Wayside Chapel's Rooftop Gardens

We needed to provide food that has a positive effect on our visitors ...

A gentle breeze takes the edge off the raw heat of the afternoon sun. A light rustle of leaves and the humming of bees is occasionally interrupted by the fizz of water escaping a hose and gentle laughter.

It’s not the type of scene you would expect less than 200 metres from the heart of Kings Cross in Sydney, but this little oasis is the rooftop garden of the Wayside Chapel, a community service for thousands of homeless people. For the past 50 years, the Wayside facility has given support to those who need it most – providing upwards of 9,000 community meals last year alone.

When the Wayside Chapel building was rebuilt in 2011, the staff decided to get serious about a growing project that at the time consisted of a few sun-deprived herbs in the back lane. According to Wendy Suma, the manager of Wayside’s community building projects: “At the time of the rebuild, the team were having some important discussions about the nutrient content of the food we served… Our visitors already have some critical health issues, and the reality of serving donated food is that a lot of it does nothing more than
alleviate hunger.”

“We realised that we needed to provide food that has a positive effect on our visitors, and at the heart of that was a need for fresher ingredients; we thought it would be a great project to grow some of it ourselves.”

The novice staff gardeners teamed up with volunteer local green thumbs in the area, who laid down the basics for the garden. Today, the facility has four composts, three worm farms, two beehives, solar panels, rainwater tanks and a homemade scarecrow.

Last year, the Chapel hired a local horticulturalist, John Gibson. Gibson visits once a fortnight to manage soil nutrients and give lessons on maintenance. “The visitors love to learn; they now know how to use worm castings, mix compost, rotate pots, and because it is a windy site, they make sure that plants have straw mulch to help keep the moisture in.”

Many passionate people choose to visit the garden because of the rewards it brings, Suma says. “Pee Wee is a man with a long-term mental health issue who has become a regular visitor, coming to water the garden multiple times a week. He loves the curry bush. His care for it is unique, in that he often shows this love by hugging it. It’s great because the world he sees otherwise is concrete and bitumen. A lot of people who visit are disconnected from family and friends. They don’t have a community; their only community is here at Wayside. Discovering how to nurture and care for something is a great learning curve, and it helps our visitors to nurture and care about other things in their life.”

Alan, a regular visitor of the garden for over a year said the plants provided him with a new stability in his life. “When I started, I didn’t trust myself to go near the edge, because, you know, it is pretty high – this was when I used to spend a lot of time flirting with oncoming trains, but the garden has been really good and I have been doing pretty well since then,”
he says.

“The garden is intended to be productive, but more than anything it’s a breath of fresh air – it’s just so great for people’s mental health,” Suma points out. “Even though we’re only a few floors above the street, it can be so quiet and peaceful that you feel as though you’re in a different world.”

In the long-term future, Suma hopes that some of the regular homeless visitors will become so involved in the garden that they can be employed to work there. If you live in the area and would like to get involved in strengthening your community, visit www.thewaysidechapel.com for more info.