There's so many old tales and tricks that old gardeners used to use and I think they are the juiciest bits of information you can find at a community garden.
"Not only are they biodiversity strongholds and hotspots, but they're actually hotspots of culture and meaning and local stories; a connection to place and people."
The Habitat in Harmony garden is one of the oldest in the region. In the early 1990s, it was transformed from a granite car park built over a drain into a thriving hub of horticulture and conservation. A water tank was installed in 2018 to collect rainwater to be used on the garden, and a sophisticated composting system has been cultivated over several years.
"It's not just a place where people grow food, it's an education space for people where you can connect and socialise," Mr Brown said.
The number of gardeners ebbs and flows with the season, as does the horticultural know-how circulating among the greenery. The garden has always been a source of inspiration for many people. The number of times that we get people coming through the garden, just to pick up ideas of what to do for their own backyard.
"We've had community groups come up from Sydney just to visit our garden and see how they do it," Mr Brown said. "When people are thinking of living more sustainably, or they want to get into a community garden, all they need to do is just to walk around and look and ask the gardeners how they do things and it helps them make decisions on how to set up their own projects."
Hopes are that, as restrictions imposed to flatten the curve of the virus continue to ease, the garden can re-open in coming weeks. "I'm sure there are weeds that will be hip-height," Mr Brown lamented, "But it should start to brighten up in the next couple of weeks as we get in there and start planting again."
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