City patch shows the way

Susan Parsons
Sean McConnell works in one of the community gardens in New Acton.
Sean McConnell works in one of the community gardens in New Acton. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Mocan and Green Grout, the on-trend cafe in New Acton on the corner of Kendall Lane, has a cafe garden of edibles. Soon after it opened a year ago, a friend found what was then a hole-in-the-wall coffee outlet and we have returned there a number of times and watched it grow into the place to dine.

Now there are raised concrete planter boxes of herbs and trays of seedlings soaking up the sunshine at the door.

My unannounced pre-lunch visit for this story found chef Sean McConnell clipping herbs into a silver bowl.

McConnell is the youngest brother in the Melbourne cheffing trio of Andrew McConnell (celebrated chef at Cutler and and Co, Cumulus Inc and Golden Fields) and Matt McConnell. Sean McConnell trained and worked with his brothers in Melbourne before moving to Canberra seven years ago, where he worked at Silo Bakery before heading to Vanuatu with his wife.

This year, he's back in Canberra and has recently opened Mocan and Green Grout for dinners Monday to Wednesday with a short seasonal menu that changes weekly and uses his own produce.

He says he allows some plants to go to seed so they get a selection of beautiful edible blossoms to use as a garnish for salads on their specials board.

On this occasion, there were borage flowers, radish flowers, sage blossoms, mustard cress blooms and parsley flowers.

McConnell is also raising interesting seedlings at home to an advanced stage before transplanting them in the New Acton community gardens.

Among them are summer savoury, chamomile, bergamot, rue, calendula, chocolate Jolokia and Bhut Jolokia chillies (the hottest in the world) and Pimientos de Padron peppers (the Russian roulette of chillies).

Acton is special to me as I was one of many new Canberrans who lived at the Hotel Acton in the late 1960s.

Its location was convenient, within walking distance of the Australian National University and the Supreme Court, both places that filled my days and, on weekends we walked down lawns to the lake foreshore.

Oaks and elms from those days are now mature specimens, some shading central courtyards and others having wool strung from their trunks in patterns like a cat's cradle game.

At the Art, not Apart funky open suitcase market in October this year, I visited the community garden, and while I was admiring strawberries with hot pink flowers and spinach with unusual spear-shaped leaves, Nectar Efkarpidis of the Molonglo Group which is developing this precinct, turned up with a large tray of seedlings.

Efkarpidis says the vegetables and herbs have been planted as part of a community garden for residents.

The 10 raised planter beds were sourced from the Little Veggie Patch Co in Melbourne. Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember who developed this sustainable system for growing food in small spaces and have written two books, the Little Veggie Patch Co's How to Grow Food in Small Spaces and Guide to Backyard Farming - great Christmas gifts.

Michael Gray, head of food for the Molonglo Group, says the beds were filled with two centimetres of pea gravel, then veggie mix soil from Amey Bros in Pialligo mixed with some sawdust, a layer of rich compost, and a layer of organic pea straw mulch around the plantings. Hessian was suspended from stakes to protect vegetables from frost during winter.

Certified organic seedlings come from John Cassidy at Willow Park in Pialligo and Nectar Efkarpidis buys seeds from Ceres organic market in East Brunswick, Victoria, which is an excellent resource for rare and heirloom varieties.

Summer plantings include six varieties of heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, peas, cos lettuce, celery, onions and spring onions, sweet and purple basil, sage, rosemary, oregano, mint and Vietnamese mint, radish, rocket, mizuna, lemon balm, curly and Italian parsley, three varieties of thyme, nasturtiums and coriander.

There is also a row of young citrus trees including Eureka lemon, the lemonade tree, Tahitian lime and Kaffir lime.

Compost bins have recently been delivered for compostable waste from all of the New Acton cafes.

>> Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.