Kitchen Garden

Former Monatgue Island kitchen gardens in disrepair and ready for restoration.
Former Monatgue Island kitchen gardens in disrepair and ready for restoration. Photo: NSW Parks and Wildlife

Kitchen gardens were first established on Montague Island, nine kilometres off the South Coast at Narooma, in the 1880s by lighthouse keepers and their families, and are now being brought back to life.

Many readers of The Canberra Times are familiar with Montague Island and its fur seal colony, penguin rookery and seabird sanctuary, but do any of you have memories or memorabilia linked to the kitchen gardens that could benefit the work? Perhaps your family were lighthouse keepers on the island?

Discovery co-ordinator with Parks and Wildlife, Cassandra Bendixsen, based at Narooma, says more than 4000 people visit Montague Island each year. Volunteers can pay to stay overnight on the island while working on little penguin research, or on a seabird habitation restoration project, which includes removing weeds, particularly kikuyu, and reintroducing native plants, working with a ranger with help from a botanist and biologist. Feral goats and rabbits have been removed from the island.

Former Monatgue Island kitchen gardens.
Former Monatgue Island kitchen gardens. Photo: NSW Parks and Wildlife

Colonial architect James Barnet designed the lighthouse keepers' houses on Montague Island. For Bendixsen, her favourite mornings are waking on the deck of the big house to watch the sunrise and, from September to November, watch the southern migration of whales. In the evening, the magic is lying on the little penguin-viewing platform when the penguins have come ashore, the lights are off and the constellations are bright.

South Coast historian Laurelle Pacey in The Lure of Montague (2001) records that the lighthouse keepers and their families grew peas, beans, cabbages, cauliflowers, sweet potatoes and Cape gooseberries. Some also kept chickens, ducks and geese.

The project is being led by the local branch of the Australian Garden History Society, which was asked by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to advise on the restoration. Sydney historian Colleen Morris is preparing a history of the gardens.

Canberran Dr Louise Moran, who chairs the Australian Garden History Society, says on her first visit to Montague in May, she was shown a penguin nesting in what was probably a former pig pen. There is a Parks and Wildlife field officer on the island at all times, in weeklong shifts, and this year they grew tomatoes, basil, garlic, chillies and cucumbers - which were cropping up prolifically in May. The island is formed from granite with little soil. There are two freshwater springs and an old well at the current site of the kitchen garden, established in 1937.

>>Readers interested in visiting Montague Island on a tour, or volunteering for working bees, or anyone with knowledge of the early kitchen gardens can email: cassandra.bendixsen@environment.nsw.gov.au

>>Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.