Exploring a Hidden Rooftop Garden

Hidden away in plain sight, right above the streets of South Eveleigh (Mirvac’s newewst and coolest development) is Australia’s very first native rooftop farm! Here they grow a range of edible Indigenous plant species, and aim to engage with the local community through a series of workshops focusing on Aboriginal culture and arts, native permaculture and environmental sustainability.

In the lead up to NAIDOC week, we caught up with Matt McKay the Project Manager of Yerrabingin rooftop garden. We discussed some of the problems you encounter when building a rooftop garden, where all the food they grow actually ends up, and how you can get in on the secret!

A lush green oasis in the middle of the city!  Source: @trending_city

A lush green oasis in the middle of the city!

Source: @trending_city

Can you tell me a little bit about how Yerrabingin came about?
When Clarence Slockee and Christian Hampson the directors and cofounders who have known each other for awhile did a business masters at UTS and decided to start a business together. They graduated and hit the ground running, and started speaking to Mirvac about the cultural landscape garden on the grounds of South Eveleigh and then that led to this rooftop project and the precinct maintenance so us being able to employ a team of local Indigenous people to look after all of the green space of this precinct, in a pretty innovative and environmentally friendly way.

You’re taking an innovative approach to some really big issues that big corporates are trying to tackle, you’ve briefly mentioned Indigenous disadvantage, environmental sustainability and health and wellbeing, can you talk about your vision for this space to combat those issues. 
The power of this space is it connects people to nature in the middle of an urban setting, it’s a bit of a green oasis that you might not expect to find here. That connection has been done through an Indigenous lens, so it provides empowerment for Indigenous people to tell their story of how they interact with the land, and potentially pass on some of that tried and tested wisdom and insights. In terms of health and wellbeing, you can either read the studies, or you can just go out and be in nature and notice how relaxed you feel so we think that’s a benefit to everyone in the local community to have a space like this. In terms of Indigenous disadvantage, again it’s about creating an empowerment model where you can use Indigenous social capital to provide for future generations.

Talking about the model you’ve set in place in terms of Indigenous empowerment, how integral is this to the business especially around NAIDOC week?
It’s everything to us, it’s the core of what we do. We have 5 on our team; lead horticulturist, an apprentice, the two directors and myself. Kyle and Joseph manage the green space of the precinct, I’m the project manager of the green roof and the wrap around programs, and Christian and Clarence as the Directors of Yerrabingin. We’re working on a lot of designs and getting more gardens up and running, indoor plantscapes - lots of exciting top secret things in the works!

The boys with one of the pollinator towers.   Source: Yerrabingin.com.au

The boys with one of the pollinator towers.

Source: Yerrabingin.com.au

You’re kind of hidden away on level four here at South Eveleigh, so how can members of the public engage with the important work that you’re doing up here? 
I think one of the best ways to come and check it out is on one of our lunchtime tours that run every Friday at lunchtime, where you get to see the plants and the design elements of the space. Alternatively come check out one of our workshops, we obviously have quite a few on for NAIDOC week but then we also run weekend and midweek workshops as well which you can check out on our website.

Can you tell me about how you want to get the local community involved in mindfulness in this green oasis in the middle of the city?
Regular practise that we’re holding up on the roof, called Wayapa Wuurk that was developed down in Victoria, but the model is travelling around. So we have an indigenous dancer who is running our classes, it’s basically a mindfulness movement practise that the founder calls “wifi for the earth”, so it’s about using the Indigenous perspective to connect and create environmental spirituality through a series of movements. It will be running three times a week up on the roof, but there’s a free launch as a part of NAIDOC week .

Now my favourite activity that’s running as a part of NAIDOC week events is the sun ceremony and breakfast, can you tell us about that?
We’ve got a morning ceremony and a breakfast coming up where we are working with an Indigenous caterer, Kallico, to run a breakfast from 7.30am on Thursday 11th July, with a morning ceremony hosted by Clarence & Christian. 

We also have our rooftop farm tours that run every Friday, and there will be one on NAIDOC week inline with the NAIDOC week theme Voice, Treaty, Truth - which just means I’ll be even more outspoken than usual to suit that! One of the Aunties from around here said that “Tourism is the New Activism” and I quite like that you get the chance to talk to people face to face and explain certain angles.

The workshop I’m most excited about is run by the amazing award winning Indigenous artist, Georgia Macguire who will be coming up from Melbourne to run a paperbark flower making workshop - she makes these incredible flowers and you will make a couple to take home on the rooftop farm on July 13th. Keeping in theme the guys at Paperbark will be dropping by with some snacks, so that should be reason enough to come to the relaxing “crafternoon”!

Warrigal Greens   Source: Yerrabingin.com.au

Warrigal Greens

Source: Yerrabingin.com.au

Finger Lime   Source: @greenvalleyfingerlimes

Finger Lime

Source: @greenvalleyfingerlimes

Now I’ve heard you refer to this rooftop farm as an experiment, so what have you learnt so far?
Lots of things! Potentially these could be some of the best species, not only food species but also plant species for a green roof because they adapt to the design and engineering constraints of a growing on a rooftop. As green roofs become mandatory in more cities around the world people will start to look at this data of what works best and what doesn’t, and I think our model is quite strong as it’s not just a cover for the roof there is a lot of biodiversity up here, they’re food plants and its a cultural empowerment model as well as it is an interactive and experiential space. 

Can you talk about the challenges you’re facing in maintaining a garden thats on a rooftop 4 floors up?
Getting green waste down the lift! Obviously anything you want to cut back, you have to move somewhere. We do get it all composted and turned into soil, but it’s got to get to the ground floor first. We had 90-100km winds that came through recently, and as we’re a rooftop it’s quite exposed - we found the wind shook some of our structures and wind burnt a few of our plants, but most of them stood up to it pretty well. Also as it’s a public space, sometimes it can be hard to find the balance between maintaining the garden, showing everyone around, and also ensuring people don’t just come in and eat everything - it’s not all edible!

Do you have any issues with birds and insects up here?
We try to compost as much waste as we can - we collect waste from local cafes, with the idea being that all the waste from this community building at South Eveleigh will come up here and be fed to our worms. We can either use the castings and liquid gold worm wee on the gardens, or give to the local community, but more importantly that we’re composting all those food scraps. We’ve had a few caterpillars up here, so teaching the apprentices to identify the right ones that you want to keep up here that are endemic locals or threatened in their habitat. We’ve had a few Orchid Swallow tail caterpillars and Whistling Moth caterpillars turn into butterflies up here, we have two resident magpies that come up here and feast on the native raspberries and one noisey native minor bird that’s made it’s way up here too. 

A little bird also mentioned the possibility of trialling native bees up here?
We’re currently trying to find a way to put a hive of sugar bag bees up here as pollinators, but they do require specific conditions like shelter, and at the moment we might not have enough green infrastructure to shelter them and we might have to wait till next spring to bring them in. We can’t wait as they will do wonders for the garden and a lot of our plants require that pollination! Due to the weight restrictions for the garden, we weren’t able to put in trees so to add some height we actually got our local blacksmith from Eveleigh Works to whip up some pollinator towers, and we have multiple flowering species here to try to naturally attract pollinators like bees and birds, but  obviously being four floors up it would be great to have our own supply of pollinators.
From a local perspective, which food and varieties grow best in this area of Sydney?
Sydney coastal species like Pig Face are pretty hard to kill, and they have beautiful (and delicious) fruits! We have native raspberries which tend to do quite well up here, we’ve got different types of saltbush - so a lot of the Sydney endemic species will do well as this is their home, they’ve evolved here but we’ve also been surprised with a few species trialled up here - it’s all a part of the big experiment!

Where does the food go after being grown here? Who are you partnering with?
Most of it is still growing, we’ve been here for just over 4 months so we haven’t gotten to the fruiting season yet for a lot of the plants. Some will require a little longer to get up and running, so a year or two. We’ve got a lot of interest from local chefs, bartenders and local cafes. People that are currently utilising the limited products we do have at the moment is Paperbark restaurant on Dank Street, and Firedoor came up to take some mint and made some tea. We’re working with Bulletin Place and just trialling things at a moment, and they will decide what they want. In a couple of years once everything is established we will have a few key chefs and cocktail makers that we work with.  We have what you might call a limitation, just in that it’s not really a commercial production farm as we don’t have the space, but we get to ensure it’s all grown seasonally.  We encourage a lot of the local chefs to come and forage their own products, like the guys at Paperbark forage their own saltbush and warrigal greens to use at the restaurant - and that’s the kind of people we want to work with!  Bulletin place changes their menu really frequently, so keeping it seasonal and that’s perfect that’s who we want to partner with as that’s the reality of food. It’s seasonal, and that means you eat it when it’s there, and adapt when it’s not.

Paperbark using Yerrabingin’s warrigal greens   Source: Paperbark Instagram

Paperbark using Yerrabingin’s warrigal greens

Source: Paperbark Instagram

Evan from Bulletin Place   Source: Bulletin Place Instagram

Evan from Bulletin Place

Source: Bulletin Place Instagram

And I think that is a key part of the sustainability model, aiming to decrease the mileage that’s involved in getting food from A to B?
Yeah exactly we’re pretty big on that, plus it’s better for your body I think to eat what’s in season! We’re trying to get the idea of food kilometres, turned into food steps where possible, where chefs will actually walk here and pick it fresh off the plant. 

Speaking of cooking, do you cook?
I haven’t had a lot of time to cook lately, but it’s been fun experimenting with the ingredients up here like the salt bush leaves, cooking those and bringing out the umami flavour - that’s something I’ve learnt from my new chef friends! I’m slowly incorporating more native ingredients where I can, top tip - chia seeds and wattle seeds go quite well together in muesli!

Matt explaining the rooftop planting patterns.   Source: Culture Scouts

Matt explaining the rooftop planting patterns.

Source: Culture Scouts

Closeup of mixed greenery.   Source: Culture Scouts

Closeup of mixed greenery.

Source: Culture Scouts

We’d like to say a massive thank you to the legend Matt for taking the time out to talk to us!  Get involved and check out one of the many events Yerrabingin are holding to celebrate NAIDOC Week. Otherwise, you can take one of their public lunchtime tours to meet the crew and learn a thing or two! Click here for more info.

Erin EedyComment