How to grow a verge garden: 'Since I've been doing my gardening, I know half the street'

Kate Nightingale at her garden
A self-described ‘brown thumb’ until she began her verge garden, Kate Nightingale is now known locally as ‘the crazy plant lady’ and happily dispenses gardening tips to passersby, who often stop for a wine or a cuppa and a chat. Photograph: Sally Dillon
A self-described ‘brown thumb’ until she began her verge garden, Kate Nightingale is now known locally as ‘the crazy plant lady’ and happily dispenses gardening tips to passersby, who often stop for a wine or a cuppa and a chat. Photograph: Sally Dillon

Transforming underutilised urban spaces into productive or beautiful gardens has a host of benefits

Sally Dillon

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 21.20 EST

Kate Nightingale wields a pair of secateurs in her footpath garden in Camp Hill in Brisbane’s east, and passersby keep stopping to chat.

Her garden is a riot of colour, with bulbous cabbages squatting below nodding purple campanula bells and heritage lettuce peeking out among lime zinnia blossoms. A greengrocers’ aisle of herbs and vegetables all find a place on the footpath. Nightingale says: “I can always make dinner out of my garden. We don’t buy that many veggies any more.”

Nightingale is part of a growing movement to turn the often-neglected strip of grass between a property and the road – known as the verge – into a garden. Local authorities are responding by developing guidelines for officially sanctioned verge gardens.

Giant cabbages nestle among stalks of purple campanula bells, cos lettuce, and pink-and-white petunias in Kate Nightingale’s verge garden.
Giant cabbages nestle among stalks of purple campanula bells, cos lettuce, and pink-and-white petunias in Kate Nightingale’s verge garden in Brisbane. Photograph: Sally Dillon

City of Sydney councillor Jess Miller rattles off the benefits: they capture water runoff, reduce street-tree maintenance costs, cool the streets, encourage wildlife, slow traffic, build community, increase self-sufficiency and even raise home resale values. “There’s no other thing that we can do as a city that promotes health wellbeing, environmental outcomes, economic outcomes and citizen empowerment,” she says, concluding that growing things is one of the most important things that can be done in a city.

ABC’s Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis says too often verges are wasted real estate. “A one metre verge running for 10 metres is a valuable commodity that should be turned into food or wildlife habitat, instead of energy-consuming grass or a place for dogs to do their daily constitutional,” he says.

So, if you’re ready to convert your verge, where do you start?

Check the rules

Council guidelines vary, but most have a few basics in common. Leave space for people to walk and to get out of their cars. Most councils don’t allow garden ornaments, stakes, climbing frames or paved edges. Keep plants shorter than 50cm to 75cm to maintain safe sight lines. Avoid declared weeds, prickly and poisonous plants.

Check the location of public utilities such as power, water, gas and telecommunications services by calling Dial before you Dig (1100), and leave bus stops clear.

Start small and be realistic

Costa says: “Don’t try and transform the whole thing. Start with a small section. Get that up and going. That way you’re not overplaying your hand.”

He says you can’t just set and forget, even if you’re growing natives. Allow about six months to establish plants. “Don’t get caught up in the whole idea of something as low maintenance or no maintenance – if you do that, you’re setting up the wrong mental framework. Look at it as a destination, as physical exercise and mental therapy. Don’t look at it as maintenance.”

On the plus side, you don’t have to mow.

Prepare your soil

You can find Kate Nightingale in her verge garden most afternoons, deadheading the flowers and harvesting her abundant vegetable crop.
You can find Kate Nightingale in her verge garden most afternoons, deadheading the flowers and harvesting her abundant vegetable crop. Photograph: Sally Dillon

“You can’t just dig a hole and pop something in and hope it grows. You need to improve your soil,” says Nightingale. Talk to other gardeners or local nurseries about your local conditions, but at the very least you need to add compost and then fertilise and mulch well.

Make a plan

See what grows in your neighbourhood and think about what you want to achieve. Colour or fragrance? Birds or butterflies? Flowers or food?

Miller says growing food is harder in cities: “Trying to grow food in the city of Sydney is really difficult because of the contamination in the ground, so we have some guidelines making it clear that if you want to plant edibles, it’s better to plant them above ground in planter boxes.”

In Brisbane’s suburbs, Nightingale is a fan of mixing it up: “Mix your veggies with your flowers. Not only does it make it look really interesting and pretty, but it can be good for bug and pest control.” Plus, a floral border helps keep dog pee off your edibles.

Elsje Evans-Tracey (9) from Woolloongabba weeding in her native garden. Elsje applies the lessons learnt from her school environmental ed lessons to her home garden, with help from her mum Naomi Evans.
Elsje Evans-Tracey from Woolloongabba weeds in her native garden. Photograph: Sally Dillon

To attract wildlife, think about their habitat needs. Naomi Evans planted native shrubs in Brisbane’s Woolloongabba to encourage birds. “We planted melaleuca claret tops to bring back the fairy wrens. Small birds need dense thickets to hide from the larger birds,” she says.

Choose plants that won’t grow too big or spill over footpaths.

For inspiration, connect with your local bushcare group and native nursery, and with Facebook groups such as ReVerge and Urban Agriculture Australia. YouTube gardening videos, such as those from Self Sufficient Me can provide useful tips.

Watch your community grow

Chat to your neighbours first to engage them in the project and disarm any objections. You might even end up with gardening buddies. In Woolloongabba, Evans has formed a “volunteer verge garden consortium, to help anyone in our street who wants to give it a go”.

A viola grows in a crack in the wall at Nightingale’s Camp Hill home.
A viola grows in a crack in the wall at Nightingale’s Camp Hill home. Photograph: Sally Dillon

Nightingale has literally sown the seeds for several other local verge gardens, sharing plants with passersby. “When I moved in about 15 years ago hardly any of us talked to each other,” she says. “But since I’ve been doing my gardening, I know half the street. They might pop over and have a glass of wine or a cup of tea out the front and some people say they walk up this street just to see the garden.”

  • This article was amended on 13 November 2020 to clarify a quote by Councillor Miller, who expressed that growing things is one of the most important things that can be done in a city, not the most important thing.

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