Our Garden: An oral history documentary

When I started the process of historical engagement with the Randwick Community Organic Garden, I asked a question: what story is the garden telling?

Today, I’m thrilled to be able to show you the answer.

Over close to thirty years, the garden has been telling a story of survival against the odds, unnerving determination, and community bonds as strong as an oak tree.

In order to support the Randwick Community Organic Garden in their two-fold goal of creating stronger community ties and making the case for community gardens in the area, I have produced a short documentary based off oral history interviews conducted with several members, past and present, of the garden.

Tracking the development of the garden from over 20 years ago, to the present day, I tell the story of a small and committed garden community working together to play their part in combatting climate change and creating strong community connections on the way.

There are already histories of the concept of community gardens around the world and in Australia, and there’s even a National Oral History Collection of the Australian Garden History Society.

But this work does something a bit different, I think: it takes the broad conceptual works of the community garden movement and applies it to a specific community garden in a specific context. Also, I’ve taken the sometimes inaccessible oral history format (who really wants to listen to a conversation between strangers for an hour or more? I’m looking at you, podcasters) and assembled my conversations into an accessible, cohesive and complete story line.

I’ve done this by grouping sections of our conversations into key themes:

  • the early days of the garden and the need to relocate following a selloff of their land,
  • the establishment of a new garden
  • the ecological and permaculture foundations of the garden
  • the community within the garden, and the garden’s outreach into the Randwick community
  • the challenges of development and the opportunity of urbanisation

And in all of this, here’s my point: the Randwick Community Organic Garden, like many community gardens across Australia, plays an essential role in cultivating climate-conscious sustainable practices on a local level and creating significant bonds across the community.

This is all to the benefit of my audience, I hope. The audience make up the people who are in the garden currently or in the past, or are looking to join (as this will help give a sense of history and belonging in a time and moment of community) and also a wider group of people who may watch it to understand how a community garden works at all, or are searching for novel ways to build an environmentally-conscious community in an urban area.

If nothing else, I hope people will finish the video with a sense of the joy to be found in investing deeply in people and the world — all for the common good.

The Story The Garden Tells

Randwick Community Organic Garden. Photo: Sofian Irsheid

Your garden might not speak to you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t tell a story. When strawberries pop up on the first of October, your garden lets you in on its story of secret conversations the sun. And when weeds come up? It tells the age-old epic story of survival in the face of a murderous invading army.

Gardens are the main characters in countless stories of community, friendship, activism, and change. And what’s the setting of Adam and Eve’s ill-fated bite?

Gardens have stories, and make stories — and not just horticultural ones. Their stories go back as long as history, and I’m pleased to say that not much has changed today!

The Randwick Community Organic Garden (RCOG) is a not-for-profit, incorporated community garden in Sydney’s southeast, that provides local members with the opportunity to take part in their own stories of sustainability, community, and growth.

They have been planting together since the garden’s foundation in 1993. They have moved locations and members have come and gone, but the heart of the garden has not changed. The garden is made up of individual and community plots which ensures everyone has access to gardens to plant herbs, vegetables and flowers.

In addition to the planter plots themselves, RCOG features regular working bees, talks and other educational workshops on environmentally-sustainable growing, and other social activities for locals. As such, it’s not hard to see the crucial role the garden plays in developing strong senses of community and cohesion in the local Randwick area.

So what story is the garden telling? And has it changed over time? Working in partnership with the committee at RCOG, that’s what I want to find out.

I have proposed an oral history project that speaks to current and former members of the Randwick Community Organic Garden (at any point during its near three-decade history) to better understand the stories that made it tick, drove change, and supported the community.

We already know that it does a lot in the community — from working with school-aged students and the elderly and more. We also know that knowing a community’s history, and being proud of it, plays a key role in developing a sense of belonging and connection for members within it.

A lot is still uncertain — the form, for instance — but it is my hope that, by speaking to people whose lives have been touched, in big or small ways, by the garden in Randwick, we’ll be able to develop a story of the garden afresh, to see how it’s changed, and support the garden in sustaining its community.

And maybe uncovering its story will help us see our own more clearly.