A scarecrow in the James Street Reserve Community Garden in Surry Hills, Sydney. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)
They're sprouting across Australia and they're not just producing fresh food, but bringing neighbourhoods together.
"There's been a surge of interest in the last five years," says Russ Grayson, media spokesperson for the Community Garden Network, of the phenomenon popping up on council, school and church land across Australia.
Although there are no official figures on the growth, Australia's first community garden was planted in Melbourne's Nunawading in 1977 and Sydney followed in 1985 with the Callan Park lands at Rozelle.
Then the Waterloo Uniting Church garden, now Street Jungle, sprang up in 1991 and Sydney now boasts around 35 gardens.
Melbourne has always been way ahead with the development of the community garden, says Grayson, and other capital cities generously support the initiative, though Sydney has led the way in policy development.
Sydney's Marrickville Council was the first in Australia to develop a community garden policy, which legitimises the concept, and allows the council to dedicate staff to the project and give access to the land. The City of Sydney, Randwick, Woollahra and Leichhardt have followed suite.
Some councils offer small grants up to $10,000 for running costs and some will provide training in basic governance and horticulture.
But it's not just working with dirt that gets people in. Access to fresh food they can trust, greening the planet, reducing the carbon footprint are the more altruistic drives for public gardeners.
Others love the social aspect, meeting and working with local people and learning new skills in an informal setting at low cost.
"It's a way for people to engage with public open space," Grayson says.
With increasing numbers of older citizens moving into retirement villages and massive growth in units and townhouses, John Dailey, a retired insurance consultant from Sydney's Turramurra became aware that people without gardens were missing out on growing vegetables.
But also for many on the north shore of Sydney, over-grown trees had robbed their gardens of sunlight.
Inspired by Britain's well-entrenched allotment garden system, Dailey and another local resident approached Ku-ring-gai council in early 2010 and were encouraged to flesh out the idea of starting a community garden and gather some support.
The Turramurra Lookout Community Garden Group was formed, and its working group soon divided into about seven specialised committees looking after garden design, membership, fundraising and financials.
The group recently celebrated the first anniversary of the site, which dips away from the busy Pacific Highway, where organic produce and fruit and nut trees now grow.
Bendigo Bank stepped in as the major sponsor with donation of nearly $25,000 which, combined with federal state and local grants, helped the group with excavation, soil testing, and its subsequent replacement when lead contamination was detected.
The land about twice the size of a residential block, was terraced and swails, or gullies, were built across the sloping block. Raised beds were built for easy access, and paths are designed to be wheelchair-friendly particularly for those visiting from the adjacent retirement village, to admire the abundant organic produce.
Fences were erected to keep the local possums, bandicoots, rabbits and brush turkeys at bay and there's a formidable scarecrow. Four large compost bins have been built to feed the garden.
"One section of the garden is full of herbs to share with passers-by. They can just cut them and take them as they wish," Dailey says.
The group now comprises 50 members, some in their 80s, others young working families all from diverse cultural backgrounds.
There are 30 members who work the large communal garden paying $40 a year. Another 20 have individual plots, paying $80 annually. Like with many community garden schemes, there is a waiting list to join the group.
"More and more people are interested in growing their own produce," Dailey says.
The members are classified as council volunteers, rather than being part of an incorporated body, and after doing an OH&S workshop are covered under the council insurance.
Members can participate in workshops on permaculture and dry stone-walling in conjunction with the local TAFE. Pond building is next on the list.
And everyone gets involved. Every Monday students with Down Syndrome from Studio Artes in Hornsby come along. The Girls Guides have attended a number of propagation demonstrations and local businesses have sponsored individual trees.
Nurseries offers discounts and Rotary Club members have spent a day spreading mulch.
Once the community garden are established, councils can sit back and enjoy their public areas being managed responsibly, and in the case of the Turramurra garden, their $10,000 shed that's been built on the site, becomes a council asset.
Councils also benefit from the development of community skills and an engaged citizenship, Grayson says.
With open space at a premium, local parkland is being converted as multi-purpose public reserves, combining the children's play area with community gardens such as Warringah's Manly Vale Community Garden.
It also gives gardeners the chance to spring anew. Where Dailey is the labourer at home and his wife has always been head gardener, he now has his own plot at the communal garden, which his wife visits.
"She's allowed in and from time to time. She'll give me technical advice," he smiles.