Backyards, balconies and window sills are not known as traditional horticultural hotspots.
But for a growing number of Australian households, areas typically dominated by sun loungers, BBQs and sunflower pots are giving way to vertical gardens, trellises and planter boxes as more of us join the urban farming movement.
A 2014 study which looked at the potential value and impacts of residential and community food gardening found nationally more than half of all Australian households reported growing at least some of their own food in their backyard – despite the fact nine of every ten of us live in cities.
The study, conducted by The Australia Institute, found health, taste and cost savings were the greatest drivers for people to grow their own food with vegetables, herbs and fruit, eggs and nuts the most common varieties.
Cultivating Community is a not for profit organisation that specialises in helping Australia move towards a more equitable food system. First launched 20 years ago, it manages community gardens across 21 public housing estates and advocates for the urban agricultural sector.
CEO Daniyela Rob says there are numerous advantages to growing your own food, not least of which it is a great way to educate others about where food comes from as well as the efforts involved.
Rob, whose organisation spends a lot of time running school food garden programs, says experience has taught her that children are much more likely to eat vegetables if they have been involved in the growing of them, often eating food straight from the garden.
“Peas straight out of the pod taste so much better than out of a packet. I think there is something very special about eating food that you have grown yourself and there is joy in sharing what you have grown with others; and the health benefits of eating a diet high in fresh food are well known. Gardening also provides us a way to interact more with nature and detach from the stressors of the outside world.”
Rob concedes access to space can make growing your own food challenging, but says there are a number of ways for motivated individuals to get around that.
She recommends people in strata communities look at growing their food gardens vertically either via sustainable gardening systems such as a Foodwall, or using a trellis to grow vegetables like cucumber.
Rob says Indira Naidoo in her book The Edible Balcony suggests tomatoes, eggplant and capsicum all do well in small spaces while many nurseries now sell dwarf varieties of citrus and other fruit trees. In addition, herbs and lettuces will grow well in pots, providing adequate moisture is provided.
“A good idea for small spaces and pots is to choose plant varieties that have a high yield, for example there are varieties of tomatoes that will produce more fruit per plant than other varieties such as the Tomato Tigerella which can produce up to 20kg per plant. [Online plant site] Diggers sell a ‘mini plot collection’ of seeds that contains high yielding varieties of a mix of vegetables.”
Rob says it is important to consider how much sun access your chosen area is likely to receive as this may be limited in strata communities where there are numerous apartments or townhouses nearby.
Most vegetables need between six and eight hours of sunlight a day to be really productive while leafy greens such as silverbeet, kale and lettuces grow well in partial shade.
“If you grow in pots you can move your plants to areas where they get more sun as the seasons change,” she says.
Healthy soil is essential for a productive patch, Rob says, so “if you do have the space investing in a composting set up is a great idea as this will nourish your soil”.
There are many types even for small spaces. Bokashi systems are great as they can be used in the kitchen (the contents do need to be buried in the soil). Worm towers are another good option for small gardens.
“The most important thing to remember is to match the vegetables you choose to your growing conditions and climate.”
For those who don’t have a balcony or backyard, Rob recommends joining a community garden as they are a wonderful way to connect with others in your community by sharing gardening advice and swapping produce.
Most local council websites will have a list of community gardens in their area or The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network has a map of community gardens on its website.