by Catherine Bassey
It just takes enthusiasm and commitment to grow a summer salad on a balcony.
Photograph by add1sun on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.
Many years ago, people bought much of their fresh food from a market, before the convenience of supermarkets took over. Today there is a return to the fresh food market although the emphasis now is likely to be on organic – organic and high quality, that’s what people want.
Myriam Pitre, who is keen on sustainability and educates people on gardening monoculture, is one of the facilitators of the city gardening workshop presented recently by Sydney City Council.
“My mum and aunt have been gardening their whole lives – about 40 years – and they still say they are learning. So learning is not enough, it’s a lot about doing, it’s about starting up, taking the risk and doing something,” she says.
Myriam has had her own garden for four years. She says growing one’s own food has more benefits than buying from the market.
“Food sold in stores has been there on average a week. You might get it a little fresher from the local markets or farmers’ market but nothing is ever as fresh as picking fruits or veggies from your garden and eating it within a few minutes of picking it up. It’s definitely fresher and healthier, healthier because freshness is directly proportional to the amount of nutrients left in the plants. The fresher the plants, the more nutrients they’re got,” she says.
And, Myriam says, “you’re guaranteed completely natural and organic food, free of any form of chemicals because you know what it’s been grown with. In the supermarkets, you can’t assume that unless it’s been labelled organic.”
In her sitting room window are four green square pots of what she calls macro greens, commonly known as wheatgrass. Part of it has already been cut, used to make ‘wheatgrass shots’, as described in organic cafes.
In her backyard she has chilli plants, kiwi fruits, lemon grass, strawberries, Australian native raspberries, blueberries, beans, cucumbers, lettuces, parsley, turnips, kale, beetroot, ginger, and canna lilies.
She makes her own compost; six large bins are full of rich, dark soil, one of which already has a few pumpkins sprouts in it. Her two-year old silverweeds had started budding again and her chicory has been producing leaves every day for a couple of years.
“I pluck chicory every day for my juicing because I do a lot of raw vegetable juice. I get just the quantity I need, so there’s no waste. For plants like that, I don’t have to replant, except once every couple of years.
“Starting a garden is inexpensive,” Myriam says. “If you have patience, you can make your own compost in three or four months from food scraps. I also go to fruit and vegetable markets and get their fruit and vegetable left-overs. So compost costs nothing, and it’s very nutritious for your soil.”
She’s even made use of the abandoned flower pots from her neighbours, so she doesn’t have to buy pots.
“Most seeds don’t cost very much. For $4 you can get a pack that has 100 seeds. When the flowers produce seeds, you collect the seeds and save for the next season, and that can go on forever,” she says.
“We try to encourage people to get open pollinated seeds because they are very fertile; most of the seeds you get from the shops are often not very fertile because they’ve been hybridized, genetically modified many times over,” she says.
Myriam says gardening can also be a great way to make friends. “We go to clubs, we exchange seeds. During Christmas, for instance, instead of exchanging gifts, we exchange plants or seeds instead.”
One major issue city gardeners often face is the problem of too much shade. The sun may be obstructed by buildings or trees, and so plants only get two or three hours sun a day. “So there’s not enough sun to grow most of the plants that you would love to grow,” she says. “However, most leafy plants are more shade tolerant, and thrive even in partial shade.”
A participant in the city garden workshop, Sara Bates, of Newtown, said growing her own garden was a way to keep fresh food on the table.
“I love eating fresh food but once you pay the bills, there is not very much left over for a bunch of beetroot or a kilo of vine-ripened tomatoes, especially when you rent in the inner west,” she says.
She has used up the small space in the backyard of her apartment building to create a garden to grow tomatoes, strawberries, three different types of salad greens (red and green oak leaf, red giant mustard greens and rocket), sage, rosemary, oregano, coriander, parsley and a bay tree.
Having almost lost most of her veggies last year to pests and pesticides that destroyed beneficial insects in her garden, she has planted flowers such as jasmine, pansies, petunias, and celosia to help attract pollinators like bees.
Sara describes gardening as fun, mentally stimulating, and something that has taught her patience. “It’s really nice to come home and see your garden doing well, and it’s very rewarding to eat what you’ve grown,” she says.
She was excited about her first home-grown strawberry. “I’ve never seen anything so juicy. Most of what we buy in the market tends to look really good but don’t taste as good.
“Every day, I walk through the front door, I kiss my husband hello, I say hello to the dog, and I come out to see how my garden is doing,” Sarah says.
Lord Mayor Clover Moore said budding urban gardeners can learn how to grow their own edible gardens of fresh food as well as get tips for composting, worm farming and natural pest management.
“You don’t need much space to be an urban gardener – just a balcony, patio, window or small backyard that receives a few hours of sun,” she says. “Over 85 per cent of people who attend our workshops make use of the lessons they learnt, meaning every season more fresh food is being grown across our city.”
Sydney City Council runs a series of garden workshops under its Green Villages banner including ‘Edible Gardens in Small Spaces’, ‘What’s Eating My Basil? Natural pest management’, ‘Build a Vertical Pallet Garden’, and ‘Be a Balcony Garden Bandit’.