By Mikayla van Loon
The dilapidated gardens surrounding The Bridge House in Kilsyth have undergone a remarkable transformation over the last 18 months, bringing new life to the community space.
Referred to as the “phoenix” of projects by Japara board chair Mark Doubleday, the works have provided a meaningful facility with complete accessibility.
“Two years of pandemic, everybody left and it fell into a huge disrepair,” he said.
“It takes a community to build a community garden. Japara is like a village, with a shared vision and some great effort.”
Reflecting on the original vision of Jean Bridge and Margaret Fennell to bring people together, not only has this project done just that but it is the desire of Japara to ensure connection is one of the outcomes of the garden’s rejuvenation.
Engaging horticulture and garden students from Valley Care, team leader Erin McLaine said the transformation itself has been amazing but more so the growth in her students has been a delight to watch.
Typically learning on smaller, private projects, Erin said to be able to work on this larger scale garden every Thursday and see it from start to finish has been an invaluable learning experience.
“The gardening crews go around and they can do anything from building gardens to maintaining gardens and landscape crews will go do retaining walls and planting,” she said.
“The growth in these guys has been pretty amazing. So we’ll take on any challenge really.”
Student team leader Josh Marslek said as the project has taken shape, the engagement with the community has also grown, another learning opportunity to speak with and give advice to onlookers.
“Every day, every week we’re here I hear people say, ‘Oh, my goodness, that looks amazing’. They’re blown away, or they ask what’s going to be there and all different kinds of questions,” he said.
“It’s good for our knowledge as well. We can learn it and show other people as well and that’s what it’s all about.
“We’re very proud of ourselves and everyone and happy the community appreciates it.”
The plans for the garden included wheelchair access, with planter boxes at the appropriate height for people with disabilities, a sensory garden that’s yet to be completed and lots of edible produce.
“It’s very inclusive, it just brings everyone together. That’s what a community garden is all about,” Josh said.
“It’s a great space for people with mental health as well. You can come in and have a chat here and you’ve got a nice landscape to look at.”
Japara’s community engagement coordinator Christie Humble said part of the vision too was the ability to connect people to services and groups like Valley Care.
“What’s exciting too, is that a lot of the spaces we’re seeing will be used for multi purpose and now it’s going to be that people can come in and they can have a program here but then they might learn about the food cupboard or they might learn about Valley Care,” she said.
“We’re creating these different avenues and this village across this site and the hub where people have these different points of contact and connection with various community groups and services.”
As Kilsyth expands into high density housing, Christie said the garden is already becoming a sanctuary for people who are missing the connection to nature through gardening.
“We have a lady who comes down and waters the lawn and plants. She’s coming because she doesn’t have a backyard anymore and she loves gardening,” she said.
Backing onto Elizabeth Bridge Reserve, Mark said it has been a blessing that probably wasn’t thought of when the acreage became parkland.
“It might not have been realised then but having this kind of facility adjacent to a reserve like this is just priceless. The amount of people that come here on a regular basis is growing and this is people’s backyard,” he said.
With support from Bunnings Bayswater, a number of berry plants have been provided, along with other seasonal fruits and vegetables, which will be harvestable by the community.
The dreams of what can be provided in the space doesn’t stop with just gardening, with Christie liaising with Your Library about putting on outdoor cinema nights on the new lawn.
Also in the works is getting a makerspace set up in the studio for a type of repair cafe, as well as a social enterprise coffee canteen in The Bridge House.
As Erin said, the garden will “keep evolving over time” as plants grow and the community rejoins the groups and clubs who call Japara Bridge home.
For Yarra Ranges councillor Len Cox who was part of the council team who decided to purchase The Bridge House, it was a privilege to oversee the improvements being made.
“This place has come and gone over the years, but it’s certainly coming back now to be something pretty special. It really is. It’s looking terrific and it’s not even finished yet. Everybody involved really should be very very pleased,” he said.
The first stage will be finished ready for the Kilsyth Festival on 26 November.