Evergreen Every weekend, a small army of volunteers dig below the surface

Text: Caroline Baum

When a once well-tended backyard slides into neglect, it is often a subtle sign of more significant decline. For many, a garden is an expression of pride, identity and self-sufficiency. But at a certain point, arthritis, poor eyesight  or unsteady balance may make spreading mulch and raking leaves too demanding. And while research suggests that the longer seniors stay in their own homes, the better their well-being, family members are not always willing or available to prevent nature becoming a jungle, and may not be the green thumbs their parents were.

Garden Care workers, Sydney 2017. Photography by Dakota Gordon / @dk.gordon

Fortunately, assistance is at hand – literally. Garden Care is one of those under-the-radar schemes you only find out about when you start searching online for help for elderly relatives. Federally funded  through the Department of Health and Ageing, the Easy Care Garden Care initiative provides a free annual trim-and-tidy staffed by volunteer horticulturalists and their helpers. A parallel program offers lawn mowing and heavier duty maintenance with power tools. In-between visits can be arranged on request in cases of severe disrepair.

Garden Care is available in many areas, including  Bondi, Randwick, the northern beaches, Parramatta, Rockdale, Penrith, Kuringai and Hunters Hill. In the inner west,  Canterbury has 550 properties registered in suburbs  from  Marrickville to Lakemba,  maintained by  a dedicated army of between 35 and 40 volunteers. “It really suits someone who likes to keep things tidy,” says Kathy, a new volunteer, “because there is the real satisfaction of a before and after transformation.”

Demand for helpers exceeds supply. As with most such community schemes, the ratio of women to men is high. “Generally people find out about us through flyers in cafes or word of mouth at local markets,” says Gillian Whalley Okafor, Manager of Aged and Disability Services for Canterbury City. “Many of our volunteers  are not gardeners. Some have come to us more out of an interest in looking after the elderly and discover the impact they can have and the pleasure of working outside. We provide basic training and regular workshops to upgrade skills on tool maintenance and pruning techniques as well as courses on first aid and understanding dementia.”

Teams work year round for four hours in the morning, “rain or shine”, says Okafor. The pace is purposeful but leisurely, broken up by the ritual of morning tea provided by the client. “We’ve had home made scones and in one case, a stir fry from the garden,” says horticulturalist and team leader Deb Dunn, when NEIGHBOUHOOD visits a group at a garden in Ashbury belonging to Win, a 92 year old widow who has lived in the area for more than sixty years. 


“Don’t forget to close your secateurs, everyone,” Dunn reminds volunteers as they rise from their kneeling pads and down tools. They’ve pruned a  towering duranta and  weeded most of the flower beds. The group prop up their rakes and make sure their boots are clean before  settling around the kitchen table. The tea break gives clients an opportunity to socialise and thank  their helpers. Unlike many  gardeners today, Win says she never bothered to grow vegetables, because a man used to come round to sell them from a cart. This provokes a heartfelt chorus of envy.

“Better get back to it,” says Robert, a volunteer who joined the group five years ago after being laid off as the manager of a commercial laundry in Newtown. “I don’t like being inside, and I was looking for a physical occupation,” he says. “Now I enjoy it so much, I wish I had made gardening my career.

For fellow volunteer Maria, Garden Care is “my outdoor gym”. She says, “You are always stretching  and squatting to do this work,” she says. And, she adds, “with all the diversity of the community we work in, it’s become a food safari. I get to taste  things that are growing in Italian, Greek and Arabic and Asian gardens. The other day I ate a home-grown pomegranate.”

Volunteer Kathy says: “When I go to the Greek and Italian gardens, I get given loads of citrus fruit. The trees are very well established and bountiful and  represent a particular era of migrant tradition that I am not sure is going to continue into the next generation.”

“Fresh produce is  definitely one of the perks of the job,” agrees Deb: “Some clients also teach us how plants are used medicinally in their culture. And you get to take cuttings!”

By lunchtime, leaves from the street-planted gums have been swept off the lawn. “They are the bane of my life,” says Win feelingly, as she inspects her helpers’ handiwork.  A previously straggly, reshaped  rose bush is a source of particular satisfaction. “Now,” Win says, “I can look forward to seeing it bloom.”


To access the Garden Care service visit the My Aged Care website. 

To volunteer for Garden Care follow this link.


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