23 February 2024

Gilly's Kitchen Garden harvests community spirit and sustainability skills with new wellness centre plans

| Keeli Royle
Start the conversation
Claudia Walters and Grant Lubickij at Gilly's Kitchen Garden.

Claudia Walters and Grant Lubickij at Gilly’s Kitchen Garden. Photo: Keeli Royle.

An old heritage-listed headmaster’s cottage in Otford has been transformed into a sustainable space for connection and education, and there are plans to elevate the opportunities for the small community even further, with unique programs to integrate gardening, cooking and the arts in the works.

Claudia Walters first came across the property when it was on the market in 2018 and thought it had a lot more potential than being just a home.

“The opportunity to turn it into something where the community could actually go and see the heritage listed property rather than it being locked up by one family that’s living in it was exciting for me,” Claudia said.

“Then the fact that it had the beautiful garden, the opportunity to be turned into a teaching space, basically an outdoor classroom, presented itself.”

But it wasn’t a quick or easy task to transform the property to meet her vision, with significant earthworks being undertaken to create the incredible garden space displayed today.

“We’re now just in the very early stages I suppose; the last few years has really been establishing.

“As you can imagine, fruit trees take years to establish – and building the soil, because Australian soils aren’t terribly rich, so we’ve been focusing on that.”

READ ALSO Crop and swap group rekindles tradition of sharing garden produce while growing community spirit

Now Gilly’s Kitchen Garden, named after former Otford Public School principal Arthur Gilchrist who taught students in the isolated community how to grow vegetables and fodder crops in the early 1900s, is preparing to offer even more experiences to help residents connect with their environment and each other.

Courses and classes will not only give people hands-on experiences in the garden, but will also show them how they can transform that knowledge into the kitchen or the art classroom.

“We have just started trialling a program called ‘Seasonally Yours’ which is a 10-week program; basically you get eight people, they come in and they get access to five square metres of space,” Claudia said.

“It’s already got its drip line and irrigation and all that kind of stuff and we teach them about 20 varieties that we’ve used successfully in the area.

“We’ve also got such a number of real specialist people in the area that will come in and do one-day sessions for us too and really open up the scope of what we can do.”

The concept of the kitchen garden is something that connected deeply with Grant Lubickij and he has been part of the team that played a pivotal role in transforming the space.

“I helped build the terraces where the veggies are, reconstruct the food forest, built the greenhouse, built the creek line and landscaped that area and then I deliver some of the workshops we do now,” he said.

Grant’s involvement was almost like fate, after a road closure stopped him driving to a house in Otford he was renovating.

Deciding to catch the train, he would watch the initial works at the property progress, and knew it was right up his alley.

“I assumed it was a family and thought I would go knock on their door … they must be really cool like-minded people and thought maybe I can volunteer my time in this garden and they might give me some veggies in return,” Grant said.

“Then the road opened up and I got busy and forgot all about it.”

But a screenshot of a social media callout helped him connect.

“A friend saw this place on Facebook – I’d never mentioned it to them before, but they knew I would be interested,” Grant said.

What Grant initially thought could be a good volunteering opportunity turned into employment he was extremely passionate about, including running sessions onsite and at the neighbouring public school.

READ ALSO Green Connect farm produces fresh food, jobs and a sense of community

And there’s set to be even more potential on the horizon with a development application now with Wollongong City Council for a new wellness centre.

“You need facilities to do a cooking school so that’s sort of critical,” Claudia said.

“And we want to be able to offer rooms to do pottery and that sort of thing so you need a kiln and bits and pieces.”

But the changes aren’t set to impose on the small community.

“We’ll be refurbishing the existing building, adding one room which will be the cooking school and then just providing some car parking and storage at the back,” Claudia said.

“From the street, it will retain its character absolutely and it will stay very small scale for minimal impact.”

And will instead offer them a unique place to join together.

“It’s a place for the community to connect over important issues like sustainability and food security and then also just to have fun,” Grant said.

“I love linking people,” Claudia said. “I love giving people a place to be able to be their best and I think this is doing it.”

To find out more about programs and the development visit the Gilly’s Kitchen Garden website.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Illawarra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Illawarra stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.