People living with a disability in the Shoalhaven have a unique opportunity to cultivate and learn about native plant species while immersing themselves in local Indigenous culture as part of the Flagstaff Group’s new Binowee project.
Plans are in the pipeline to develop a native nursery and green learning space at Flagstaff’s South Nowra site, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants will gain skills that incorporate working with flora, grounds maintenance, learning about Shoalhaven native species, discovering Indigenous culture and the importance of project-based tasks.
The new Binowee social enterprise will become an additional business arm for Flagstaff and an expansion of its current ground maintenance and property services. It will also provide more employment opportunities for people living with a disability.
Flagstaff Group Services manager Hayden Fineran said participants would gain a range of new skills, ranging from native seed propagation and planting techniques to disease identification and chemical application methods.
He said they would also learn about plant species that are endemic to the Shoalhaven and Illawarra Region, why they are important and how they can be used as bush tucker.
“The feedback from our staff and the community identified that, if we’re doing a native nursery, it would be wonderful to provide some cultural learning opportunities as well,” he said.
“The Binowee project is not just about the plants, but also how they tie into Indigenous culture, and the lessons and stories that come from that.
“We’re hoping that the participants will walk away with a host of new skills and knowledge, and hopefully the program will provide some more education around their cultural identity.”
Indigenous consultant Shane Venables has been appointed to work with participants on designs for the nursery and cultural learning space, which will include a yarning circle and sensory elements.
“It’s a great step by Flagstaff wanting to put in this native garden and to include some Aboriginal advice in the project,” he said.
“It’s going to be really nice to bring this space to life using endemic plants from the area and using our knowledge from the landscape, looking at different families of trees, the types of plants and what they’re used for.”
Shane said he would bring an “indigenous perspective” to the project, which he hoped would “help bring mother back to her natural beauty”.
Some of the participants and staff at Flagstaff have Indigenous heritage and he said it was important for them to learn the skills to manage plants and care for country.
“Some of our participants are First Nations and it’s great for them to get that hands-on experience working with country and doing something that’s natural for our mob, and that’s been instilled in us,” Shane said.
“For non-Aboriginal people, it’s great for them to learn those skills and to be involved in a social enterprise that builds up Indigenous plant stocks that can be planted throughout the Shoalhaven region.”
First Nations participant Nick Boyd has been employed at Flagstaff for 15 years and provides lawn and garden maintenance service in the Nowra region three days a week.
“I’m everywhere. I do a bit of lawns, machinery work, a lot of hands-on stuff in the workshop,” he said.
He’s looking forward to expanding his skills and learning more about caring for country and local plant species.
“In the nursery, I’ll learn about different flowers and plants, and how to grow plants from seeds,” Nick said.
“Having native plants is very important because then we can bring some of the birds back in which aren’t around at the moment, like Black Cockatoos.
“We went for a walk out the back with Shane and got some seeds and after three or four weeks, they’re starting to come up.”
He said he was also keen to learn more about his Indigenous heritage through the program.
As well as being involved in the design and construction of the nursery, participants will have an opportunity to complete a Certificate II in Land Conservation and Management in the Flagstaff classroom.
They’ll also have a chance to incorporate the bush tucker grown in the garden into their cooking programs, embracing the wholistic farm-to-plate cycle.
From concept to fruition, the 18-month project will be documented by Illawarra filmmakers Beyond Empathy.
Hayden said storytelling was the “essence of knowledge” and an important element of Indigenous culture that would create another layer of learning for participants.
“This is a really cool opportunity to capture the awesome work they’re doing and it’s a reflective piece as well,” he said.
“The documentary will follow the journey of the physical space, the garden, and also the journey of the participants who will talk about the skillset they’ve learnt, how they’ve applied those skills and what it’s really meant to them.”
The film crew will document the participants’ visit to community organisations and businesses, and they have already filmed a segment at the Jamberoo Native Nursery offsite where they were given plenty of advice about how to propagate and care for the plants and to view the latest technology being used at the farm.
A Development Application for the nursery and building extension is currently with Shoalhaven City Council and Hayden hopes, once approved, construction will commence in early 2024.