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Sydney is home to the first ever Indigenous rooftop garden dedicated to native plants

Yerrabingin House Rooftop Garden
Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

There are 70 finger limes planted into around 25-40 centimetres of soil on a rooftop of a new building in Eveleigh. Warrigal greens glisten under the weight of recent rainfall, two species of saltbush (‘old man’ and ‘ruby’) tussle for space, and we’re taking a deep inhale of the spearmint-like scent of a native rivermint (we’re told it’s very good in a Mojito).

Christian Hampson, one of the founders of Sydney’s first native plant rooftop farm tells us, “We’ve got mountain species next to coastal species next to western desert species – and they’re all thriving in this environment. 

“We started off with just over 30 species. The idea is that we create an ecosystem up here, attracting birds and insects that pollinate our food species.”

Hampson and his co-founder Clarence Slockee have spent three months tending to their new garden, and almost two years on a bigger project that’s set to become a template for others who want to learn about the benefits of edible, medicinal and culturally relevant plants to Indigenous Australians. 

“We wanted to disrupt not only the way that Indigenous business was done, but also environmentally conscious enterprise.”  

Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

Hampson is a Woiwurrung and Maneroo man and Slockee is a Mindjingbal-Bundjalung man. They’ve named their operation Yerrabingin, which means ‘we walk together’ in Muktung, from Hampson’s grandparents’ language. “It’s about the time when the first people and the first spirits walked the earth and they were taught about how to look after the land. It’s about knowledge transferring, and about collaborating.”

“As Aboriginal men and community members, you’re constantly seeing community consultation as a concept – just going around and around with the same result,” says Slockee. “We’re bringing Indigenous knowledge and process into the design thinking space to hopefully have more involvement in the beginning right through to the end.” 

More than 2,000 plants are flourishing on the fourth level of Yerrabingin House, which is found next to the former Australian Technology Park. The rooftop is set up with the support of developers Mirvac, who are behind the new Commonwealth Bank buildings too. Hampson and Slockee are managing all the green spaces in the precinct – part of their vision to showcase Indigenous land management and native foods on a larger scale. 

“We’re hoping to grow larger species [on ground level] so we can have a foraging walk around the whole 12-hectare site,” says Hampson. 

Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

On the roof they have a restriction of 900kg weight per square metre. “Essentially what you’re standing on now is a 500m2 planting box,” Hampson says. Plants like native raspberries and sea fig have around 25-40cm of growth before the roots grow down through the geofabric and into the cavity space below, which allows free drainage, and the soil has been designed so it’s essentially half the weight normal organic soil.

The space is open to the public – many of whom come up for a peaceful lunch break – and there are weekly tours of the native plants at 12.30pm on Fridays for $15. 

“This is a prototype of what could happen on the hectares of roofs within Sydney, but also what Aboriginal communities on their own land can look at doing. We see it like a showroom – there are species that people know about, but are not aware of their taste – so brewers and distillers can think of it like a kitchen garden on steroids.” 

Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

Yerrabingin is working with restaurants like Paperbark, and cocktail bar Bulletin Place is one of their regular shoppers. Kylie Kwong is a good friend of theirs and uses their saltbush in her pork buns. 

They’re working with smaller businesses, and Indigenous catering companies, as produce is only available in limited and seasonal supply. “The great thing about Evan [Stroeve from Bulletin Place] is that he changes his menu every day, so it’s perfect for us. He comes and gets a basketful and uses it immediately.” 

“The interesting thing about the bushfood industry is that demand is outweighing the supply, and unfortunately some of the supply is wild sourced, and it’s having an impact environmentally,” says Slockee. “The Kakadu plum, for example, you can’t get it for less than $250 per kilo dried so that’s a lot of fresh kakadu plum which only fruits once a year.”

The idea behind the Yerrabingin rooftop is that the whole community can treat it like their own backyard. “They can do propagation and germination workshops so they can take these plants home, which is getting these plants out to people,” says Slockee. 

Photograph: Cassandra Hannagan

They’re also planning to host Indigenous musicians for performances on the roof. They’ve applied for a liquor licence so they can run foraged cocktail parties, and they’ve even had their first wedding enquiry. “The more diverse the rooftop can be the more sustainable the space is.”

Lvl 4, Yerrabingin House, 2 Davy Rd, Eveleigh 2015. www.yerrabingin.com.au. Free. 

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