Connecting with nature and community on campus

14 November 2022
During Urban Agriculture Month, we hear from Matilda Risso, one of the students behind the University of Sydney garden, on the importance of community and learning how to grow your own food in the city.

By Matilda Risso, Faculty of Science and University of Sydney garden, and Emma Holland, Sydney Environment Institute

Emma Holland: Tell me about yourself and how you became involved with the garden.

Matilda Risso: I'm a third-year student at the University of Sydney, studying plant production and botany. I came to the garden about a year ago and I've been working here for around eight to nine months. It’s really great to have the space here and apply the things that I learn in class.

I popped in one day and noticed that there was somebody in here – that’s how I met Marcel [Gemperle], who is a postgraduate student that also runs the garden with me. Because the garden appeared abandoned, it was kind of a surprise. We got to talking, and then we started meeting together on Sundays. Then more people came and it turned into a whole community. It's a space where everyone can come together and learn how to live sustainably and garden sustainably, connect with nature, and help each other out to learn and grow. All of us have different backgrounds and different skillsets. It's really great having that – a whole system of knowledge.

University of Sydney students Marcel Gemperle and Matilda Risso in the garden.

Why is urban farming so important?

It can be really hard to connect to nature and to find a community like this when you live in the city. I think that's the best part. Also, being able to grow your own food and learning how to do that sustainably, with a community that has like-minded ideas. It's just so much better when you grow your own food and you put all that hard work into it, compared to going to the grocery store and picking up something wrapped in plastic. It’s much more satisfying.

What are your favourite things you’ve grown/enjoyed from here?

When I first came here, there was a whole bunch of pumpkins that I brought home to make some pumpkin rolls and soup. It made so much so I brought it in for everybody on our next meeting day. They had a few insect bites and would have otherwise been thrown away, so it was great to still have a use for them and for our hard work – to make something really tasty. But honestly, I love everything that we grow here: strawberries, peas, beans. And the flowers, too. They are so beautiful to look at and have their own uses. For example, you can eat the nasturtiums.

How does the ecosystem of the garden work – for example, using nitrogen-fixing plants, the bees, compost?

The soil needs to have certain levels of different nutrients to support the plants it is growing – one of the most important is nitrogen. When you continuously plant on a bed of soil without adding fertiliser or other things, the nutrients become depleted. We plant a cover crop of different nitrogen-fixing plants like snow peas, wild oats, and other legumes. And then they draw the bacteria to their roots and that produces nitrogen, which is then stored in the soil for the next time we plant in there. Once these plants have died, we add them to the compost bin, which adds more nitrogen and other nutrients. Once the compost has turned to soil, we use it to plant new things. So it’s a cycle that keeps going. It’s so much better for the environment than applying fertilisers and throwing out the old soil.

We have bees that pollinate the plants so we always make sure that we have plenty of flowers growing. Where we can, we also let the lettuce go to seed. I know a lot of people usually chop it off once it goes to seed because you can't get any more lettuce from it, but it's still beneficial to the insects, and especially the bees, for them to pollinate. We can also reuse the seeds for next year.

What is your vision for the garden in the future?

Ideally, we'd have a lot more people coming in every day – more than one day a week. We’d also like to fix up the greenhouse so we can grow things in there. We'd reach out to other community gardens and food banks so we could give more to the community. Even though we’d like funding, you really just need a community of people who want the same thing.

To get involved, sign up to the USyd Gardening Society or follow the garden on Instagram.

Matilda Risso is a third-year student at the University of Sydney in the Faculty of Science, studying plant production and botany. She is an enthusiastic member of the USyd garden, leader of one of the North Ryde community gardens, and in her time off from uni and the garden she works part-time as a landscaper at construction sites around Sydney.

Header image: Sunflowers at the University of Sydney garden.

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