The sun is hot and the bees are busy in the community garden at St Matt’s, Botany. We’re less than a kilometre from Sydney Airport on a busy road, but the garden itself is a green oasis amid the industrial hub that surrounds it.

Jen Beer, the garden’s co-ordinator, is busily weeding when I arrive, standing up to greet me and give me the tour. Against the fence are a range of fruit trees – mulberry, fig, pomegranate, guava – and a mango tree that’s fruiting for the first time. 

The zucchinis are finished but there’s a bed full of sweet potatoes and plenty of herbs and spices familiar to those who favour Asian cookery: lemongrass, ginger and chilli, shiso and coriander, plus the ever-present parsley and tomatoes and a beetroot or two. 

Trained to climb up a little archway are vines of tiny, watermelon-shaped cucumbers called “cucumelons” that the kids love to pick because they look like little sweets; while tucked in a sheltered corner is the banana tree, just above the native beehive and near the rioting choko vine.

“People either love chokos or hate them,” Ms Beer says with a laugh. “I can divide a room with the choko, that’s for sure!”

St Matt’s is just one of many churches in the Sydney Diocese with a community garden, and while each location utilises its garden differently, the goal is always the same: welcoming people in, creating and deepening relationships inside and outside the church, and – if and when people show interest – an opportunity to meet Jesus or get to know him better.

In Petersham, the All Saints’ community garden has been running since about 2009 and is well known to locals. It grew chiefly out of the parish’s outreach to the nearby boarding house community, which includes a weekly dinner on Tuesday night and lunch on Thursday, but the garden is open to all.  

“It’s a very green-conscious area with very little green space in people’s homes, so having this  green space that people can enjoy and contribute to gives us that soft contact point,” says Petersham rector the Rev Ben Gray.

“There are probably a dozen people from church on two different teams looking after the garden, with about three or four from the community... Then you have people who come at their own time to do their composting or water the garden or wander around, and periodically carers will come with clients to do watering or garden therapy.”

Neighbours who need herbs for their cooking know they can just pop down to the garden and get some. Each Anzac Day, the local RSL knows there’s an endless supply of rosemary. And, depending on the season, the garden provides produce such as pumpkins, spinach, bananas, cucumbers, passionfruit and tomatoes that can be used by church members or utilised in the community dinners.

“It’s a place where people from church can serve, connect with others and form relationships,” Mr Gray says. “The fact that there are people here and things growing also shows others there are things happening at the church – and it gives our people working in the garden a chance to say ‘Hello’ [to passing locals].

“Our goal is for it to be an inviting space where people can come, take a load off and just have a chat... It’s certainly one way we’ve gotten to know some of our nearest neighbours, who we wouldn’t have otherwise connected with. They haven’t joined the church, but they’ve certainly got to know the church a bit better.” 


Community in the outdoors

Dr Jen George, whose company Comcorp is working pro bono to drive plans for a community garden at St Andrew’s Cathedral, believes such spaces are crucial for church outreach now and into the future.    She points to data released last year by McCrindle Research that shows most Australians choose to find community in the great outdoors.

“Fifty-three per cent of Australians consider natural, outdoor gathering spaces as the primary hub for community interaction,” she says. “In the survey, the local neighbourhood also rated highly after the household for social connections.”

Choosing a place in the outdoors trumped the local pub or club (45 per cent), community centre (43 per cent) and school (33 per cent) as the best place to seek community, while only 29 per cent looked to church first. 

The researchers noted that, since lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, “the renewed recognition of local community spaces and their enduring significance has become even more apparent”.

Adds Dr George: “Here is a wonderful opportunity for the Christian community to consider how and where we can connect with the broader community in meaningful and relaxed ways. There is also much research on the benefits of being in green space [for] our wellbeing”.

COVID certainly proved no barrier to the busy volunteer gardeners at St Mark’s, West Wollongong, who have been tending its community garden for more than a decade.

“We just continued on during COVID,” says garden co-ordinator, Rosemary Tolhurst. “We all like gardening and we like getting our hands dirty. We were outside in the air, spaced well apart – and could go anywhere and be lost in one part of the garden.”

The parish site occupies a big parcel of land near the centre of town, with a large housing commission property behind it. Residents walk through the church property all the time, and Mrs Tolhurst says the hope when the garden was first established was that it could be a form of outreach to them.

"Fifty-three per cent of Australians consider natural, outdoor gathering spaces as the primary hub for community interaction..."

“The hope was that we would get some people to come up to help and we could support them, teach some skills in gardening and give them some vegetables, but that hasn’t happened, unfortunately,” she says. “Sometimes they come and chat if we’re in the garden... and say, ‘We’ll come and help you’, and we say, ‘Well, we’re here from 8.30 through to 12 o’clock!’ They haven’t come yet, but it’s a respected place, which is lovely.”

The small band of five gardeners tend the raised beds, landscape garden, planter boxes, native garden and other areas, harvesting each Saturday and selling produce – from potatoes to asparagus, and pumpkins to rhubarb – for a small cost to church members the following day. All proceeds go back into the garden, as do coffee grounds from a local café, as well as the café on the church site.

On “Food and Friends Mondays”, St Mark’s offers a range of support services to those who need them. One of these is to cook and give away hot meals, and Mrs Tolhurst says that if the cooks want something from the garden they can just go and get it – “although I make sure they know how to pick things without bringing the whole plant up!”

The rector of St Mark’s, the Rev Alex Zunica, is thankful for the servant-heartedness of the gardeners and loves the potential of the garden to be a ministry to a wider group of people.

He says his father-in-law came to see the St Mark’s set-up before starting another community garden at St Philip’s, Caringbah, and his daughter Emily likes to join the St Mark’s gardeners most Saturdays.

Mrs Tolhurst, who has been a gardener since childhood, says she would “love to introduce some little ones to the garden” – calling it “God’s special place”, where she will often pray as she works.


Reaching out

Back at Botany, Ms Beer is picking me a bag of cucumelons to take home. I’m concerned there won’t be enough for the kids, but she assures me that the more she picks, the more fruitful the plant will be. Which is good, because they’re delicious.

“It’s nice to plant something that the kids can harvest,” she says. “They also like to pick the flowers. Nothing’s precious, and if playgroup is doing a talk on something appropriate we can provide flower seeds or whatever they need for the talk.”

There’s weeding and cutting back to do, as always, and she jokes that “You have to have a minister who can tolerate the shagginess – a garden’s never neat! Andy [Bootes, the minister] is very tolerant”. 

St Matt’s invites its community to take part in monthly working bees and gardening workshops. If they’ve been harvesting, they sit down for a cuppa afterwards and talk about how they’re going to cook what they’ve picked.

"I don’t think we appreciate how hard it can be to walk into a church if that’s not your background. But a garden is such a great icebreaker...."

“It’s a very low bar for anyone to participate, and you have such good conversations with people as you work alongside them for an hour or so,” Ms Beer says, adding that when the church hosts carols or other big community events, the garden is the first thing visitors talk about.

“We’ve tried to reach out to different cultures with what we grow, and we find that’s a real talking point when people visit – asking what something is or how you use it,” she says. “And we’ve certainly had people join the church after coming to garden, or members of the church becoming more involved in the church community, and that’s been a great blessing.

“I don’t think we appreciate how hard it can be to walk into a church if that’s not your background. But a garden is such a great icebreaker. It has such a calm and welcoming vibe – and there’s always something to do!”


Read why St Andrew's Cathedral are planning a new green space for Sydney