A GARDEN at Balnarring where residents could pick their own vegetables, chat with neighbours and learn about plants is no more thanks to council red tape.
The garden, along the fence line in a public walkway between properties on Wattle Street, was the handiwork of 82-year-old Greg Merlo who looked after it like his own but was always happy to share its bountiful produce.
He and his wife Anna twice a week cooked up pasta for their eight to 10 mainly elderly neighbours from the garden’s tomatoes, eggplants and zucchinis.
“It was something that drew the community together,” said Mr Merlo, who before his retirement was principal of Westpark Primary School at Hastings.
“I spent much of last year leaning on a shovel talking to people.”
He said the garden “grew by suggestion” with neighbours adding their ideas and helping with the chores and picking what they wanted. It produced 20 pumpkins last year and even had a fig tree.
“The local joke was somebody telling me they had taken all my figs,” Mr Merlo said, adding that the vegetables were complemented by a variety of flowers.
“I’d go outside and it would take me two hours to come back inside. Everyone wanted to have a chat and learn about gardening and, of course, pick some vegetables.
“I had hoped to create plots for kids in the area to learn about plants and their care.”
A bout of septicaemia put Mr Merlo in hospital towards the end of last year and reduced outdoor activities.
This may have been the catalyst for change because, despite the garden looking “absolutely lovely last October”, the winds of officialdom were about to blow it away.
Mr Merlo said a council officer knocked on his door and told him the garden was illegal and had to go or he would face a $2400 fine.
“The next minute, a man arrived with a rotary hoe and set to work and now it is gone,” he said.
“I was hanging out hoping something could be done, but I haven’t fought it too hard as I have been sick.
“However, I really would have loved to have been able to wait until spring.”
Neighbours said Crs David Gill and Antonella Celi had supported the garden as a way of productively bringing the community together.
Cr Gill said he favoured a policy opening the way for street gardens in suitable locations despite them being a “vexed issue”.
“Quite a few people spoke to me about how they supported the garden and I agree with them,” he said.
“We should be encouraging people to do this type of thing. If there’s a policy saying it is not allowed, then we should be changing the policy.
“However, once someone makes a complaint the council has to act on it.”
The shire’s community safety and compliance manager Shannon Maynard acknowledged the Merlos grew the fruit and vegetables with the “best intentions” but that “concerns … had been raised by several nearby residents”.
“The location is inappropriate for a community garden as it’s at the end of a small residential court, backs onto an arterial road and is a reserve set aside for drainage,” he said.
“No fines have been issued … but [they] have agreed to remove the infrastructure they’ve put in place by the end of winter.”
Mr Maynard said growing and sharing fruit and vegetables was a “wonderful thing that strengthens community connections”.
“We have a range of policies and community information kits to encourage this practice and have a policy of issuing permits to householders wishing to plant on their nature strip,” he said.
“We are keen to work with the couple and the broader Balnarring community to gauge the level of interest in establishing a community garden in a more appropriate location.”