‘Eat Local’ takes on a whole new meaning when you can harvest food in your own backyard. Once upon a time not so long ago a veggie plot, fruit trees and chickens were an expected part of an Australian backyard. It seems more and more people are returning to the old ways with the resurgence in growing your own. More than a ‘trend’ backyard or balcony veggie gardening is proving for many people to be a source of nourishment in more ways than one.
For South Yarra local Sally Browne, being able to add a handful of homegrown herbs to her omelette or make a salad with lettuce and rocket she grew in her backyard redefines luxury. Despite enjoying the pick of restaurants, cafes and produce markets at her doorstep Sally delights in getting her hands dirty and planting a small but flourishing crop. “I love the joy of the toil. It’s a beautiful cycle from the planting to the flourishing to the harvesting and eating,” says Sally.
In her heyday as a leading Australian fashion designer, patchwork was a signature feature in some of Sally’s creations, now it is a feature of her edible garden with flowers and food planted in patchwork. “Because of my fashion background the visual part is really important, the symmetry, the colour. A veggie garden should add not subtract to the visual experience of the garden.”
Her tip for gardening success is two fold: compost and rule breaking. Compost (aka black gold) as every gardener will tell you is essential to a productive garden. Sally saves the fruit and vegetable scraps from her kitchen and puts them into her worm farm. “The worms do their work, then I use the soil to plant the seeds and then when the seedlings are ready into the garden they go,” says Sally. Another of Sally’s tips is, “Make your own rules and plant as closely as you want to. I wouldn’t know if it needs sun or shade I just put it in the ground, something will happen it lives or dies. And planting close together means there’s no room for weeds to come up,” she laughs.
Down the road in the once wildlands of St Kilda, passionate veggie gardeners and former corporate execs Matthew Pember and Fabian Capomolla, have been sharing the veggie garden love with all who will listen since 2008 when they started their business The Little Veggie Patch Co. The duo are both of Italian heritage and grew up around veggie gardens Fabian says, “Some of my earliest memories are of being told off by my Nonno for kicking the footy in the veggie patch.” All grown up Fabian finds himself telling his two year old daughter “don’t throw stones on the lettuce.” It seems your own backyard is the best place for children to learn about respecting where food comes from!
Using their knowledge to design, install and maintain chemical-free edible gardens Fabian and Mat are encouraging people to live a greener lifestyle. From basic beginnings in Fabian’s shed the business has gone from bumper crop to bumper crop and recently popped up at Fed Square in Melbourne with a pop up veggie patch. The pop up patch has an edible gardening club that urban folk can join and grow their own food in their own veggie crate with experienced guidance on offer.
Lovers of heirloom vegetables will be excited to find The Little Veggie Patch Co. heirloom seed range. As the name suggests heirloom vegetables are grown from precious seeds that have been handed down through the generations and have not been used in large-scale agriculture. They are prized for their true flavour and their resilient growing qualities.
Mat and Fabian have successfully turned their hobby into a thriving business what they didn’t bank on was becoming best selling authors. Their first book ‘The Little Veggie Patch Co.- How to Grow Food in Small Spaces’ (published by Plum) spells out the fundamentals of growing your own food with full colour photography and Mat and Fabian’s trademark sense of fun. The book was so well received their second book ‘The Little Veggie Patch Co. – Guide to Backyard Farming’ takes things a step further including details for keeping chickens and starting a beehive.
For backyard veggie gardener Rachel Van Den Bosch “apple crates and dirt smell like home.” Rachel grew up in Tasmania where her family worked as market gardeners. In the late 1990’s Rachel followed her cooking career to Melbourne to work at esteemed restaurants including Luxe and Est Est Est followed up with many years at The European Group. “I always had little veggie patches in my rentals and would regularly head back to Tassie to visit family and work on a friends organic herbs farm for peace, learning and amazing herbs,” says Rachel.
Since meeting her partner, John Middleton (“I remember talking about setting up an edible garden on our fist date!” laughs Rachel), the couple switched city living for the sandy soil of Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula. John studied sculpture before turning his talents to landscape garden design. His passion for growing food began on his parent’s acreage in the Dandenong Ranges. “Mum and Dad started one of the first food co-ops in Victoria during the 1960’s. They grew a huge amount of produce including an acre of strawberries. I remember the only peaches I ate growing up were fresh off our tree or ones bottled by my mum. We sat on boxes of preserved fruit and vegetables because we had so much produce; mum was so skilled and efficient at preserving. I’d need three people to help me do what she did,” says John.
In Rachel and John’s back garden they have a young but healthy orchard with two types of apples, a pear, tamarillo, nectarine, orange, lemon, lime, pomegranate, apricot, plum, black & white figs, mulberry, blackcurrant, cherry, almond and “a struggling blueberry.” Together they run the Sorrento Cooking School from their commercial kitchen that overlooks the orchard. About half of the produce grown in their veggie patch is used in the cooking school. “At the moment we have about 15 culinary herbs, including our favourite Asian herbs that we have trouble sourcing locally. We’re enjoying some beautiful broccoli and ‘New Zealand’ spinach and a fresh crop of breakfast radishes are on the way. As well as beans, peas and black russian tomatoes. I’ve just planted some sugar beet which I am really excited about baking with when they are unearthed in a couple of months,” says Rachel.
The garden is a family affair. “John is a magician turning what is basically a sand dune into beautiful fertile soil and I have a canny eye for pesky invaders. Our son is also a keen defender of our crops chasing cabbage moths and looking for clues under leaves,” says Rachel. In addition to the veggie patch, 4 chickens keep them in a steady supply of eggs and each year John extracts 100 plus litres of honey from beehives on their property.
There are many things Rachel and John love about growing their own food, “The quality is absolutely incomparable and I love that nothing is wasted. With our hungry chooks, healthy compost and a little menu planning, everything is either enjoyed or put back into the garden. And I think veggie gardens are such a great thing for kids. I love the lessons it shares about cycles, patience and reward, the wonder of nature. Plus of course the basic but essential skills to be able to feed yourself!”