In the centre of Katherine in Australia’s Northern Territory, a hydroponic greenhouse has started growing green leafy vegetables and herbs.
By Christine Brown-Paul
Lying 320 kilometres southeast of Darwin, just below the “Top End”, Katherine is the fourth largest settlement in the Northern Territory. The township began as an outpost established with the Australian Overland Telegraph Line on the North-South transport route between Darwin and Adelaide.
Since that time, Katherine has grown with the development of transport and local industries including mining – especially gold mining. The town is a tourism gateway to the attractions of nearby Nitmiluk National Park, which embraces the dramatic Katherine Gorge and its many ancient rock paintings. The region is known to experience heavy flooding during “the wet season”.
Katherine today is a modern thriving regional centre that offers a wide range of services to communities from the Western Australian border to the Gulf of Carpentaria on the Queensland border. Covering an area of 7,421 square kilometres, the Municipality of Katherine is located on the beautiful Katherine River, offering excellent fishing, walking and cycling.
The township has a population of over 10,766 people – the wider region boasting a population of just over 24,000, 60 per cent of whom identify as Indigenous.
On a vacant block in the centre of town, the Katherine Indigenous Women’s Association, has teamed together with Jobfind and the not-for-profit organisation Food Ladder to develop a community garden and hydroponics greenhouse centre.
The project has backing from the local council and pre-approval for funding from the Territory Government.
Director and co-founder of Food Ladder, Kelly McJannett, said that the focus for the project is on “produce you just can’t get up here in regional and remote communities.”
“That is, typically leafy greens, the kind of produce that is very nutrient rich, high in iron and incorporating that into the diet of local people,” Ms McJannett said.
“We are really excited to be growing leafy green vegetables, but we would love to be doing strawberries as well.
“Having a walk through the local shop, it is really expensive to get really good local produce, so we want to bring all those costs down and make it really easy for people to buy really good quality veggies,” she said.
Ms McJannett said the hydroponic setup uses town water to irrigate plants in the greenhouse.
“It is a very sustainable model, it is all closed-loop reticulation, so none of the water is wasted,” she said.
“We filter [the water], we put nutrient in, so no pesticides. We are not certified organic but we are certainly chemical free.”
The greenhouse is currently growing English spinach, broccoli, kale, garlic, Swiss chard, coriander, parsley, beetroot and lettuce.
The plants are grown in trays of small, round clay pellets known as hydroton.
Food Ladder’s Lina Challita said the hydroton replaced the need for soil.
“They serve as anchorage and something to keep the plants moist and retain the water as we irrigate [the plants],” Ms Challita said.
“The advantage of this is that it lasts way longer than soil, so we don’t have to keep adding fertiliser, manure, and it doesn’t clog up the hydroponics system.
“The pellets contain a certain amount of nutrients and the rest has to be added through the water.”
The plants are irrigated and fertilised through drip irrigation, which is recirculated through the system.
Ms Challita said the controlled environment of the greenhouse allowed for even growing conditions.
“It is quite hot here, so we need fans to control the temperature,” she said.
“Then we have a cooling pump to cool the water down, because that is the most important bit. It is not the air temperature, but the water temperature that affects the plants.
“We also have wet walls [which] are used to remove the humidity within the greenhouse,” Ms Challita said.
Ms Challita said a new crop could be planted in the hydroton immediately after harvest.
“We don’t need to work the soil, we don’t need to ad fertiliser, mulch, leave it rest. We can keep growing in cycles, one after the other using the clay pellets.”
Produce from the greenhouse is being sold to the Katherine community and local cafes.
Katherine Indigenous Women’s Association chairperson Taryn Kruger aims to engage the community with the garden.
“The other way is showing them how to grow it in the beds,” she said.
“Bringing back that ‘80s thing where everyone used to grow everything in their backyard and now it’s like run to the markets.”
Ms Kruger said tomato and rosella were two of the more popular plants, and there were plans to run a competition to see who could make the best rosella jam. Ms Kruger said they had already approached the schools, which had already started their gardens, to help them maintain their own plants as well as setting up a training garden at the community greenhouse site.
Katherine Indigenous Women’s Association has also been working with Charles Darwin University for its members to become qualified trainers and assessors to further develop the skills with the community. Local businesses have also started requesting fresh produce from the garden, with more expected to come.
Ms McJannett said that if the initiative in Katherine proves successful, Food Ladder would look at starting similar greenhouses in communities across the Northern Territory.
“We really want to be working with communities all around the Top End, I don’t know why all communities shouldn’t have access to great quality produce,” she said.
“In that process we really look forward to working with government to make this a real strategic rollout to address nutrition in the Top End. We look forward to making a big dent in nutrition and making meaningful jobs for people in communities.” Ω
PH&G September 2016 / Issue 171