Joe Garita with tractor

Walking home across Jones Park last week I noticed an old white flatbed Toyota Dyna swinging around the Albion Street bend into Nicholson Street.  

The well-maintained truck, now close to fifty years old, felt completely familiar. I shook my head, smiling – wondering whether it really was my old friend Joe Garita’s truck.

Last Thursday it was five years since Joe died.  I looked up what I’d written back then and I think it’s a story worth retelling….

You might know Joe from the broad bean seeds we gave out last year.  Joe has been growing these broad beans in his Coburg market garden since 1945.  On that small piece of land on the banks of the Merri Creek, Joe and Jean Garita raised seven children and watched the city grow around them.

One by one the neighbouring market gardens and dairies that had fed the first European settlers were replaced by California bungalows until all that remained was Joe’s hectare of veggies – an island of beans, chicory, tomatoes and rapa surrounded by a sea of tin and tile roofs.  

In the 70’s a freeway was proposed and fought off. The supermarkets came and the corner grocers disappeared. Small farmers were priced out and left the land.  But the Merri, as always, kept flowing and flooding, and Joe, as always, planted and harvested – taking his produce on his old flat-bed Toyota to the wholesale market. 

In 2003, ready to retire, Joe began handing over his market garden to CERES a couple of rows at a time.  It took three full years until he passed on the whole farm.  

I didn’t get it at the time but I came to realise he was giving us an apprenticeship, making sure we knew how to take care of the land he’d stewarded for 60 years.  When that was done he kept guiding us; gently pointing out what he saw then leaving us to either learn or repeat our mistakes.

I learned many things from Joe about being a good farmer but I think I learned more from him about being a good person.  He was endlessly forgiving despite the many hard things that had happened in his life.  When I got angry at people stealing our zucchinis or broad beans he would tell a story, his infectious giggle always bringing out my reluctant smile.  

Joe was a big tree in our community, he sheltered and nurtured many.  Now he has fallen it is plain to see the space he filled in our lives.  In the last few weeks a stream of family and friends came to say goodbye, to hold his hand, hug him and hear him say “Hey….” in the special welcoming way he had.  

I can’t think of the Merri Creek market garden without thinking of the man and even though CERES has been farming there for 12 years I will always think of this place as Joe’s garden.

Five years on and the clearing Joe left is slowly being filled by a diverse new understory of farmers, teachers, artists, cooks, volunteers, children, weed-daters and eaters of all kinds. 

And now this new generation seeks to marry Joe’s effortless connection with the skills and stories of the original owners who stewarded life on this bend in the Merri Creek for so long before we began growing our broad beans.  

And I think, were he here, Joe would welcome that with a gentle smile and a trademark “Hey….”

Have a great week

Chris

Merri Kids Club - Joe's Market Garden Coburg

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