Incredible Edible Blackheath

cliff view farm

Hillier Windsor and Lyndall Crompton at Cliff View Farm on Shipley Plateau, Blackheath

Story and photos by Hamish Dunlop

Take a tour of the community gardens and farms in Blackheath and you’ll find alpacas, companion flowers, compost to die for, hundred-year-old ‘Shipley’ apple trees, native bees, friendly faces, wonky tomatoes, life philosophies and much, much more.


Key Points:

  • Three community gardens and farms in Blackheath are making it an ‘Incredible Edible’ place to live.
  • The gardens feed the community and support the spread of acclimatised seed.
  • They also create environments for people to socialise, learn and get their hands in the dirt.

Cliff View Community Farm

Lyndall Crompton, the manager of Cliff View Community Farm, has given me excellent instructions. “Stay on Shipley Road. Go past the old RFS shed and after the metal plates on the road take the gate on the right.” I arrive early and hold the gate open for Lyndall to drive in. “Hamish?” she asks with a smile. She parks and asks where I’d like to start.

The garden is bursting with life. Annual and perennial beds run up the hill, interspersed with salvias and purple-flowering catmint. Among the beds is a growing frame-shaped sculpture made of dead Eucalypt branches and a metal archway with fragrant roses.

Fennel is going to seed and dead artichoke heads are ready for the chop. “We have a lot of flowers to feed the bees,” Lydall says pointing to the beehives in an adjoining paddock. “The hoverflies love the fennel and we’ve got comfrey up there: good for pollinators and compost.”

volunteer at cliff view farm

Volunteer Leo Dalton at work, with other volunteers and one of Hillier’s twins in the background.

Lyndall points out potatoes, pumpkins, and carrots as we pass the walk-in poly tunnel used for germination and seedling growth. “Carrots are one of my favourite crops!’ she says. A bit tricky to get going. If the seeds dry out too much they just don’t germinate.”

The carrots and other crops are covered with a fine netting and shade cloth can be pulled over the top if the sun is too intense. “The mesh keeps out some of the larger animals,” she says.  “The wood ducks and the bower birds. It helps with the harlequin beetles too.”

What community gardens give

Cliff View’s focus is food production. 95% of what is harvested goes to Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre. Since July, 170kg of food has been donated. Last year it was around 350kg and 400kg the year before that. Lyndall provides 5 to 6 vegetable boxes on a fortnightly basis.

When there is a glut of vegetables, she takes a specific crop such as cucumber in to BANC. Volunteers take some too. Sometimes crops go to the Salvos in Katoomba who also put together food hampers.

cliff view farm vegie boxes

Lyndall and her husband Jeffrery Crompton preparing the last hampers for 2023. (Images supplied)

Lyndall says people, including her and the volunteers, all benefit from the social element. Everyone gets on with things and at the end they sit under the pagoda above the garden and sip tea and chat.

“There’s a whole education component too,” Lyndall says. “I learned a lot from Lis at the Blackheath Community Farm when I first started volunteering. Margaret who is weeding down there owned a farm and Karen is really into orchards. A guy came and did a propagating workshop which is where I learned how to propagate apple branches off the trees using air layering.”

air layering an apple tree

Lyndall with an ‘air layered’ branch on its way to becoming a new tree.

The earth also benefits. Cliff View is a no dig garden. Cardboard goes down to suppress the weeds and compost goes on top. The plants go in and sugar cane mulch is spread around to reduce moisture loss.

A grant from Susan Templeman’s office paid for a new rotational composting system. Green and brown material is successively turned into the next bin until it becomes rich and ready. This will enable the farm to be soil self-sufficient.

Green material comes from the garden and carbon comes from mucking out the goose and alpaca poo. Water comes from a solar-pumped dam fed by an underground spring.

compost bays

The new composting bays.

Regenerative farming practices are important.

“We’re an organic farm here. We don’t use any chemicals to manage the weeds like many commercial farms do, including no dig operations. The weeds protect the soil until we want to plant something. The idea is that after you’ve harvested a crop, you haven’t depleted the soil. At the very least, the soil remains the same, or is left in better condition.”

Cliff View

Cliff View is owned by Roger Mackell who has a half share in Gleebooks. His daughter Hillier Windsor set up the garden in 2019 when her family lived in the small farmhouse above the garden. As Lyndall and I survey the gardens from amongst the pumpkins, Hillier arrives with her three-year-old twins. “Friends joked that I couldn’t just have a vegie patch, I had to have a vegie paddock!” Hillier says with gusto.

drying garlic

Garlic drying under cover.

“When I turn up and see big handfuls of people, and the garlic drying, and how idyllic it is… It’s so lovely to still have it being productive. Land to grow on is expensive and having space is a privilege,” she continues. “I did a permaculture course through Milkwood and I remember the concept of a fair share. Take what you need and share the rest.”

She tells me about her memories of coming up from Glebe as a child. “That’s where I developed an interest in growing. In winter we’d have soup. My dad and my uncle would be so proud that everything had come out of the garden, bar the wedges of parmesan on top.” Hellier says her father was excited for the land to continue to contribute to the community.

at cliff view farm

Gardens are a place to get a dose of ‘green time’.

There’s a natural pause in the conversation and the topic changes to mental health. “It’s just so good to come here and get down amongst the plants and soil,” Hillier says. “There’s research that suggests that just 10 minutes of ‘green time’ is enough to make a measurable difference. “Not just feeding the stomach, but feeding the soul,” Lyndall imparts. “There’s nothing like nurturing life and losing yourself in the garden to make for fairer weather.”

You can volunteer at Cliff View Community Farm on Thursday mornings from 9am. Follow the instructions at the beginning of the story. You can contact Cliff View via their Facebook page or Instagram.

Blackheath Community Kitchen Garden

Catholic Community Farm blackheath

Murals at the Kitchen Garden painted by Alex Grilanc with community collaboration.

I’m finding my way around the Catholic Church in Blackheath and a woman calls out to ask me if I’m all right. “I’m looking for Brian!” I say with intent and she points me in the direction I’m travelling.

I find Brian in the garden, sporting a well-used Bunnings hat. He greets me with bright eyes and a generous gaze. “The garden might look unmanaged to the uninitiated,” Brian says. “There a few more weeds than I’d like, but we follow organic principles. The grasses and dandelions are good for the soil life and pollinators.

Like Cliff View, the garden is filled with flowers, fruit and vegetables. Bees meander between rich purple dahlias and yellow calendulas. The thyme is in flower too with its beautiful lilac hues. It’s a lovely colour palette.

At the edge of the garden there’s a herb patch filled with parsley, lemon balm and bright orange nasturtiums. “The leaves and flowers of the nasturtiums are good for salads,” Brian explains.

pumpkin at catholic community farm

A butternut pumpkin nestled happily on top of pine mulch provided by local contractors.

The garden is food focused. The fresh produce goes into making soups. The Catholic Church and the Uniting Church run a weekly lunch. They both contribute soup and share the running of it. It’s held at 43 Govetts Leap Rd in Blackheath every Monday. “People often come earlier,” Brian says. “Around 10. There’s tea on hand and people sit around and chat. Sometimes there’s cake and biscuits.”

Brian also takes garden offerings to the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre. Some of the people who attend a Vinnies community group at the church on Wednesday mornings benefit from the garden too. Brian says it’s a group that focuses on getting people out and about and in contact with fellow community members. He tells me the Parish meeting room is open to other community groups.

garden vegetables

A quick pick! Produce from the garden being harvested.

A tasty collaboration

People come to volunteer on a Wednesday morning and every second Saturday. Special events include planting potatoes in spring and compost workshops. Brian has teamed up with Red Door Café in Leura for composting. The garden gets coffee grounds, vegetable scraps and eggshells. The eggshells are dried in the sun, broken up and sprinkled around new seedlings. “It’s a great way to stop slugs and snails,” Brian says.

The garden started composting with standard black bins, but the vegie scrapes and garden waste outstripped the available space. A series of parallel stalls were built using pallets from Todarello’s and some corrugated iron donated by the Uniting Church. The garden shed was build using this iron too.

The recycled wood used was secured by a parishioner from a local building site. Sawdust comes from a furniture maker in Lawson to introduce greatly needed carbon into the green material.

brian at compost bays

 Brian Bright with compost bays made from recycled materials.

Seeds and Covid

The garden started with the planting of fruit trees during the COVID lockdowns. Netting bags hanging from some of the trees are weighted with fruit. Dying off plants that add to the wildness of the garden provide seeds that are propagated. Like the other community farms, Brian also gets seedlings from The Vegie Patch in Blackheath. “I haven’t met Mel yet,” Brian says, but someone from the Community Farm splits what Mel donates.”

fruit trees at catholic community garden

Fruit trees planted during COVID thick with fruit.

Feeding the world

Brian tells me the garden was in part inspired by the words of Pope Francis. “The Pope talks about the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” explains Brian. “What we’re doing here is a practical response to that. It’s a no dig garden, so the plants and all the creatures including the soil microbes have a home. It’s a place people can come to be with themselves and be with others too. The soup lunches are supported and people in need can access fresh produce. Like all the people-focused farms in Blackheath, we’re here to support the community.”

Blackheath Community Farm

Blackheath Community Farm volunteers. L to R: Claire Lebanovits, Judith Wagner, Sasi Keosawang and Lis Bastian.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning and I’m rambling down a drive towards a collection of parked cars. Lis Bastian spots me through the raspberry tunnel and a burgeoning potato crop. “Hi Hamish!” she sings out.

This is my last stop on the Blackheath community farm and garden trail. It’s the end of the trail, but the beginning of the story. It was the first community farm in the village, aptly named the Blackheath Community Farm. It’s on land owned by Mountains Christian College. Lis ran a permaculture course at the College over seven years ago. This led to a proposal to use a portion of the grounds for a community farm and the College and community rallied to support the project.

Fried green tomatoes

When I step into the large wire-netted enclosure there is a hubbub of activity. A group of volunteers are standing around a thriving tomato plant. The exclamations and laughter centres on some conical looking fruit. Not your standard supermarket offering, but they have that pungency that reminds me of childhood time in the garden with Dad.

The ones that have come a cropper are collected and someone proposes a recipe for fried green tomatoes. Add caramelised onion, lashings of Worcestershire sauce, a little sugar and serve on fried eggs.

coriander seeds

Coriander seeds ready for cooking and storing and reseeding.

This farm is a little different than Cliff View and the Community Kitchen Garden. Its mandate is to grow community first, then locally acclimatised seed and finally food.

Volunteers come on a Sunday between 10 and 1, but on blue-sky days, people hang around until 3. There’s always a communal lunch. People bring different dishes and Lis’s sourdough bread is broken.

Everyone does a walk round first and then people choose what they want to do. Gathering the week’s crop is always exciting. Recipes are swapped over lunch. Connections are made. Friendships developed. And those who simply want to be with the earth and its bounty are left to their quiet joy.

blackheath community farm

Ash on strawberry quality control, with dad Robin in the background.

Seeds

Lis tells me the Farm keeps seeds circulating. She says that collecting seeds is really important. If you find plants that grow well in the unique Mountains conditions, preserving those species starts with seeds.

In her early years in Blackheath, she started a micro business called Crazy Climate Seeds. The packets fittingly featured a cockroach with a pitchfork and the tagline “If they can grow in Blackheath they can grow anywhere”. The same pack has been adapted for Farm seeds which get sold at Open Days and Garlic Sale Days. People can obtain seeds too by contacting Lis directly. Plants that go to seed are left to do so. Seeds are collected, including some for cooking, like coriander.

“Some seeds, like the parsnip over there, only stay viable for 12 months,” Lis says. There is a lovely history here. The parsnips have been growing in the garden since its inception. They were given to Lis 25 years ago by Anne Jolliffe. Anne lived in Blackheath and was one of Australia’s first female animators. Notably, Anne worked on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine animation. They are now fondly described as Anne’s parsnips.

Other plants, like the perennial scarlet runner beans, grow vigorously along the garden’s edge. They too are stalwarts of seasons gone by.

runner beans

Scarlet runner beans with Mel’s potatoes flourishing behind the chicken wire.

Other people have contributed plants to the garden. Mel Michael who has recently taken over The Vegie Patch in Blackheath regularly donates seedlings. “All those different potatoes thriving along there are from Mel,” Lis says. “She’s so generous and has an eye out for community.” Vegetable scraps also come from Mel to feed the compost. Volunteers bring organic matter too and a woman who rescues rabbits brings carbon in the form of a poo/straw mixture.

The compost of life

lis bastian at blackheath community farm

Lis Bastian with some of week’s vegetable harvest.

The Community Farm reflects one of two strong strands of Lis’s approach towards planetary health. “It’s hands in the dirt, meeting with lovely people, exercise, Vitamin D and building community. This is one way to be healthier yourself, and to start creating better, healthier systems,” she says.

“There’s a quote from a book called Braiding Sweetgrass,” she continues: “I dream of a time when the earth will give thanks for its people. The earth is amazing,” she says. “With so little care it still gives so much. With a little help, it’s bountiful. My focus is on everything that creates and supports life, rather than destroys it.”

In her role as Senior Lead for Blue Mountains City Council’s Planetary Health Initiative her second focus is on broader systemic change and includes the power of media and storytelling to change our culture, by sharing what people are doing in the world to make a difference. “Someone once told me, Whatever you do, spend your life peddling hope,” she expounds. “It’s about sharing news that’s also life-giving.”

“Since I learnt about climate change decades ago, doing something about it has been paramount. Doing things, even small things, matter to the planet. They have a huge impact on how you experience the world too. I want to live fully to the edges of my life every day. Death is inevitable, but our ‘job’ as an integral part of the natural world, is to live, and support life, with all our being while we can.”


Take Action:

  • Help feed people in the community by volunteering at a community farm.
  • Be part of community building by hanging out with people and plants.
  • Enhance your mental health by getting some ‘green time’ in your diet.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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