15 December 2021

Meet the gardeners who are growing skills, community and a bumper crop

| Lucy Ridge
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Colourful mural that says mulch in block letters

Mulch works with 32 adults with a range of abilities and disabilities. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

Marymead’s Urban Land Community Harvest – aka mulch – is a horticultural social enterprise that gives disabled adults the chance to become market gardeners. And they’re working towards a bumper crop this season!

Marymead is a not-for-profit organisation that has been working to improve the lives of young and vulnerable people in the Canberra region since 1967.

Mulch operates with four staff members each day who work with between five and nine participants, thoughtfully scheduled in order to ensure everyone can access the level of support they require, while also having enough work to do.

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Marymead’s manager of skills development and community engagement Helen Gardner explains this program works to flip the script on the concept of people with a disability being recipients and instead empowers them with life skills to be producers who make a meaningful contribution to the community.

“This is all about building skills, building teamwork, building connection and belonging,” Helen tells Region Media, on her last day in the role.

“Everyone who comes here has a sense of ownership over this place and the mulch team is (comprised of) participants and staff: the mulchers are everybody.”

overhead drone shot of bare garden space

The site was bare when the team arrived in 2017, but by April 2018 they had established water tanks, sheds, and polytunnels and have since planted a thriving garden. Photo: Supplied.

Helen has been with mulch since the beginning, helping to establish the program in 2013 at the initial site in Narrabundah.

Their current home in Stirling was a blank slate when they moved there in 2017, but now it’s a thriving garden with polytunnels, composting bays, chicken coop, sheds, and water tanks.

While the garden has seen a number of different crops come and go, staff horticulturist Peter Mitchell says that this year the team has decided to prioritise a few “staple” crops.

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“I’ve focused our crops down to zucchinis, beans, tomatoes, and silverbeet as our major crop to go out there twice a week and sell,” Peter explains.

“But we’ve got all this other stuff as well – we grow great berries – so each day there will be a little of something that’s a bit different and a bit new.”

Having produce to sell is an important part of the mulch enterprise. The profits from vegetable sales, as well as their successful annual seedling sales, go back into developing the garden. It also gives participants the chance to engage with the community, build communication skills, handle money confidently, and show pride in what they’ve grown.

“It’s an interaction opportunity for our participants, because our guys love going out to sell stuff,” Peter says.

A group of adults in gardening clothes pose next to garden beds

The mulch team with their recently planted zucchini seedlings. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

As well as growing and selling produce, the mulchers also collect green waste from several businesses around Canberra to turn into compost, which Peter describes as “absolutely knockout soil!”

This nutritionally rich foundation is an important part of mulch’s ecosystem and contributes to the success of the harvest.

Preparing green waste for composting is also a more relaxed task in the garden, and the team takes the opportunity to sit in a circle and have a chat about what’s going on in their lives as they work.

Young man in high vis smiles broadly in front of garden beds

Petey Perez is a regular participant at the garden. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

When I visited mulch, I was given a garden tour by team leader Mick Pettifer and Petey Perez, a longtime participant. Both were enthusiastic about the progress made in the garden and showed me how the summer seedlings are thriving after all the recent rain.

The team is also particularly proud of their garlic harvest, which they have braided and hung in their break room. We shared slices of garlic bread made with the fresh garlic, which Peter Mitchell tells me is another important part of what they do at mulch.

“Bringing in the garlic was wonderful! And that’s why I’m always keen to make sure there’s a bit of garlic bread, and when we get the tomatoes (we say) ‘let’s do something with them’ so these guys get to experience the freshness of the food and the reward.”

gardeners in high vis with garlic plants

The mulchers recently harvested their crop of garlic. Photo: Supplied.

Helen is confident that the ongoing project will continue to bring joy, community and meaningful skills development to many more people.

“A garden is never a finished thing, and that’s the focus here. It’s not about someone’s disability: it’s about the garden and the ongoingness of the garden and how people work in that space,” Helen says.

Chickens under a tree

The chickens are on snail patrol as the team works to protect their new seedlings from being eaten. Photo: Lucy Ridge.

After morning tea, the mulchers head back to work in the garden. There is always more to be done, and their hard work looks set to pay off with a bumper crop that will benefit the whole community.

Learn more about mulch at Marymead’s website, or follow the progress of the garden on their Facebook page.

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