Gardening: From little things big things grow

By Deborah Light 16 June 2009
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Today’s Australian vegie gardeners are a diverse bunch: experimenting with flavour, committed to the environment, and building communities of family and friends.

LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION for dinner most days, Lorraine Shannon steps out the back door of her modest home in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Annandale. What’s ripe? What’s plentiful? She consults a well-thumbed cookbook. Tonight it’s cabbage with fennel, tomato and chickpeas, cooked with a splash of wine. All bar the wine and chickpeas she’ll pull out of the vegie beds that two years ago replaced what had been a sorry stretch of concrete. Lorraine has noticed her household food costs have decreased considerably, but there’s more. “I find it very satisfying,” she says. “I’m not particularly suspicious of bought food but I do think about the food miles [energy cost of bringing produce to the plate]. Also, philosophically, I like the notion of smallness.”

Across the continent on the south-western lip of WA, chef Matt Egan, at Cullen Wines’ restaurant in Margaret River, follows a similar routine. He’s out most mornings in the restaurant’s garden, which is now infiltrating rows of venerated vines. What he finds will become the focus of the menu. “The good thing is you don’t have to do too much to it because what you’ve got is bursting with flavour,” Matt says. “With broccoli, for example, you’ve just got to give it a quick steam and then fry it off with a little bit of garlic or chilli oil and give it some sea salt and it’s absolutely fantastic. Everyone notices the difference because it’s so fresh.”

In an outer suburb of Melbourne another chef, Mark Savage, plans lunch for the 53 residents of the Lionsbrae aged-care facility. It’s lamb’s fry tomorrow, with a side dish of silverbeet. For afters it’s rhubarb fool, always a favourite. The menu board boasts today’s contribution – rhubarb and silverbeet – from the garden: 12 raised beds of vegies chosen, planted and tended by residents. “They tell us what’s happening in the garden,” Mark says. “They come in here and tell me what’s ripe and what I should be out there picking. It’s like working for 53 in-laws. But it’s really doing what they did [when they were in their own homes]. It’s a normal lifestyle. It’s their garden.”

A potter about in a vegetable garden signifies different things to different people: health, thrift, pleasure, exercise. That hasn’t changed throughout the history of European settlement in Australia. What’s different today is the sudden, staggering popularity of the endeavour: suburban backyards are being jack-hammered and planted out, vegie gardens are sprouting in primary schools, community housing, council allotments, and at the back of fancy restaurants. You can track it in magazine sales, book releases and through seed suppliers – or simply ask those who regularly talk to gardeners, including two Australian stalwarts, Peter Cundall and Don Burke.

Both trace the movement to concerns about climate change and food quality but note other motivators. “It’s happening to an extraordinary degree,” says Peter. “I can’t get over the number of people who contact me with unconcealed delight to say ‘I’ve dug up my lawn and I’m now growing the most fantastic crop of vegetables’.”

Home grown vegies

The range of what’s being grown astounds him – he says there are 50 varieties of potatoes alone on sale in his home State, Tasmania. “There are varieties of vegetables that were grown in the 1800s or even prior to that. Stuff with flavours we’ve forgotten. They’re coming back; all these amazing plants.” One of his new favourites is kale. “It’s a primitive cabbage – nothing more. The difference is, because it’s primitive it’s full of vitamins and minerals that the modern hybrid cabbages never have.”

Don Burke has also been rocked. “Over the past maybe three years, it’s become by far the biggest thing in horticulture in Australia. It’s probably the biggest single trend I’ve ever seen.” He’s also surprised by the age of new devotees: “It’s commonly young people. It is in a sense a very powerful new religion: we have to be gentle to the planet, gentle to ourselves and protect the family.”

There’s a brag factor too. The backyard has overtaken the front as a source of pride. “They want to cook up very good food – and of course they grow that themselves and just grab a handful of that coriander and chuck it still wriggling onto the salad – it’s a broader trend to be an individual, to be different,” Don says.

Throughout the history of European settlement in Australia the vegie patch has always meant more than mere thrift. Andrea Gaynor’s research for her 2006 book, Harvest of the Suburbs, dispels the idea that backyard vegie gardens were largely the precinct of the poorer classes. For a start, the poor were actively discouraged by local councils’ prohibitions and fees. “Also, the reality of the situation was they were more likely to be mobile, so they couldn’t establish fruit trees, for example,” Andrea says. “The poor were likely to be working hard – outside or inside the home – so less likely to have the leisure to pursue food production.”

It was the middle classes that championed the vegie garden. “They were interested in saving money to some extent, but they also wanted to pursue healthy forms of exercise and virtuous forms of recreation. For white-collar working men engaged in sedentary occupations, the home garden was a good way to get that. It also had the advantage of making them feel like a farmer in an era where farmers were respected and farming was highly valued.”

According to Andrea, the popularity of growing your own vegies surges in times of uncertainty, such as war. “Britain, facing serious food shortages, had begun using the ‘Dig for Victory’ slogan as early as in 1939,” she writes. “In Australia, sporadic, informal efforts at encouraging home food production began in 1941. By 1943, however, the position was looking sufficiently serious for the Government to devise a large-scale ‘Grow Your Own’ campaign” that encouraged “home gardeners to grow their own vegetables as a patriotic duty”.
Historically considered the man’s domain, the backyard plot had always been worked by women and recognition for their efforts began to emerge during the women’s movement of the 1970s, Andrea says. Esther Deans was an early heroine. Her above-ground vegetable garden on Sydney’s upper north shore – ingeniously constructed of layers of newspapers, hay and mulch – attracted tens of thousands of visitors, and the Esther Deans’ Gardening Book: Growing without digging inspired hundreds of thousands of gardeners here and overseas. 

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS had also begun to emerge. Rachel Carson’s 1962 exposé, Silent Spring, alerted the world to the effects of pesticides on the planet’s ecology and sparked a global debate, though it took a while to find its way to the backyard. “In the 1970s more people start to explicitly reject chemical pesticides and fertilisers,” Andrea writes. “It’s tied up with ecological lifestyles. People in general are looking to find nature.” Backyard gardeners are getting busy again today because, Andrea believes: “People are concerned about global warming and food miles, and maybe we’re entering into another period of global insecurity in terms of terrorism. People try to find some symbolic security, which they do through food production.”

Now it’s not just fear, it’s fashion, and restaurants are onto it, growing their own, or by arrangement. It’s happening across the range from smaller eateries such as that at Cullen Wines to luxury resorts. “There’s definitely a movement among many of the cooks I work with,” says Julie Gibbs, publisher of popular foodie books by some of Australia’s best chefs, who has tracked the trend throughout the past 18 months. “They now want to have and tend their own vegetable patch if they haven’t before. This is a passion for where their food comes from. They want to grow it if they can and this is the direction they want to take their new books.”

Garden Digger’s club

Business is also booming for Clive Blazey, founder of Digger’s, who’s in constant contact with the 60,000-plus members of the Digger’s Club – claimed to be Australia’s biggest gardening club. “Some people are doing it to save the world, a lot are doing it to save money,” he says. “There are people who do it because they know the food is healthier for them; people want to trust what they’re eating. If you’ve got the Black Russian tomato, the bigger pumpkin, or some of these heirloom varieties, you tell your neighbours.”

The crusty proprietor reports that sales are up by 70 per cent in the past year alone. Membership has also increased. He’s surprised that water restrictions haven’t slowed demand. “We thought we’d be knocked for six. But all it did was irritate gardeners to such an extent they went to extraordinary levels to make sure that they protected their water sources.”    

The environmental argument is important to many, Clive among them. “More than 25 per cent of the CO2 emissions everyone’s getting anxious about are caused by the fact we don’t grow our own food,” he says. It’s not just the food miles and associated energy costs to sow, plough, harvest, process, transport then refrigerate a crop that bother Clive. He also takes issue with the energy costs of producing fertilisers, pesticides and weedkillers. “A lot of greenies have worked this out, but it’s still getting through to the rest of the population. Growing your own food is actually the quickest way you can cut greenhouse emissions.”

Climate change concerns loomed in a recent Newspoll survey, which found that 60 per cent of Australians believe the place to make a positive impact is in the backyard. Conducted for the Nursery and Garden Industry Australia, the July 2008 survey showed 74 per cent of respondents are interested in sustainability and gardening as a means of helping the environment. Growing vegies, fruit and herbs is particularly attractive to 83 per cent of 25–34 year olds. Roughly 63 per cent of Australians reported having an “edible garden” – up 3 per cent on the previous year – including those restricted to balconies, courtyards and patios.

1930 Prominent nursery proprietor Herbert J. Rumsy writes a book on the Australian tomato, highlighting market garden road stalls as the ideal marketing vehicle.   

WHEN HOWARD JARVIS took on the job of maintenance man at Lionsbrae aged-care centre in the outer Melbourne suburb of Ringwood East just over a year ago he was dismayed by the scabby back lawn. “Part of me groaned when I looked at the soil,” he says. “The other part of me groaned when I realised I was going to have to mow it. That’s fuel, the cost of the machine, the fumes. And it’s not producing anything – just grass.” Howard wrote to management requesting permission to install vegetable beds. Now, 12 raised beds – with more in progress on an adjacent plot that will supply a planned soup kitchen – house a huge variety of vegies and flowers. “They are growing varieties you can’t get in supermarkets, old-style varieties few have seen in 20 years,” he says.

Lionsbrae chef Mark Savage is an enthusiastic participant. He’ll cook just about anything he’s asked to. “It was a hobby garden last year – bits and bobs and single-bed crops – but what is nice now is that in almost every meal there is something from our garden. We have cooking classes. The residents might pick plums, stone the fruit, and we’ll make the jam. You see a room of people making jam and it just lifts your heart.”

While the women are busy in that enterprise, the men are at weekly beer-brewing sessions, or putting together garden furniture. “It’s not about having activities to entertain,” Mark says. “It’s about sparking an interest and getting involved. They take over and we step back.” Another benefit is increasing visits from relatives. “They go out there and have a yarn, picking the strawberries and feeding our chooks,” says Howard, showing off the ‘girls’: six very plump chooks that are as tame as cats.

As Howard gestures across the beds, bursting with colour as marigolds and jonquils jostle with cabbages, leeks and peas, he says: “Food is a great and unifying force. It beats language. People are attracted because the garden helps make it different, so we get more visitors and more volunteers, and so on. It snowballs. It becomes a community.”

Across the country, another garden has blossomed. A polluted scrap-metal yard by the railway was destined to become a car park until in 1994 a group of citizens earned a two-year reprieve for the land to try a community garden. Today City Farm, in East Perth, flourishes. Winter rainbow chards, kale and sweet potatoes give way to beetroot, carrots, broccoli and capsicum in spring under a lush canopy of trees – almonds, nectarines, citrus and ornamentals such as white cedar. Ducks, geese, quail, rabbits and guinea pigs – plus a substantial earthworm population – all contribute too: aerating soil, producing fertiliser or polishing off pests.

Thom Scott is employed as grounds manager 20 hours a weeks, and puts in another 40 hours a week as a volunteer.

“It’s my passion,” he says. With its weekly organic and monthly artisan markets and other activities, including music gatherings, it’s a vibrant little hub. The garden gives back to the community in ways beyond the obvious. It runs a substantial work-for-the-dole program, is a regularly scheduled stop for students to learn about self-sufficiency, and is a popular choice as therapy for those with physical disabilities and mental-health problems. “I think the social communication is hugely beneficial,” Thom says. “It also helps replenish those with low batteries. They may simply want to contribute to the community and this is a way to do that.”

It’s also a place to reap the benefits that community brings. Thom met his wife, Rosanne, another City Farm pioneer, at the garden. They were married here in 1999. Thom’s old dog, Ninja, is buried within the grounds. “He’s still there; his essence is spreading through the earth,” Thom says. And that’s what it’s all about. “It really is communing with the soil and the environment and the spirit of the earth and understanding we are part of it.”

Australian Geographic Jan – Mar 2009