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Kitchen garden helps heal Flinders Ranges community

Health

SETTING off to seek out a community garden at the base of the recently ravaged Flinders Ranges, I ponder the resilience of such small communities. Rural towns are the backbone of outlying farming communities, providing essential services and community support, and this is only too evident in the past weeks of fire and then heavy rains.

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My destination is Wirrabara – a small rural town nestled beside the Rocky River at the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, approximately three hours drive north of Adelaide. “It’s a small town with a big heart,” locals tell me.

At Wirrabara Primary School, I’m greeted with enthusiasm. There are only 19 students at this school, which is much loved and cared for, judging by its neat-as-a-pin appearance. It is here that a lush kitchen garden was established in 2010 after receiving a grant from the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation. It was a one off, but the foundation remains involved by providing resource support for staff and children.

“Each and every student here has been impacted in some way by the recent bushfires.” Liz Hughes, principal.

The garden covers approximately 600 square metres and is tended by an enthusiastic parent, Lisa Stewart, who volunteers her time. Lisa says the rewards are beyond measure when working with the children. Each week, the students spend around an hour as a class in the garden but are encouraged to tend and explore at any other time.

The school’s principal, Liz Hughes, says each and every student here has been impacted in some way by the recent bushfires. The school and its garden is a safe haven, a place where the children can gather and chat. “The garden provides a common place where the children can work together to grow seasonal crops that are then used to create a weekly meal for the whole school,” Liz says.

Every week, the students prepare and cook lunch using produce from the garden, sharing it in the dining room. As I turn the pages of the kitchen’s recipe book I notice it includes a variety of cuisines, such as Chinese, Italian and Vietnamese, all designed to expand the palate and appreciation of food from the kitchen garden and its origins.

Poppy Pilmore and Brenton Stevens are the tour guides for the day and proudly lead the way. First stop, an introduction to the hens, then the vegetable garden which shows the obvious effects of the recent extreme conditions, but replanting has started and winter crops are lush. Silverbeet, spinach and rhubarb are prolific, starring regularly on the weekly menu.

I could certainly feel their pride as we ducked our heads under the protective netting to see the fruit trees, some laden with golden, rose-flushed peaches just days from harvesting. The orchard includes quince, apricot, cherries and loquat trees. A trellis for berries has been erected, raspberries and loganberries happily creeping around, Poppy and Brenton were very excited to offer a taste and share a few berries.

Excess fruit and vegetables are either sold by the ‘honesty box’ system at the school gate or are turned into delicious jams, pickles and sauces, sold at the school or the local farmers’ market. Liz says the kids love to help tend the stall on market days, another learning experience – communicating with adults, selling and marketing all mixed up with a little mathematics and some cash handling.

Both Liz and Lisa realise their constant challenge is to maintain a high level of interest in the garden, so new ideas are constantly evolving. Chickens scratch and cluck happily, rewarding the students with fresh eggs each day. The kids also collect the organic matter from the chookyard to use on the garden. Producing organic pest control for the garden is another area of engagement – from recycling milk cartons as rabbit control to mixing a garlic brew for spraying.

When my time in Wirrabara comes to an end, back to the ‘big smoke’ I go, but there’s no need for pondering now; this school is clearly part of the community backbone that gives this little town such a big heart.

Visitors can view the garden during school hours.

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