Five Canberra gardening heroes

Susan Parsons
Fiona Buining of Ainslie with a bowl of hazelnuts.
Fiona Buining of Ainslie with a bowl of hazelnuts. Photo: Melissa Adams

For this 2014 Food and Wine Annual, my editor suggested we feature people who are doing great things for the local kitchen gardening community. My list was long, so I asked some Canberra specialists for their nominations.  Here are our top five:

Dave Pentony

In 2003 when Kitchen Garden visited David and Hideko Pentony at Wallaroo they were selling farm produce at Kingston Old Bus Depot Market, Jamison Trash 'n' Treasure and Hall Markets. Ten stallholders were interested in starting a dedicated farmers market so Pentony took the idea to Hall Rotary Club and the first market opened at EPIC in 2004. Four years later the Pentony family opened Choku Bai Jo in Lyneham, followed in 2011 by a shop in Curtin, where 50 small producers supply fresh vegetables, groceries and other food. Organically certified produce is grown on the Pentonys' farm at Gooromon Ponds Road and, during summer, it is raised outdoors. Hideko, Dave and his son, Ben do all of the growing and harvesting with help from occasional Willing Workers on Organic Farms.

Their favourite summer crops are tomatoes, basil and eggplants from which they make quantities of brinjal pickle. They hold farm visits for groups of school and university students and open days for members of the public to learn about organic vegetable growing.

Paulene Cairnduff with lemons and pumpkins at the Holder community garden.
Paulene Cairnduff with lemons and pumpkins at the Holder community garden. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Dr Joyce Wilkie

Geologist Dr Joyce Wilkie moved to Gundaroo when she met Michael Plane and the couple, both backyard vege growers, decided to run a market garden at when their boys started school. Their need for better tools to do their small scale, intensive farming led to Plane making ergonomic broadforks, known as Gundaroo Tillers, now manufactured by a young South Australian farmer who came to them as an intern.

At Allsun Farm from 1987-2000 many WWOOFers  developed a new view of food and agriculture. In 2010 they started the 'Growing The Growers' project, training young farmers on long-term internships and launching them into an organic farming career.They mentor three students a year and encourage other skilled farmers to do the same. Visitors to Open Day in October saw crops growing outdoors and in two polytunnels used for tomatoes and capsicums,150 laying hens and newly-acquired black Berkshire pigs. An intern who had grown tomato seedlings for the day sold 1,000 plants. Just harvested garlic is their crop of the moment with zucchini, dwarf beans, silverbeet and basil supplied to The Gundaroo Grocer, the National Arboretum kitchens and Silo in Kingston.

Paulene Cornish-Cairnduff

Horticulturist Paulene Cornish-Cairnduff studied horticulture at CIT Weston from 1979 and received her diploma in 1991. As senior horticulturist at Pialligo Plant Farm for 23 years, she conducted classes on home gardening and garden design, giving advice to customers and growing-on plants for sale. She and husband Denis Cairnduff lost their home and garden in the 2003 bushfires and she was coordinator of the supportive Phoenix Garden Group. In 2005, her new home garden with its no-dig vegetable beds, was open to the public.  Paulene joined Open Gardens Australia in 2006 and runs the plant fairs held at Lanyon Homestead. For years she worked part time at CIT Weston, then Bruce Campus as a horticultural support worker for people with disabilities. She became a Friend of Fetherston Gardens in 2010 and is an active committee member at their working bees. She is President of the First Canberra Garden Club and, to celebrate their 50th birthday, the club holds weeding and planting working bees among Australian native plants at Rocky Knoll in the National Arboretum. In the home garden and a Canberra Organic Growers' plot in Holder, Paulene is harvesting broad beans, beetroot, silver beet, rocket and lettuce. Potatoes, beans, zucchini and cucumber are planted for summer.

Dr Richard Stirzaker
Dr Richard Stirzaker Photo: Supplied

Dr Richard Stirzaker

CSIRO Scientist Dr Richard Stirzaker grew up in Cape Town, South Africa where the sandy soils and hot rainless summers of his childhood vegetable garden kindled his interest in water and food. In his O'Connor garden, with wife Dr Mary Stirzaker, featured in Kitchen Garden in 2002, they have continued to grow African white maize and cowpeas, staples of West Africa.  A number of ideas that sprung up in that garden have become research and even commercial products. The first was 'Clever Clover', a system using clover and lucerne in no-till vegetable gardens, growing your own mulch. The award-winning FullStop Wetting Front Detector is an invention that started in the garden and has now been sold in the thousands in Africa, South America, Europe and Australia. The device shows how deeply your irrigation water goes into the soil and collects samples of soil water so you can test for salt and plant. In 2010 Stirzaker wrote Out of the Scientist's Garden, a book that looks at how the world uses water to grow food. He used his own garden as a lens through which he made global issues understandable for a lay audience, including what the world eats and why. The Stirzakers were eating peas, spinach, strawberries and cherries (under netting) during November and first tomatoes from the greenhouse.

Fiona Buining

At Merici College in Braddon, where she has been employed as a science teacher since 2012, Fiona Buining takes years 9 and 10 students in a sustainability elective and year 7 students in a stewardship program in the school's productive kitchen garden. Merici is part of the ACT Sustainable Schools program, now called ACTSmart Schools. Hospitality students use everything grown in the garden in the school canteen and restaurant. Recent crops have provided spring onions, rainbow chard and snow peas and the students eat strawberries in the garden as they work. There is a mobile hen house with ten chickens. A spreadsheet is kept of everything harvested, including value of the produce in dollar terms. At Merici Growers' tasty tomato sale in October, 700 tomato plants of 14 heritage varieties, raised by the students, sold out in 1.5 hours. In the home garden in Ainslie, with her husband Dr Michael Wilson, Fiona grows hazelnuts, asparagus and blueberries, a green romaine lettuce with red spots called "Flashy Trout Back" from Southern Harvest in Tasmania and sour cherries that are bottled in brandy.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.