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Incredible edibles

This week, Laura Venuto chats to Mat Pember from The Little Veggie Patch Co about his new book and asks him to reveal the secrets of growing your own food – no matter the size of your backyard. Plus, don’t miss the recipe for homemade tomato sugo.

Incredible edibles

The most delightful book landed on my desk this month – How to Grow Food in Small Spaces (Pan MacMillan, AU$45) by Mat Pember and Fabian Capomolla, founders of Melbourne-based edible gardening company, The Little Veggie Patch Co.

I grew up with a rambling backyard full of edible goodness to explore, which may be why I am so drawn to the idea. We had a strawberry patch (I was regularly scolded for gobbling them all up when they were still tiny and green); mulberries (you can only imagine the perilous purpleness I brought into the house afterwards); every herb you can imagine, and hands-down-to-this-day the most incredible mandarins I have ever tasted in my life – so tart your eye wouldn’t stop fluttering for weeks.

Now, living in an apartment with only a balcony for a backyard, I’ve dismissed the idea of growing my own veg, but with the arrival of this book … and a tempting packet of heirloom ‘Yellow Pear’ tomato seeds that came along with it (which you can buy from littlevegiepatch.com.au), I may just have to ditch our dying fern in favour of something edible. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. 

Mat and Fabian show you how to grow asparagus

Mat and Fabian show you how to layer a No Dig Apple Crate

In the meantime, I caught up with Mat to find out more about the new book, which, along with great gardening advice (everything from how to create a no-dig garden bed, to how to plant a fruit tree and even how to make a worm farm, is covered with beautiful step-by-step pictures) also includes the loveliest, homeliest recipes from each of their Italian nonnas, to help you put your harvest to good use.

For any aspiring green thumbs out there, this book is likely to become your new best friend. It’s super practical, which was the point according to the authors Fabian and Mat, but at the same time it has this really warm feel to it, and there are lots of funny anecdotes to keep you amused along the way.

There are also some really lovely activities for getting the kids involved, too – after all, what child wouldn’t like to get their hands dirty, poking some seeds into the dirt … and who knows, you may just find they’re less likely to turn their noses up at eating peas they’ve had a hand in growing!

The Little Veggie Patch Co: How to Grow Food in Small Spaces by Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember is out now (Pan Macmillan, AU$45).

What is the first edible you remember growing, and how did it turn out?

I began my edible gardening career vicariously through my grandparents at their Perth home and I will happily claim their successes as my own. Being dedicated Italian growers they (I) grew tomatoes, chillies and capsicum in the summer and then broad beans in the winter. They (I) were quite masterful growers, and really the only challenge to the harvest was the wandering hands and mouth of their over-enthusiastic grandson.

What are some of your most unforgettable early food memories in your grandparents’ food garden?

The whole experience was unforgettable; from brushing up against the tomato plants while hiding from my sister, to walking across the hot concrete pavement to the chook coop (desperately hoping the chooks had laid again since morning) and learning how to pod broad beans with my nonna.

As children, we have this ability to digest and retain so much sensory information, and now these memories are etched in me as some of my first and most special. I also remember climbing onto the brick barbecue to get within reach of the fig tree, with the fruits warm from the summer sun. Despite my indiscriminate picking (too young to differentiate the ripe fruit) I will never forget the taste or temperature of the perfect fig.

Do you remember when you realised you had a talent for growing food?

I’m not sure if anyone has a real talent for growing food; a tomato seedling is not something you’re likely to pick up one day and then with three slick motions plant, water and stake it in under 15 seconds.

When I found myself wanting to grow food again (after many years kicking footballs, chasing girls and then wondering what career I’d pursue), I planted a set of tomato seedlings because I desperately wanted to taste a homegrown tomato again. Food was my passion and I couldn’t remember the last time I really tasted one.

Having fallen into a landscaping job and forfeited any idea of working professionally, once I was happy with the state of my new seedlings I began installing dedicated veggie growing spaces for friends and it quickly grew from there.

What three edibles would you recommend for people with only a very small space such as a balcony or courtyard?

1. Herbs. There is nothing more infuriating than settling in for a night of good food and wine when you realise you have forgotten a necessary ingredient – thyme or oregano or rosemary – for the first dish. An agitated drive and $3 later you’re back, but not your mood, because those herbs and many more are so simple to grow at home, in pots.

2. Lettuces. Leafy greens have shallow root growth, making them ideally suited for pot growing, and unless you are a meat-atarian you will need them most nights when you eat at home.

3. Any vegetable you are in love with. There is nothing better than eating a vegetable you adore, particularly when it’s one you have grown yourself. The anticipation alone is enough. For this reason, and even if it’s growing one plant in its own pot, it’s worth the effort and space.

What about for someone who has a bigger backyard but is a novice grower – what are some of the easiest fruit/veg/herbs to start with?

Herbs are something that everyone should grow. They are hardy, low-maintenance, all-year-round providers. Leafy greens are not too challenging either. While they require a bit of care while establishing, the maintenance after that is little more than picking leaves to prevent them from bolting to seed. Silverbeet, or chard, is a vegetable that will boost the ego of any grower, and is nearly foolproof. Other than that, radish, spring onion and bush beans seem to be relatively straightforward.

What is your personal favourite edible to grow and why?

The black Russian tomato is far and away my favourite. It’s an almost meaty vegetable, dark fleshed and sweet. I also simply love rubbing my fingers over the plant to disturb its scent, sending me back to my childhood and my grandparents’ patch.

What have been the most recent additions to your own backyard?

A bordering of strawberries has been a brilliant addition in the eyes of my nephews. I believe I am yet to eat one. I also have a new Tahitian lime that I aim to espalier up against my shed wall. I’m really keen to get a nice wall covering of the foliage and hopefully some fruit, too, which I will then hold onto as a precious commodity, almost as valuable as gold.  

You’ve helped many people create their own edible gardens – are people surprised at what they can achieve themselves?

Absolutely, we are always thrilled to hear positive feedback and often get the opportunity to see, or at least hear about our clients’ successes. The surprise is always accentuated (or diminished) by the client’s initial expectation. Those who believe their touch could kill an animal, let alone a small vegetable seedling, are thrilled just to see a radish pop out of the ground. So it is always satisfying when those people grow even more and then realise how easy it can be.

What is the main thing people seem to struggle with when it comes to growing produce?

I think there is the perception that vegetable gardens can be a lot of hard work and quite labour-intensive. It is often put in the ‘too-hard basket’ and that seems to be enough of a deterrent with most things. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. People just need to follow some simple fundamentals and as long as you are (semi) diligent and have the right infrastructure from the start, growing food is very achievable.

How important is it to involve kids in the process of growing your own food?

Considering the standing of type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity in this country, involving kids in growing their own food could be a meaningful step towards reversing that trend. Allowing kids to develop a relationship with food, from an early age, is certainly one way to promote good eating habits that will last. And considering the exposure that children have these days to processed food, fresh fruit and vegetables are becoming more and more of a rarity.

What have been some of your favourite moments in the garden with kids?

Any moment where there is a meaningful interaction is a great moment. Seeing kids taste food right off the vine and diligently process the information (and with little or no discrimination) is fascinating. Seeing my nephews kneel down next to my strawberry plants and then systematically decimate the crops is bitter sweet.

For people who don’t think they have a green thumb, what would you say to them?

The only creature with green thumbs, in my experience, would be the Incredible Hulk. In humans, green thumbs are a fictitious idea. Practice and experience will help make them more nimble, but the truth about growing living plants in an ever-changing environment is that we are always learning.

Failures should not be taken personally and successes should in no way breed arrogance. Growing your own food is such a rewarding experience that you will need to look beyond the theorised colour of your thumbs. 

What’s your favourite recipe in the book?

I can’t go past the sugo [see recipe below] and I’m a different person when I don’t fulfill the ceremony of the Sunday pasta ragu. That involves sautéing the onions/garlic/pork/lamb and pouring my first glass of accompanying wine a little after 12pm. By 3pm the meat is falling off the bone and taste tests have begun to increase in frequency.

Can you describe the difference in cooking with food you have grown yourself as opposed to food you have picked up from the shelves of the supermarket?

Trying to explain the difference can never resonate truly unless you’ve experienced it for yourself, because as with anything you do yourself there is that je ne se quoi about something you have created … and pride is hard to hold back. Consider walking to the veggie patch and harvesting everything you need for your meal and how that would make you feel.

And now compare that to hopping in the car, picking things off a shelf and then paying at the checkout (C’mon!). Then there’s the tangibility of taste and the peace of mind that everything that has gone into producing your food is the result of nature and not science. The homogeneity of supermarket produce, particularly when considering the great potential we have, makes my heart sink.

SUGO RECIPE

Pick or source well-ripened tomatoes. If they are a little hard, leave them out in the sun for a couple of days. One kilo of tomatoes will make about half a litre of sauce, therefore the quantity depends on your ambition. Mat’s household sources about 100kg each year.

Boil the tomatoes in a large pot, in batches of around 10kg, until tender.

Pass the tomatoes through a pulping machine – this will remove the skin and seeds, leaving you with the tomato pulp.

Pour the sugo into sterilised jars (or VB bottles), adding a couple of basil leaves before sealing. Once all jars are sealed, boil them for 15-20 minutes in a large pot – this will prevent the sugo from any fermentation, which could cause the sealed jars to explode when stored.

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