When COVID-19 hit Newcastle, building manager Gemma Bland noticed that a lot of her residents were becoming more and more disconnected, complaining about noise and becoming agitated.
"They needed something good in their day," Bland says. She manages three complexes in Newcastle: one in Wickham, Westend, one in Newcastle West, Aero, and one by the harbour on Wharf Road, Breakwater.
Bland, an avid gardener, decided to bring a community garden into the building as a way for residents to connect and to reduce conflict. Now Westend and Aero have both started community gardens.
Bland put the idea out there, starting with Westend, and the residents ran with it. She created a WhatsApp chat and 12 people joined straight away. Currently, 10 people manage the garden at the Wickham location. Their garden is located on the third floor.
Resident Natalie Holmes has been active in the group, although she's recently relocated to Sydney. She's renting out her Wickham apartment and plans to stay involved in the community garden group. She works long hours as a researcher during the week, and she got involved because she was looking for a weekend hobby.
Holmes, Bland and another resident formed a garden committee. The entire group attends working bees together on the last Sunday of every month. Holmes liked that the residents were able to raise money for the garden with the NSW Government's Return and Earn recycling program, while also encouraging recycling in the building.
"The people who wanted to be involved in the gardening group didn't have to spend their own money on seeds, considering that some people are retirees and worried about additional costs. It can be self-sustaining," she says.
They grow 20 types of vegetables, herbs and fruit like climbing beans, spinach, silverbeet, carrots, coriander, rosemary and potatoes. Holmes learned to grow ginger by watching an online tutorial.
"It is a first time for me, but it's a new hobby that I really like. I like seeing things grow," she says.
"I did a lot of online readings after one of the other members in the group had ideas about how to use the shaded area. Specifically in the shaded area we planted chives, silverbeet and spinach."
They started the garden in the middle of winter, and at first Holmes felt frustrated about how slow the progress was. The group were all very enthusiastic and wanted produce quickly.
"Now it's getting bigger because of the summer. The parsley is the biggest one. I'm secretly calling it parsley Mount Everest," Holmes says.
Since the garden started the building seems more connected, and members of the garden group have barbecues together. Now they're giving away parsley, leaving it in the foyer for other residents. The coriander is big enough to share as well.
Bland says they recently had their first big harvest and she was impressed with the carrots' size. The produce was available to all residents.
Holmes was also involved in securing the grant they recently received, City of Newcastle's Boost Your Place placemaking grant. The purpose of the grant is to assist with social connection across the city.
Bland believes initiatives like these should be a big part of apartment living. She's interested in how buildings can provide everything in one person's life including daycare, friends and events. She loves the idea of apartment complexes being a one-stop shop.
"Our building in Wickham is our pilot location for this," she says.
"We've done community engagement events; beehives on the roof is a possibility; there's the food truck Fridays thing. We're looking at bringing things to the apartment complex. We brought a carwash to the building and we had seven people sign up."
Bland is originally from Karuah, now living in Wickham. She's not currently in an apartment, but she would like to be one day. She thinks strata living unfairly gets a negative reputation.
"I truly think strata living is the way of the future; I'm in it every day," she says.
"You have so many opportunities for connections. In a world becoming more disconnected, bringing many people to one area can have benefits, especially when done appropriately."
Deb and Owen Cook, of Aero apartments, say their new community garden on the 14th floor gives them a sense of ownership and pride in where they live. The Cooks moved into the building in 2018, shortly after the build was complete. Deb doesn't call herself a gardener, but she does enjoy putting her hands in dirt and meeting new neighbours. She and several others communicate via their garden WhatsApp group. They were able to secure $200 from their strata to get it going, and they too are having work days once a month. They relocated the ornamentals already growing in other parts of the building and made room for herbs and vegetables.
"We've got tomatoes, snow peas, zucchinis, celery and lettuce. Then we've got a range of herbs like dill, basil and sage," she says.
"The strawberries are doing well. Windy conditions are our enemy because it's so open and exposed. It is a bit of trial and error. We've planted a lot of different things, whether everything will survive is yet to be seen."
She hopes to keep it going as long as the interest is still there.
"What you put into it is what you get out of it," she says.
A few blocks down from the Aero building is Verve Apartments on King Street, where another community garden is blossoming.
"The Verve Community Garden was always part of the original building plan and the Verve apartments were opened in August, 2019," resident Ian Dempsey says. "There's a maintained tree and shrub garden, with grassed areas, on level three. Part of the paved area there has been set aside for 15 garden boxes."
There are 10 active members of the garden group and they meet informally every month. They communicate via email and post on BuildingLink, the web portal for the apartments. Strata management committee allocates an annual budget for the community garden and the basics.
A sign helps residents understand how the garden operates and encourages them to get involved. They've been successful with herbs, silverbeet, spinach, carrots, garlic, chillies, tomatoes, beans, peas, rhubarb and lettuce.
"We've put in a lot of work to improve the original soil quality in the garden beds via composting bins and fertiliser. We continue to experiment with structures for climbing plants and wind breaks," Dempsey says.
Social connections have developed among many of the residents as a result of the garden and other events like pub trivia nights and a book club.
Bland is hopeful that concepts like this will grow as more and more apartment buildings pop up in Newcastle.
"As part of the grant, we're going to put together information online so others can learn from our mistakes, and show them the importance of what we've done and how it can benefit their community," she says.
Bland is keen to link up with other apartments in the area with a community garden or an interest in starting one. She encourages people to find her via The Urban Garden Collective on Facebook, or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.