If you value eating real foods, fresh seasonal produce and cooking from scratch but you’re yet to start to grow your own food, you’re going to love this episode.

Today I’m joined by a guy who believes that gardening is for everyone.

That’s right! Organic veggie gardening is no longer the domain of those with a migrant background, a large backyard or heaps of time on their hands.

The trend to higher density living and dwindling backyard sizes in our cities has given rise to the conventional gardener….. a home gardener who values real food and is having a red hot go at growing their own.

Mat Pember is the founder of Little Veggie Patch Co, and he’s undeniably leading the trend of growing food in small spaces. In today’s episode he’ll share some of his best tips on how you too can grow some of your own food in small spaces.

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How did you get into gardening and growing your own food?

My upbringing was defined by the Italian half of my family. Most of my holidays were spent in my Nonna and Nonno’s veggie garden. Some of my earliest memories are the smell of tomato foliage and the hot sandy soil of Fremantle, WA.

Even when we moved away for my father’s work, we still visited frequently and spent a lot of time there. We were still integrated into the Italian ways. We had our sauce making days and we made our own wine and cured sausage.

Doing things together is always the way to enjoy them the most and that’s the great thing about gardening and sharing the produce.

When I was living in a shared-house as a teenager and detached completely from that childhood experience, we decided to grow some herbs. I lived with two good friends in Fitzroy, Melbourne. We made a trip to IKEA and purchased some metal tubs, basil, and potting mix. After watering our plants for a few weeks, we discovered the soil was really wet but things weren’t growing. We hadn’t put drainage holes in our tubs! Not only were we drowning our plants, we were also frying them in our blue-stone concrete courtyard in the middle of summer.

Even though our first experience was a failure, the motivation from the failure is the thing that pulled me back and renewed my focus. From that point, I dove back into the Italian half of my family and I started paying more attention to what they were doing in the garden.

Can you tell us how Little Veggie Patch Co started, how it’s grown and about some changes you’ve seen in that time?

Over a few years of playing around at home, I decided it was time to give it a go as a business. I always wanted to work for myself.

I’d fallen into landscaping after University which got me into working outside and in gardens. I was working at Stephanie Alexander’s house around the time when she was writing her book “Kitchen Garden Companion”. I started chatting with her about an apple crate that she had converted into a veggie patch and about my business idea Little Veggie Patch Co.

When she released her book, we saw a little extract on page 14 (I still remember the page!) in setting up your own garden bed where she referred to the Little Veggie Patch Co and gave our business a plug. We started getting enquiries about these apple crates and converting them into gardens. This was a real turning point, which really legitimised the business and pushed it forward.

We had been primarily doing raised garden beds in what we considered small spaces, but were actually good-sized backyards. We only serviced Melbourne’s middle to higher class, fairly affluent, inner South-Eastern suburbs. It was a very typical clientele.

When we started to get enquiries about apple crates, that was the movement towards a smaller style of growing. These days, an apple crate isn’t a small style of growing, but back then it was.

Over the 8-9 years we have been doing this, we have been condensing to a smaller and smaller style of growing.

There has been movement away from permaculture per se. If you only have a balcony or courtyard or kitchen bench top, how do you take that and improve it in a permaculture sense?

Over the last number of years, we have gone to smaller and smaller spaces. To the point where traditional growing that we used to do is not applicable anymore to the styles of growing that we do now. It’s exciting as a business because it feels like we are pushing things forward.

What are the best edible plants to grow in small spaces?

Salads and herbs are popular because these tend to be what people use the most. But part of the fun of growing food at home is opening up the food spectrum. There is a lot of diversity to be found in heirloom seeds. You broaden the taste, flavours and aesthetics of food. People are getting more creative with what they are growing.

What small spaces in our homes are best to optimise for growing food?

Any space that isn’t being used or lived in can be utilised. We start with the place the gets the most sunlight because you want to use the assets that you have available. All plants need light, whether it’s sunlight (preferably) or artificial light.

One of the other great challenges of growing food now, is not only the dwindling spaces but also the amount of time that we have on our hands. Start with the proximity of where you use the food, in the kitchen, so that you don’t forget about it. Keep it in eyesight.

Start small and have successes early (hopefully!) because this will spur you on to bigger and better things. Failures can motivate you as well, and you can also learn a lot more.

What are some of the first steps we can take to grow our own food in small spaces?

You most likely don’t have a lot of soil to begin with so you could begin with potting mix or experiment with different sterile growing mediums, such as hydroponics or aquaponics.

Quality is correlated with price when it comes to potting mix. Paying $14 for an organic growing mix is totally worth the money because you’re setting up the right infrastructure for growing food. Always choose the best quality potting mix that you can afford.

If you are dealing with soil in bulk quantities from a soil yard, you need to be aware of the pH levels of the mixes that they have created. This is because if it contains fresh manure, the pH is going to be completely out of whack. Once it has been sitting there for a month or two it starts to balance out and create a great balanced pH to grow food. If you’re not willing to wait four weeks for the soil to balance out, you can always top it off with a bit of good quality potting mix. So, there are ways to get around a few of the problems that you might run in to.

Our gardening is gardening with resources and is not your typical style of gardening. It’s a lot about recycling and conserving costs, and doing your best to be sustainable as possible.

It’s also important to choose the right size pot for the plant that you’re growing. The tendency is to buy small pots for small, young plants. But once again the bigger the pot that you use, the better that the plant is going to grow.

We’ve also been experimenting with different grow light options. Lately we’ve been trialling LED lights, fluorescent lights, and different spectrums of lights. Edible plants require different colours of light to grow; so you’ve got your blue lights and white lights. One is responsible for foliage and the other is for flowering and fruit. You have to get the balance of light right.

We’re using LED lights in our kitchen now, and they cover all the spectrums. We’re currently using them to grow herbs in some self-watering pots. They’re being grown hydroponically in a sterile growing mix where we put nutrient water in, and they’re doing incredibly well.

The great thing about growing herbs in the kitchen is that they’re where you need to use them. I think there’s always been a stigma about how difficult it is to grow food indoors using grow lights, but it’s straightforward if you keep it simple.

What is one tip for our listeners today who are living in a small apartment and not currently growing anything but want to start?

My one tip would be to change your mind-set about growing food. Lose the stigmas that have been attached to growing food. Growing food is for everyone. Food is for everyone. It connects us better if we are involved in the process of growing food.

Start small and you’ll be surprised how far it can take you and how easy it is.

Tell us about your upcoming book ‘Grow. Food. Anywhere.’

We want to inspire people to just grow food anywhere; in any kind of space.

Due to the diminishing size of backyards over the last seven years when our first book was released, we’ve completely changed the style that we garden in. ‘Grow. Food. Anywhere.’ looks at the contemporary way of gardening.

We hope for this book to become our new food growing bible. We cover 70 or 80 varieties and have completely changed the format and style.

People want easy-to-access information that they can interpret through a photo or video and this is a challenge when putting that into print. So, we’ve completely changed the design. Now at the glance of a page you know completely what you’re up for. We’re really excited about the new direction of the book.

If we can get more people starting their food-growing adventure without feeling defeatist about their lack of skill or space that they have, then we have done our job. We really hope that this book is the book for them.

It will be available for purchase on the break of spring 2017, just before Father’s Day in Australia. It will be released Australia-wide so available from any good book store or online.

Where can our listeners find out more about you and your offerings?

You can visit our website at littleveggiepatchco.com.au.

We try to keep connected with our followers through a newsletter which provides a lot of seasonal tips and information. We also do a lot of short videos on skills and DIY projects. So, connecting to our newsletter is the best way to keep up to date with what we’re doing.

Around the time of the book launch we also will be going out to different places and running workshops – further details on these will be in the newsletter.

Laura

Laura

Laura Trotta is one of Australia’s leading home sustainability experts. Fusing her professional expertise as an environmental engineer with the down-to-earth pragmatism that comes from being a busy mum, Laura is an eco thought leader who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Laura