Now more than ever, we’re tuned into where our food comes from. Salad leaves in a bag once sufficed but a growing interest in provenance has sparked a greener curiosity. And while many of us don't have a farm out the back door, or even a back yard, a lot of people are becoming resourceful with the space they do have.
With a little ingenuity and guidance, you can turn that unused balcony or courtyard space into a live, thriving edible garden. (A great place to start is Harvest, our free online exclusive 8-week gardening course.)
Be realistic and selective, says River Cottage Australia’s Paul West. “You're not going to be able to grow all the vegetables you need in a few pots, so focus on high yielding plants that you know you'll use frequently." The chef who became a rookie farmer thinks herbs and salad greens fit the bill perfectly. “They are easy to grow and you can cut only what you need, leaving the plant to recover and regrow.”
It’s also important to consider what you enjoy eating and the space you’re working with, believes Emma Bowen, general manager of Sydney’s Pocket City Farms.
“There’s no use growing something you don’t like to eat, and it’ll be an uphill battle growing something if it’s in an unsuitable space,” Bowen tells SBS.
A not-for-profit community farm born out of a desire to grow organic produce in the city, Pocket City Farms offers classes and crop-swaps in Camperdown in the western outskirts of the CBD.
“Pocket City Farms began with us becoming interested in farming and local food and realising the huge disconnect we had with our food and the effort it took to get to us. We felt that if we had that disconnect, then it was likely many others living in the city did, and we began to realise the significance urban agriculture played in bridging that divide,” Bowen explains.
She agrees that leaves and herbs are a good starting point for budding gardeners. “Nothing elevates your cooking each night more than being able to pick just a little variety of herbs.”
For West, a hitchhiking expedition around Australia more than a decade ago led him to become a WWOOFER - willing worker on organic farms, working in exchange for food and accommodation – and sparked a lifelong passion for farming. That experience was part of what led him to life on the River Cottage farm at Central Tilba, NSW. (Watch River Cottage Australia weeknights 6pm on SBS)
Whether it’s the 20-acre River Cottage farm or 30 centimetres of idle balcony space, West says the same principles apply. (You can read more about what was involved in setting up the garden at the farm here.)
“Gardening can't be rushed and takes a little effort, frequently. Start with a few potted herbs and greens at the back door before turning your whole backyard into a veggie patch - which I certainly hope you will eventually, just not as your first endeavour.”
Parsley, thyme, mint, rocket, loose head lettuces, mustard greens and curly endive are all great plants to start with, West tips, especially if you're growing in a limited space and in containers.
“Come spring time, I also recommend novice gardeners plant a couple of zucchini plants - they're very hardy and just keep giving, so it's a good confidence booster.”
With the growing interest in Indigenous Australian plants and more recipes calling for the likes of lemon myrtle leaves, there’s no reason why first time gardeners can’t add some native bounty to the mix.
“Native river mint is a very easy and tasty mint to grow (always in a pot, like other mints, it can become weedy),” says Bowen. “Saltbush is quite forgiving and hardy and a great addition to so many meals.” Bowen also says Midgen berries (a small, sweet, whitish berry covered in grey spots) do well as a small shrub.
Go green: rolled veal with Warrigal greens pesto
For West, Warrigal greens are the pick of the bunch.
“They’re a great ground covering green that you can let ramble through any garden space you have. It's also easily grown in containers,” he says.
If you're keen to really give your green thumb a chance, our eight-week on-line exclusive Harvest series, full of useful and inspiring videos and articles will guide you through the planning and planting.
Catch River Cottage Australia Monday and Thursday nights on SBS then on SBS On Demand. (NOTE: A gripping new SBS drama, Sunshine, kicks off on Wednesday October 18 and continues Thursday October 19, Wednesday 25 October and Thursday 26 October, so River Cottage will run on Monday nights only for those two weeks.)