SI Autumn Masthead
vegetable garden feature

Peas Out: Gardening towards simpler living

Genevieve Chan

Over the last decade or so, you may have noticed an increased demand in the consumer market for organic and/or sustainable produce.

Not surprisingly, the higher demand has led to an even greater popularity of the farmers market. I remember being surprised by the number of shoppers who attended the Capital Region Farmers Market during my first visit, about five years ago. When I visited again a month ago, for the first time since, I was once again surprised; there were three times as many people as I remembered. The number of stallholders had increased too. It was fantastic to see such huge support for local produce and the opportunities that demand has created.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, I know from personal experience that market and/or organic produce can be difficult to afford. My first trip to the Farmers Market and the apples I purchased had been a luxury. And I use the term ‘luxury’ loosely; we did not own private transport at the time and used public transport as little as possible, so that meant a 20km round trip on our bicycles. Our combined average weekly income for our two person household was approximately $730 a week. After deducting the expenses involved with keeping the roof over our head, we were more concerned about how to make that dollar go further on our weekly shop. I can imagine this concern would be greater if that income were less and/or if the household included young dependents.

During those tight times, my husband, Brendan, and I thought a lot about growing our own vegetables; we even tried, but our west facing balcony was not ideal. About three and half years ago, we moved into a townhouse with a 10 x 5m2 southeast facing courtyard. One day, we decided we had done enough thinking about gardening and began to track the sun’s movements. A little over a year later, we were harvesting tomatoes, capsicums, chilli, spinach, rocket and herbs from around 40 large second hand pots (I use the term ‘pots’ vaguely – some were repurposed waste baskets with holes drilled into the bottom).

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We were excited about everything growing in our pots, but it was the tomatoes that we were most passionate about. Grown from seed, we ‘accidentally’ raised far more seedlings than initially expected – about 50 in total. Yes, 50. When Brendan and I saw the number of tomato varieties at the nursery, we got carried away in a manner similar to two children in a candy shop. The varieties that we successfully produced were Tiny Tom, KYI, Tigrella, Rouge de Marmande, Black Cherry and Yellow Pear.

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From the very beginning, those seedlings were spoilt rotten. As soon as they sprouted, they took pride of place behind the large glass sliding door to take advantage of the extra warmth. Once strong enough, they were taken outside in the morning and brought back inside every single day.

The tomatoes stayed outside once they went into their large ‘pots’ and were too heavy to move without pulling a muscle or dislocating a disk. It was at this point that we realised it was absolutely not feasible to keep all 50 plants. We solved the problem by sharing the seedlings with our friends. After sharing your produce, I think sharing your seedlings is the next best thing. I feel that in giving away a fruit or vegetable seedling, you are providing another person with a means to produce some food for themselves.

The growing bug had well and truly bitten us; we wanted more. So, Brendan went to work and put three raised garden beds into our courtyard that autumn. He also turned the weedy patch around the side of our home into a productive area. And this year… Well, you can see for yourself how the garden turned out.

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And there are plans to grow even more. A work colleague has agreed to loan us a corner of their rural property in exchange for shared access to the produce that we grow. We are beyond excited. Through the open-mindedness of my colleague, we will have the opportunity to connect with and build relationships with another community. There is already talk of a working-bee to begin setting up the infrastructure for our new venture. We humans have a tendency to build relationships with other humans through food and sharing your home grown produce, whether it be the final product or the process, is simply another way of doing this, albeit – I believe – on a much deeper, more personal level.

Growing our own produce has been a very fulfilling experience. I can barely even begin to describe the immense satisfaction that comes from eating and cooking the food that we have created entirely on our own. It also gives us small sense of independence. We can’t grow everything, but it has significantly reduced our weekly grocery bill (old habits die hard).

Equal to the satisfaction that comes from enjoying the fruits of our labour is sharing it with those around us, which has also enabled us to meet people outside of our usual social circle. This is our second year growing and for a short period, we had more tomatoes and zucchinis than we knew what to do with; we had run out of pickling jars and our freezer was choc-a-block full of freshly frozen veg. Sharing our excess produce was the most logical – and well received – solution. Several of our neighbours have young children and it has been wonderful to see their reactions to the fresh, home grown vegetables. My heart skipped a beat when my husband told me Miss Eleven, Nine and Seven at the next door over said our tomatoes were the best they’d ever eaten. Some neighbours have even come to help contribute to our garden by providing scraps for the compost or jars for preserving.

Sharing our home grown produce with family, friends and community has led me to think more about our modern food system – who benefits, who loses out, how to make small changes – and I will be sharing some of these thoughts in Part 2.

Image of ‘a cluster of cherry tomatoes‘ via Shutterstock

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Genevieve Chan

Genevieve is a happy, go-lucky, free-spirited woman who is always on the lookout for a new adventure to whisk her away from her public servant day job. She loves Canberra and was well aware that it was the best place to live, long before this beautiful city came to the attention of the New York Times or the OECD. When she’s not expending excess energy through dancing, running, walking or cycling, you’ll find her helping her husband in their courtyard vegetable garden, cooking or eating (or both), reading and – of course – writing. More about the Author

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