Lucy Hawthorne is an enthusiastic amateur gardener, as well as a writer, artist and PhD candidate. She lives in Hobart where she has a backyard vegetable garden, the success and failures of which are documented on the blog Polystyrene Garden Junkie.
April Smallwood

17 Dec 2010 - 10:15 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

Lucy Hawthorne is an enthusiastic amateur gardener, as well as a writer, artist and PhD candidate. She lives in Hobart where she has a backyard vegetable garden, the success and failures of which are documented on the blog Polystyrene Garden Junkie.

SBS chats to Lucy about beginners' gardening, her ever-evolving relationship with food, and a blossoming blog.

What inspired you to start your blog,
Polystyrene Garden Junkie?

When I first started my vegetable garden, I was advised to keep a garden diary so that I could record what I’ve grown, how the garden’s evolved, any successes (or failures), and photos. I’ve never been very good at keeping ordinary diaries, but I know from experience with my art blog that the online environment gives me a positive incentive to keep writing. I’m also very visually orientated, and the blog’s digital format means that I can 'stick" lots of images in my 'journal". The other major benefit is that you can connect to other gardeners around the globe – I’ve had many questions helpfully answered by blog readers, such as, 'What is this colourful beetle that has just decimated my rhubarb patch?". I in no way pretend to be a gardening expert – my blog really just documents my learning process.

Using what you’ve grown in your garden, what do you most like to cook?

I enjoy experimenting with new vegetables that I plant on a whim, particularly ones that I’ve never cooked with before, such as my recent artichoke explorations (not all of them successful, I might add). However, probably my favourite recipe is the tomato sauce that I make in bulk and store. All the ingredients but the pepper and salt are grown in my garden. However, once my Tasmanian native pepperberry tree starts producing berries, I hope to experiment with substituting regular pepper with the dried pepperberries.

From what we’ve gathered on your blog, starting your own fruit-and-vegie garden is no easy feat. Tell us what’s been most challenging.

The most challenging aspects of gardening are those that are out of my control, such as the weeds, bugs, and diseases. When I moved into the house, tall weeds of every description were seeding, and I think it’ll be a couple of years before I break the seed cycle. The other challenging aspect of vegetable gardening is the amount of time and dedication it requires. I’m doing a PhD at the moment and I work a couple of jobs, and the garden quickly spirals out of control if I don’t consistently pay it attention.  Luckily with gardens, neglect can be fixed and most plants are surprisingly resilient.

How has your relationship with food changed since you started growing it yourself?

Growing my own food has made me really appreciate and enjoy a greater variety of fruit and vegetables, particularly as they often taste better than those grown in the shops. As I mentioned earlier, my experiments with cooking artichokes would never have occurred if I hadn’t planted them. It’s not just cooking either, I’m constantly noting on my blog, for instance, how I never knew blueberries grew on bushes; that asparagus grew upright out of the ground; that pumpkins and cucumbers are part of the same family; that soil and dirt are different things; that if you planted a clove of garlic it produces an entire bulb; and how few peas actually come out of a pod. These things may sound obvious to many people, but for someone who grew up in inner Sydney, I’ve previously never had the opportunity to see how many of these items are produced.

What has gardening taught you? What do you most get out of it?

Gardening has taught me patience, and it’s also given me permission to fail. I planted a row of fruit trees and some asparagus crowns in July, knowing that I won’t be reaping the rewards for another couple of years. However – and perhaps it’s the Gen Y in me – I’m kind of hoping that my trees will be magical and fruit productively before then. I don’t know that the best reward is necessarily eating my own produce, although it’s definitely one of the perks. I enjoy seeing plants evolve; watching the broccoli form large leaves, then flower buds, and then if I don’t eat it in time, produce beautiful yellow flowers. At the moment, my garden has quite a few vegetables in flower, including bok choy, rocket, broccoli and leeks.

Were you always a bit of a green-thumb?

I come from a family that appreciates gardens, although more of an ornamental variety. My aunt, for instance, got permission to plant around the train line in Sydney, and, over a couple of decades, she’s individually developed this a lush native environment on public land. However, following a disastrous rockery building experience at the age of 12, I personally had only a small interest in gardening until I moved to Tasmania almost eight years ago. I started growing herbs and then vegetables in polystyrene containers, which I snaffled from the local grocer (hence the name of my blog), and my interest developed from there.

One of the key reasons I saved up and bought a house was that I wanted to plant more long-term fruit and vegetables in the ground – something that’s hard to do when you rent from fickle landlords who like to change tenants every year so they can up the rent. My love affair has definitely 'hotted up" since I’ve had my own garden, and it seems that the more time I spend in the garden and the more I educate myself through experience, the more I enjoy gardening.

What’s your ultimate food indulgence?

Probably a full-course Italian meal. I travelled around northern Italy for five weeks last year and really enjoyed the Italian attitude towards food, as well as the relative simplicity of cooking which allows individual ingredients to shine. That said, a full-course meal is almost a feat of endurance with the sheer number of courses. I think I put on about 8kg in five weeks on that trip!

For readers who’ve never planted a thing, where should they seek beginner’s advice about gardening?

The internet is a fantastic source of information and advice. Additionally, your local adult education centre should have a beginner’s course in vegetable gardening, which is always good for hands-on learning. In terms of books, my gardening bible is The Royal Horticultural Society Fruit & Vegetable Gardening in Australia, which has full colour pictures and is written in English, not academic horticulture-speak. However, nothing beats just trying it out yourself, learning from your failures and eating your successes.

What have you learnt about food from your family?

Enjoy eating, use only quality ingredients, and always have a suitable bottle of wine to accompany a meal. My mum has always been a great cook, and while her style is quite different to mine, we both share a similar interest in trying new recipes and sharing food with friends. My dad claims he can only cook barbecues and (strangely) béarnaise sauce; however, he’s a barbecue pro, particularly when it comes to seafood.

Have you recently been inspired by any chefs?

My favourite Hobart café is called Pigeon Hole, which is run by the chef Jay Patey and his partner Emma Choraziak. I went there for breakfast recently and had orange couscous with raisins and almond mascarpone. Usually, I can’t go past their panini, which set a new standard in sandwich fillings. The food there is simple but really innovative and of great quality, and it has a lot of parallels with the Italian style of cooking mentioned earlier. They make their own bread and preserves, and change their menu daily to reflect local seasonal produce.

Can you recommend shops/markets in Hobart where readers can buy plants and seeds?

The Tasmanian-based The Lost Seed company produces heirloom variety seeds that are true to type, which means that you can save the seeds to replant the next year with the knowledge that they’ll be the same breed of plant.  On the packets, they list information like the ease with which you can save seeds and companion plants. Many seed companies produce hybrid seeds which are good for one year, but not so good if you want to save seeds.

Hobart Kitchen Gardens has a stall at the Farmers Market every Sunday, and most of their seedlings are grown from Lost Seed stock. I get things like pumpkin seedlings from them; plants that I don’t need an entire packet of seeds for. They also provide valuable advice on any special needs the plant requires, such as sunlight or soil quality.

What are your top three tips for others wanting to start their own garden of abundance?

Start small (a mistake that I made); don’t give up if plants die, get eaten by snails or if the weeds overwhelm you; take plenty of photos and keep a journal – often you don’t know how much progress you’ve made until you reflect on where you started.