Current times (the COVID-19 pandemic, recession and an increased interest in sustainable living) have elevated the backyard food garden to a national pastime.
Australian gardening hub The Diggers Club reports a 200 per cent rise in demand for edible and ornamental seeds throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Memberships are up too, suggesting a genuine shift rather than a knee-jerk reaction, says Diggers Club founder and author Clive Blazey.
However, our urban, supermarket culture means producing our own food doesn’t come naturally and even armed with all the know-how, growing food is challenging to the best of would-be farmers.
“For urban populations interested in growing and raising their own food, access to information is a significant issue,” observes Peter Lyle, a former researcher at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in a 2015 paper on food growing in urban areas. “Many people were raised in the city, during a period of plentiful, stable access to fresh food, and lack the knowledge and skills necessary to produce food.”
When Lyle and his team at QUT studied the fortunes of 36 Brisbane residential gardeners, they found a common lament. People didn’t understand what to do, lacked time and found growing food in limited space challenging.
Beginner gardeners, in particular, reported feeling intimidated by conflicting information, gardeners with more success, and finding information specific to their location conditions. Trial and error was their most common learning method.
One error is not understanding the importance of soil – its temperature and makeup, Blazey says. “Soil needs to be light and fluffy, with about 50 per cent air porosity. The growth of plants in your garden will be slowed down if your soil is compacted or lacks nutrients.”
Blazey believes knowing how to grow your own food is a fundamental skill everyone should have.
“No species which has lost control of its food supply has survived,” he says. “This is why we are so passionate about maintaining a diverse, publicly owned heirloom seed supply.”
Along with teaching us humility, patience and the cycles of nature, gardening is good for the planet and a source of solace in tough times, he says.
Merrin Layden, project manager for 3000 Acres, a Melbourne charity with a mission to help more people grow food in more places, says growing food is the most natural way to connect with nature and community.
“Food is so fundamental to being a human and traditionally a shared, communal activity,” she says. “We’ve seen through COVID people sharing seeds and swapping produce, seed or tips.”
With climate extremes and rising utility costs driving up fresh food prices, it may become more crucial to grow your own. “Historically people in the Depression turned over their gardens to feed the family, but that happened in a context where there was more existing food knowledge than now,” Layden says.
For the best times to grow edibles according to your climate zone, check out the Gardenate site.
Herbs, like rosemary, thyme, chives, mint and parsley, are easy to grow and produce all year long, Layden says. Many can be grown from cuttings and are tolerant of different climate conditions.
Blazey says lettuces are so easy to grow from seed that every household should grow them, even if it’s in a small pot on the balcony.
Most leafy greens, including kale, spinach, rocket and bok choy, are relatively uncomplicated and reap a quick return, Layden says.
Tomatoes appeal to everybody and can be eaten fresh from the bush, Layden says.
Plant it once and harvest often, Layden says.
Zucchinis and pumpkin
Layden says both offer great reward for effort, but pumpkins need quite a bit of space.
Lemons and limes
Lemons and limes don’t require much ongoing maintenance and can be grown in pots, Layden says.