Little old man with big ideas

There used to be a little old man that lived at the top of my street. His front of house filled with home grown edibles. Every inch of space was filled with some sort of recyled object that in turn had been filled with soil and had something growing in it. Australia Post mail tubs housed capsicum plants lining his brick wall. His footpath grass not present but instead a lemon tree surrounded by a seasonal selection of leafy greens. Every space possible was used for something to grow in. Recycled rusty tin drums were home to chillis and a worn out old metal box his compost. Every time we would past he would be either tending his loved plants, basking in the sun with his head tilted on his verandah (the tiny space that was still free for 1 chair) or waiting by the footpath for someone to come past, so that he could chat to them.

A greek immigrant he had been in the country for 60 years he proudly told me one day. 94 years old, not a speck over 5 foot and he still loved to garden. With his clothing that didn’t look like it had had a wash for quite some time, gnarled old fingers that hadn’t been washed for quite some time as well and dentures that kept popping out of his mouth. He wasn’t the usual kind of neighbour that a lot of people had.

He liked to stop me, and offer water cress freshly plucked from the side of the footpath, and then happily munch on it, until his mouth gave up with trying to masticate the trying greenery with those popping dentures, then he would spit it out enthusiastically towards the general direction of his compost.

Now why am I telling you stories of an eccentric little old man? Because that little old man had big ideas. Simple ideas, that have pestered me ever since he voiced them to me. Why (as he pointed to the multi level apartments located near him) do they not have a communal garden in there? Why do they not have a simple lemon tree? Everyone could be using all the things that they grow within their small shared space. Even a little lemon tree makes a difference. We eat everything I grow. So simple…

Why indeed my little old man… Living in a big city, I see building happening all around me all the time. Quaint historic houses making way for multi story apartment blocks. Beautiful 3 bedroom houses with one bathroom, making way for 2/3 bedroom, 3 bathroom multiple level apartments. I understand the need for more accommodation in big cities, what I don’t understand is why these changes can’t be made more sustainable. Sure they don’t have to be using any recycled object within its path to be made into a growing pot. But surely these newly built places could accommodate a food growing area, that can be easily watered by nearby water tank, and then utilised by the people living there.

But who will look after it, we don’t have time?… Usually these big blocks, (or even smaller blocks of only 4) will have a body corporate or an outside designated company that organises all maintenance of the outside areas. This garden area could easily be maintained by the same people surely? Or a rotating roster of people within the complex that would be more than willing to look after the gardens. So many people would like to dig their fingers into dirt and don’t get the opportunities due to city living constraints.

But there isn’t room on the ground for these garden areas? We need carparking!… It doesn’t need to be on the ground, there is a perfectly good rooftops with ample sunlight just begging  for a little urban edible gardening. Roof top gardens can be easily built on flat roofs or a low pitch roof, and have many added benefits besides providing food to tennants.

Erd House (below) is located in Switzerland, not really a city living dwelling but still magnificent, and I wanted to sneak it in.

erd house by Swiss architect Peter Vetsch

In the pipelines there is also Sydney City Farm. Still waiting approval at this stage….

Simple things like these roof top gardens, or shared edible gardening spaces within apartment living could have such a dramatic and positive influence on our environment and city living peoples lives. So many countries and people have embraced this way of living around the world. It would be so wonderful though, to be able to walk around my neighbourhood and see more examples of this happening…

A good place to start if you are interested in more information is here.


27 thoughts on “Little old man with big ideas

  1. Oh, my goodness! I love erd house! What a beautiful story about your little old man. Changes are coming, they may be slow, but they are coming. Imagine the happiness on your little ones’ faces when they can dig in the soil and pull a carrot out to munch on! With regards to the community garden, you may also find that people outside the complex may be willing to join in – childrens groups or other community groups – people who don’t have access to gardening, for one reason or another. I would’ve loved to have seen the little old man’s garden – it sounds very inspiring.

    Back to erd house, if my hubby ever wanted to build my dream home, it would be an ‘earth ship’ made from recycled tyres and filled with rammed earth, dug into the side of a hill like the one you have pictured, with a veggie garden growing on the ‘roof’ and northerly sun being captured in all of those double glazed windows!! Ahh, heaven! 🙂


    • Ah Christine you are talking my language. Double glazed windows, earth houses and vegetable gardens…a sweet sweet language it is. I love the look of adobe buildings and straw bale building really intrigues me too. Do you ever look at Sanctuary magazine?
      Erd House is amazing- I first saw it in a doco years ago on SBS, its a small community not just one house, and inside is amazingly light, and full of curves. Beautiful!


  2. You know, now that we’ve dug up our lawn and created vegetable beds, I do wonder why we give so much space over to grass. It would indeed be lovely if everyone could find space to grow something for their table. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and River Cottage are running a landshare programme in the UK, where people with land they’re not using offer it to people who would like to grow on it, in exchange for a proportion of the produce. Sounds like a great idea to me! 🙂


    • The landshare programme sounds great, I think (hope) a lot more of these things will pop up over time. I really would just love to see it happening more (or at all) in apartment living in Sydney though…there is a lot of great gardening out there in the world to be inspired by 🙂


      • Absolutely! And I know it often is available to older, lower density units – the ones made from converted art deco buildings with large communal backyards. But it is a shame as you say that it hasn’t featured in the planning process of more modern apartment blocks. I suspect that’s because until recent times, apartments were the mainstay of singles and working couples, and there was a presumption that families bought houses. That really isn’t the case anymore, and I don’t think apartment designs of twenty years ago ever took that into account – many of them have pools and gyms, but not a place for a garden or for kids to run about.

        The other thing we don’t have here are the guerilla gardeners – have you ever read about them? It’s a really interesting movement in the UK where people are planting edible greens in public places – at bus stops or outside office buildings. These are for anyone who wants them to harvest and use. It’s a nice idea, although I wonder if it would ever really take off here…


      • Guerrilla gardening- I just found this site, and will be having a better look. Will it take off here? The idealistic me says yes, the realistic, no….I think its time The Monkeys and I perused the streets.
        I think the problem with the modern apartment block building or even houses, is that the ‘green’ factor really isn’t even considered. Its all about money, builders want to make it, people living there want to get as much as they can for that money. Two ensuites and aircon= bargain. One bathroom, with ceiling fan and a rooftop garden, not so appealing. Its a whole mindset that needs to be changed. I saw a quote by the guy who owns Meriton recently, who wanted parks in city areas to be much smaller as it was using up valuable land space that could be used for apartment building- made me want jump up and down…
        …ok stepping off my box now.


  3. I haven’t seen Sanctuary magazine – will have to keep an eye out for it. I have seen a similar doco on sustainable communities and the houses were amazing, exactly as you describe with curves and light plus whole ecosystems inside, where the residents can grow edible crops with recycled water…a continuous cycle, all year round, amazing!!


  4. Thanks for this post. We’ve been living in our flat for 3 years and there is plenty of garden space but it’s totally underused. What is more, the body corp manager is only into liability issues and sees the public spaces as danger areas that need to be kept free of ANYTHING that could cause anyone harm. My husband has been trying to argue that our public spaces should be viewed as an asset and that we should be using them for benefit! A lot of residents/owners seem to resist change too and don’t want to be involved in anything that might require work or money.

    I’ve never gardened. But I’m really thinking we should set up some garden. Grow some veg. Share some herbs. I’m so inspired. It certainly does seem like a big ask… but how amazingly beneficial it would be for our block of flats.


    • Liability issues is a big problem, and I think thats what the majority of body corps would think of first. If you can start up small, let them get used to the idea and then follow through. Even if its a few window boxes attached to a fence, its something. I suck at gardening, but I still like the feeling of putting my fingers in dirt 🙂


  5. My son and d-i-l lived in Brooklyn, NY and were very busy in the community garden several blocks from their apartment. When they moved to Ohio ( a HUGE farming state) she worked very hard to get the others in their apartment complex to work on a community garden. They came out a couple of times the first year but this year she is doing almost all the gardening herself.
    Gardening in community takes real public relation skills.


    • Your right Heidiannie I think at times it would be hard to maintain that interest for people to continue on, but I also think in high density living areas (like Sydney city area) there would be enough willing people its just that ball needs to get rolling. There are community gardens here and there is also a big wait list to get a little plot or like a lottery system in many of the areas. I would happily help your DIL 🙂


  6. I live in the inner suburbs of my city, I’ve been in this area for the last 4 or 5 years & I don’t often walk the way past ‘the old tennis court’ (mostly because there’s a beautiful lake & park just a block or so away & its much nicer to go that way); but back a few weeks ago I went for a walk pas the old tennis court & was delighted to find it turned into a community garden! I found myself peering through at all the healthy vibrant raised beds of vegs & herbs & there were even a whole row of fruit trees in pots – nicely tucked away safe ‘n sound behind the old tennis court fence. It really made me feel happy that people in this area have all got together & done something positive.
    The changes are happening & people like your wonderful old neighbour (great story BTW) are growing lovely food even in the middle of cities.


  7. Opposite the Buddhist centre where I do tai chi in a very urban part of town the front gardens are rammed full of every type of container, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, all intricately balanced, with home made watering systems. Cats prowl around, drunks fall out of the pubs, but no one seems to steal the strawberries… it fills you with a sense of possiblity when you see these things… When I lived in a flat I grew cherry tomatoes in growbags on the balcony, it faced south, and I grew basil which did better than any basil I have grown since and rosemary, which used to fall three floors in a high wind, and have to be repotted regularly. I will be just like your little old neighbour in a few years time when I downsize from my current house with its raised bed. I think I will always grow something. It’s a habit.


    • I would imagine once you start successful gardening and get produce from your efforts it would be very hard to stop. I love the sounds of the area where you do Tai Chi, and just a little heart warming for me to read that no one has destroyed it.
      I bought a blueberry bush today on the suggestion of another reader, I’m really hoping the tiny amount of sunlight that its going to get here will enough for it. Fingers crossed…
      As for the community gardens, they are here. There is quite lengthy waiting lists in my area and not always easily accessible. I have never put my name down as each year I thought we were moving, and yet still here- will put my name down this week.


  8. That little ole man was a wise ole man and the world needs more of ’em! Yeah, he needs a bath but for those who could stand the stink, he had a LOT of wisdom to share.
    We make time for those things that are important and what’s more important than eating?!


  9. Your right! That did interest me. Thank you. It looks like its starting in northern NSW area and then will hopefully unfold for the rest of the country. Pockets of it does exist already, just doesn’t seem as streamlined as your Landshare organization. I just sent them an email- Thank you again Joanna 🙂


  10. Great post. Thanks for adding the link in my blog. I’ve read quite a bit about how urban farming can provide a significant part of the solution to feeding our ever world increasing population. Thing is, it’s just remembering old knowledge, like your neighbours.


  11. Pingback: landshare Australia « Cityhippyfarmgirl

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