A short history of the COGS Cook community garden

An Extract

Article and Photos: Julie Gorrell (Canberra Organic – Summer 2021)

A history of the Cook community garden is as much about the growth of the Canberra Organic Growers Society (COGS) as it is about the garden itself. It is a testament to the hard work, enthusiasm and commitment to organic gardening principles of particular individuals who were invested in the benefits of a community-based enterprise. The people critical to the establishment of Cook also had major roles in COGS as office bearers, or as COGS garden developers, and often this was undertaken concurrently with the establishment of the Cook garden and their day jobs. The Cook garden mirrors the growth of COGS and is now a well-established feature of the Belconnen landscape, continuing to attract gardeners of all ages and abilities but who share a common interest.

The location for the Cook garden was identified by a COGS member, Keith Colls, during a pre-retirement walk. Keith thought the area at the southern end of Bindubi Street would be ideal. Many residents of Aranda and Cook were attracted to these suburbs because of its leafy urban landscape but this had drawbacks for growing fruit and vegetables in open sunny positions. Establishing an allotment garden for these purposes was seen not only as a way to enhance the COGS membership but also a useful resource for residents of the Cook and Aranda suburbs.

An approach to the ACT Government by COGS to provide funds to establish a garden in Cook was initially rejected but further negotiations resulted in a grant of $33,000 to COGS to develop three gardens! In addition to Cook, two other sites were chosen; one in Holder and the other at Kambah. The grant to COGS was provided under the ACT Department of Urban Services’ Social Capital Program to expand the community garden initiative from the six already established at Cotter (Curtin), Charnwood, Northside (Mitchell), Oaks Estate, and Tuggeranong. The garden in Theodore had, at this time, closed (although it was later reopened for a short period).

Before the funding arrangements were finalised, the ACT Government undertook consultation with the community but there was a pocket of resistance from some Cook residents who believed that the community garden would not be an attractive addition to the landscape, seeing potential for it to deteriorate into an urban eyesore and for plants grown in the garden to eventually escape into the surrounding bushland.

In early 2001, despite these reservations, the then President of COGS, Steve Sutton, reported that ‘funding has been acquired … from the government’s Social Capital Program for setting up of three new community gardens in Canberra.

Over the next six months, things will be pretty hectic in establishing these gardens’. At that stage, for the sites in Cook, Chifley and Kambah, there was only permission given by the Government to use land for Cook, at the south-east corner of horse paddock No 2. The entrance was to be off Bindubi Street. Steve invited ‘all people who would like to participate in the Cook garden to a meeting on Sunday 18 February’ and ‘to contact Keith Colls, who had agreed to lead the project. COGS was aiming to have all three gardens operating by the end of June 2001.

COGS allocated $10,000 from the grant to Cook with the remainder allocated to Kambah and Holder. Once the funds were awarded, work commenced on the laying out of the gardens. Keith Colls says of this period that ‘those involved in establishing this garden somewhat underestimated the work involved’ but that there was no shortage of COGS volunteers.

The initial work of laying out the boundary was relatively simple as the existing fence line boundaries were used. The internal road was determined by a survey undertaken by Telstra. The exterior fence was built, trenches were dug to lay irrigation pipes to the water main at the boundary and the plots were marked out. The work attracted interest from passers-by and many of the future plot holders were introduced to COGS and the garden in this way. Indeed, anyone who had shown an interest in the development of the garden was ‘invited’ to assist with its construction and there were many future plot holders who assisted in the construction of the wire fencing. The only professional assistance provided to the enterprise was from a licensed plumber to connect the water pipes and a draftsman to draw the plans.

The garden covered an area of approximately half a hectare and it was divided into forty-six individual garden plots plus a communal area. Prior to work commencing on the plots, the area had to be cleared of all the bush. The plots were laid out in a grid pattern and varied in size; 30, 40 and 50 sq metres, with a metre between each. In total it took only three days to finalise all the essential hard landscaping. Most of this had proceeded relatively smoothly with the only significant delay coming with the consultations with the then National Capital Authority (NCA) on the colour of the shed. The NCA insisted that the colour blend in with the surroundings so as not to be obvious if viewing the landscape from Black Mountain. The location of the shed was determined by the need to avoid the tree root system extending from the large gums that were to the southern boundary.

The forty-six plots were gradually taken up after the garden’s establishment although it was not until 2005 that all plots were occupied.

Initially, the soil lacked fertility, but organic gardening techniques gradually increased the amount of organic matter and biological activity making it more suitable for vegetable growing. Coincidentally, the ACT Government’s Urban Services was cleaning out one of its deposits and offered a load of semi-composted show straw which gardeners eagerly used on their newly cleared plots. Shrubs were initially only planted on the western fence line to provide a windbreak. These plantings continued around the boundary over the next few years with extensive mulching undertaken. Despite this, many of those original plants died during the millennial drought years.

The infrastructure was developed further in 2003 with the construction of the pergola. The garden’s convenor at that time, Keith Colls, reported that the pergola ‘magically appeared’ thanks to the efforts of Adrienne Fazekas. Adrienne, who had also helped setting out the garden, had pre-fabricated the pergola in her garage before transporting it to the garden. Holes for the uprights were dug during a working bee and Adrienne, assisted by Garry Ridgway, finalised the structure. Vines were planted to provide summer shade although their growth was slowed by the later addition of shadecloth. The paving beneath was undertaken four years after this in 2007 providing for ‘more comfortable BBQ events’.

A few years after the pergola was installed, a glasshouse was erected. Donated by Sue and Steve Adams, a concrete slab was poured and the structure erected by Adrienne, Keith and Ilya Popovic. Unfortunately, the glasshouse was later so severely damaged by vandals, who had thrown sleepers through the structure, that the remaining structure was removed.

At this point, the garden was fully operational with Keith Colls reflecting—

The garden is in a very pleasing location with horse paddocks on one side and nature reserve on the other. It is an open sunny spot which is very pleasant on calm autumn and winter days but on windy spring days it closely resembles a freezing wind tunnel. To minimise the cold wind exposure native shrubs have been planted around the exposed boundaries but it will take some time before they are tall enough to have much effect. The planting of the windbreak is just one of the activities which have been undertaken through working bees. Most working bees are held in the cooler months as it is just too hot during the summer. Besides general maintenance work, working bees have established a communal herb garden, a plot for producing seed for the COGS seed saving group, communal fruit trees and grape vines have been planted and a small pergola has been constructed. These facilities are now available for all plot holders to enjoy.

The final structure erected was the second shed and this was undertaken in 2016 with a grant provided by the ACT Government for this purpose. The shed was built on the site of the glass house and like all of the other structures, the construction crew were Cook gardeners. So, some 15 years after its foundation, the Cook garden had reached its current form.