A day in the (rooftop) garden!

by Lucy Ridge

It’s a sunny morning when I first meet Kristina in the Rooftop Garden. 

The Co-op has had garden beds on the rooftop since 2012 when the Lena Karmel Unilodge building donated us the space. Though I’ve been a frequent Co-op volunteer, this is my first time visiting the garden beds I’ve heard so much about. 

From the lobby of the Lena Karmel building, the lift takes us up to a large open rooftop space, bigger than I expected and covered in beds. Behind us are the clustered multi-storey buildings of other university residences and office blocks, and in front are views over the green spaces of the ANU campus, across to Black Mountain Tower and beyond.

Kristina introduces me to the other volunteers and gives me a quick tour of the space. The Lena Karmel residents have planted out the first few beds with flowering bushes, citrus trees, and vegetables, and the Co-op takes care of the last three beds. Kristina is a horticulturist who works in a market garden in the south of Canberra, and is volunteering at the Co-op to help get the beds into good shape. The start of spring is a great time to get your hands dirty and reinvigorate the garden, so Kristina has been organising regular working bees to get the beds into shape and prepared for a bumper summer crop.

The first bed I see is a huge tangle of rosemary bushes, some in full flower and covered with bees, and some in the process of being cleared by volunteers. The bed has been overrun, so we begin by clearing out some of the bushes to make space for summer vegetables. We find some native grasses growing between the bushes, and leave them in place.

The second garden bed — a little thinner than the others — is crowned with a lemon verbena bush, and has two big compost bins at either end. Kristina explains that the students use the bins for their food scraps. She’s working on signage to help use the compost bins correctly, as compost needs the right balance of nitrogen and carbon in order to process efficiently. A bin of dry leaves and grasses, ‘brown waste’, is set up next to the compost with which people can balance out the ‘green waste’, mostly food scraps. In the process, Kristina also helps me diagnose my own composting woes (too cold, too dry, and a poor balance of green and brown waste, in case you were wondering).

At the farther end of the rooftop, a few well-established olive trees provide shade for some extremely happy mint: a little too happy! Though a delicious and versatile herb, mint has a habit of taking over garden beds and will run wild if left unchecked. We clear some away to make space for summer vegetables. The plan is to have cucumbers and zucchini in this patch, which can be prolific producers in Canberra summers and should provide plenty of veggies for the Co-op shop and cafe.

As well as selling and cooking with the produce, there are plans to further involve the community in the Rooftop Garden through “Pick it, Cook it, Eat it – Together <3” program for international students, and through more working bees for anyone who wants to get their hands dirty and turn their thumbs a little greener!

After a few hours working in the garden, I head downstairs for a well-deserved lunch (with chai; I’ve earned it!). The smell of fresh rosemary lingers on my clothes; the sun is out; and I can feel that spring has sprung.