Spring is ramping up into summer now. The days are long, the evenings warm and I’m thinking I’ll need to take a hat on my walk to work from now on. With the return of the sun the garden has roused itself and the food growing has begun in earnest.
I’m spending more and more time out there, planting out seedlings, picking things to put on my plate and aiming to keep the mulch in the garden beds and the grass in the lawn. My resident blackbird family disagree with my philosophy of mulching the veggies, preferring instead to spread the stuff over the pavers and lawn, uprooting the occasional seedling in the process. Still, they’ve developed a taste for snails and for that I am grateful: as much as I’d prefer a few native blue-tongue lizards to do the job I’m in the middle of suburbia and can’t provide good lizard habitat.
The garden here is the biggest one I’ve ever taken on, and I’ve surprised myself by already filling up all the existing garden beds and the new one I dug at the bottom of the yard. I’ve planted potatoes and oca, and they take up quite a bit of space! Also in are peas and beans (the peas self-sowed, as did one type of bean, so I’m not sure what I’ve got yet), beetroot (doing well), carrots (doing badly), lettuce (another self-sower) rocket, rainbow chard and the first lot of tomatoes.
Meanwhile, the late seedlings (mostly replacements for what the snails ate the first time) are sitting in an old fish tank on my dining table, waiting to be planted out this weekend. There’s a load more tomatoes, sprouting broccoli, dill, parsley, sunflowers and my coddled tiny eggplants that will go into pots in the greenhouse though I doubt I’ll manage to get fruit of them. Since I’m all out of garden space already I guess I’m going to be digging up more lawn. Luckily my landlord doesn’t seem to mind and lets me do my garden thing (at least so far).
Some things do incredibly well here. Red winter kale continues to come up everywhere, as do borage and calendula. The spuds are thriving and the beans are shooting up quickly. Other things aren’t doing so well, like the strawberries that put out lots of leaf growth but aren’t quite getting enough sun to flower well. The lack of sun has also set some plants back a little: my pea plants are tall and strong but are only now really getting going on flowering, while friends are already harvesting theirs.
Still, it’s beginning looking like a real garden out there. The neighbour’s house might shade it more than I’d like, the soil is still lacking in organic matter and the blackbirds may frustrate my efforts at keeping everything neat and tidy, but it feeds me, both literally and metaphorically. Time in the garden helps to ground me, and the physical work with obvious results is a powerful antidote to the day job, spent sitting behind a computer for far too many hours. Tending the earth has helped to keep me sane while a nasty knee injury has preventing me from hiking and motivated me to get outside and active through stressful times. It’s a very good thing I’m enjoying it, as there’s plenty more work to be done.
Spring has been beautiful in my garden, and now the summer has begun.
What’s growing in my garden this summer? Plants marked * are self-sown or were here when I got here:
- Beans (mix of fresh eating & drying varieties)
- Bok Choi
- Broccoli, sprouting* (also seedlings I’ve grown myself)
- Carrots (barely!)
- Chard, rainbow
- Eggplant, casper
- Kale, curly*
- Kale, red winter*
- Lettuce* (read & green oak & two other mystery non-heading varieties)
- Peas* (mystery varieties)
- Potatoes (blue sapphire, pink fir apple, cranberry red & banana that I put in, plus a white variety* that self-sowed)
- Raspberries* (one here, one I’ve planted)
- Salad burnett
- Wide assortment of herbs (mixed origins)
Tell me, what have you got growing?
There is nothing like travel to give you a heaping dose of perspective.
We in the western developed world, the vast majority of us, anyway, are so damn spoilt.
Here in Australia we write ourselves the narrative of the battler; hard-done-by working class hero, struggling to get ahead. The reality, however, is far, far different. We’re incredibly wealthy. Daily we take for granted riches of which much of the world can only dream, and yet somehow we think we deserve it, that we’ve earnt the good life that has befallen us by the sheer luck of being born on these fortunate shores.
We turn on a tap and we have clean drinking water. How lucky are we? So lucky that we think nothing of using this precious resource to flush our toilets and water our plants. Over 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water[1, 2] and we let it run down the drain then complain about the cost.
Safe, clean water, on demand, at a fraction of the true cost. Want it hot? Turn on another tap and let electricity or gas work it’s wonders. Energy that’s cheap and reliable enough to heat our water 24-7. Energy so cheap that I’m sitting here, running a computer and monitor and listening to the radio while a pot of chickpeas simmers on the stove and a head of garlic roasts in the oven (I’m making humus). Yes, I’ve turned the lights off in the rooms I’m not using and I’m working by a single energy-efficient globe but even then my bills tell me I use an average of 15 KWH per day, which is only a little below the average for my dwelling type and suburb. I can do better (and yes, long, hot showers remain my biggest guilty pleasure. Maybe next year’s promise for World Environment Day…).
We’ve got safe water, ready power, large houses we fill up with stuff (biggest in the world, apparently, and this place feels exorbitantly large after my recent travels) and there’s the access to food and consumer goods. Walk into your kitchen right now and take a good, hard look in your cupboards. How much food is actually in there? How long could you go without really needing to shop? How much diversity of product is there? I have 2 types of rice, 2 types of lentils, 5 types of flour (I’m gluten-sensitive, so it’s somewhat excusable), black quinoa, quinoa flakes and a number of syrups and oils I most never use and don’t really need (lime oil, rosewater, pomegranate molasses and a serious tea collection…) and that’s after considerable down-sizing and being very mindful about what I buy.
It’s easy to indulge in food without even realising. Walk into any supermarket or grocer and look around: there’s so much food and so much choice! With the shelves so richly stocked our trolleys and household pantries look restrained by comparison. We have a culture that encourages food as a recreational pursuit rather than a nutritional need. Food shortages don’t even cross our consciousness for most of us, despite recent record droughts and soaring prices of staples. If we have the money it’s always there, waiting. Easy.
We are so damn lucky. Lucky to have been born in a wealthy country, a place of political stability and prosperity. No wars have torn my country apart. No dictators have drained us of our wealth (though Gina Rinehart may well try), no diseases have ravaged our people or our food production. Although drought, flood and fire take their toll, we’ve thus far been rich enough and agriculturally diverse enough to weather the storms and bitch about the cost of bananas.
And that’s what gets me really. We have this incredible wealth yet we complain about it. We sit here with our hands out, crying poor, asking the Government for more, always more. How can you be a battler with a place just for you and yours to call home, all the safe water you can drink, power whenever you want it and access to all the food you could ever dream of? When you have health care and social security? When education is free for all and retirement is considered a right? Yes, there are some Australians who truly are poor (particularly our indigenous people, who live in a different world to most of us), but for the vast majority of us and our compatriots in the western developed world, we are rich beyond our own comprehension. We have so very much. By accident of birth we find ourselves in the land of plenty.
Is it surprising, then, that others covet our way of life? That when we travel we’re seen as wealthy targets to exploit? You can hardly blame the rest of the world for wanting in on our privileged party. Yet the planet cannot sustain our current levels of consumption. We can’t pull everyone else up to our standard of living. So do we try to keep it all to ourselves, spoilt children who don’t want to share our shiny toys?
Truth is it’s an inherently unsustainable way of life. We can’t maintain it while the rest of the world scrapes by. Sooner or later the rest of the world will come looking for their share as resources run out. We can try to hang on until then, in a final orgy of consumption, or we can start to learn to live with less. I believe it’s time we learnt the difference between wants and needs, asked ourselves some searching questions and reduced our footprints a little. It’s the only fair choice (and as Dr Samuel Alexander writes, it just might also be good for us).
There’s no point feeling guilty about an accident of birth, and not all of us are in a position where living more simply is a viable choice. Most of us can do a little more, however. We can be just that little more mindful about the choices we make and think about the type of future we want to build. That’s what I’m trying to do and y’know, I’m happier for it.
 water.org fact sheet
 WHO water and health program
 Energy Made Easy Australian power consumption benchmark
 ComSec housing data report 2011
 World Bank food crisis data
 ACOSS Australian Poverty Report 2011
 Radical simplicity and the middle class: exploring the lifestyle implications of a great disruption, by Dr. Samuel Alexander
These days I think most everyone who’s interesting in food – from either a taste or a sustainability perspective – has discovered the benefits of shopping at local farmer’s markets*. Fresh, local produce that tastes great and supports the local community: what’s not to love?
There’s a lot of good information out there about the benefits of shopping at your local market and avoiding the supermarket produce aisles:
- The food is fresher, thus packed with more nutrients and will keep fresh for longer.
- You can get a broader range of varieties, bred for flavour and to suit local conditions, rather than shelf-life and supermarket aesthetics.
- You’re supporting smaller farmers who tend to manage their land more sustainably than the big agri-business growers that supply the supermarkets (where often decisions are made too far away from the land).
- You’re supporting the local economy, investing directly into your own community instead of creating profits for multi-national corporations.
- You’re shrinking your carbon footprint by purchasing food that’s locally grown and in season, avoiding energy use for storage and transport.
These are all very good reasons to consider shopping at farmer’s markets (though there are potential down-sides in terms of global food security, affordability and global distribution of wealth, but that’s a complicated discussion for another day) and what originally got me out of bed on a Sunday morning to head down to Farm Gate, but it’s not the main thing that keeps me coming back.
What keeps me supporting my local market is the sense of community this simple activity builds. Sometimes I’ll wander the market with a friend, making new connections as we meet people they know, but often I’m happy to wander alone and strike up conversations as I go, a question about growing techniques or flavour combinations turning into a connection over shared interests. Over time I’ve come to know a few of my favourite stall holders and growers, learning about their businesses and the passions that drive them to produce small-scale, high quality food.
There’s Ross and Matt with their free-range heritage-breed pork products, who have made me finally understand what the fuss over bacon is about. There’s the amazing Paulette of Provenance Growers, with her near-encyclopaedic knowledge of unusual edibles and native herbs who is enabling my ever-expanding herb collection (and her mum, who keeps me happily supplied with finger limes). Mark of the Naked Carrot and grower of tasty micro-veg has a ready smile and says nice things about my photography, and Masaaki Koyama makes the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (and has cooked for Iron Chef Sakai!).
Through these talented cooks and growers I’ve learnt more about where my food comes from and the challenges local farmers face. I’ve learnt what to do with broad beans and mizuna, eaten purple spuds and slippery-jack mushrooms and ditched growing parsley for the tastier native sea celery. From the market I’m learning what to sow and harvest each season in my own little patch, when dairy goats produce the best milk and how to cook a cassoulet, but more than that I’m making friends with the people who feed me, connecting a little deeper with my local community.
From the corner store to your favourite café, food has an enormous power to draw people together, and no-where have I found that more strongly illustrated than at the market. These days I look forward to catching up with my favourite market people as much as to the delicious produce I’m going to be bringing home.
Have you nurtured a sense of community through food? Got any ideas of how we can connect our communities through food in places without farmer’s markets or where socio-economic drivers keep people away? I’d love to hear about community gardens, co-ops and other projects that grow more than just food and feed more than our bellies.
Y’know something that really annoys me? Food waste. It could be the many hours I spent working in kitchens to support my studies, or it could just be simple economics, but it riles me.
There’s little sadder than seeing the hard work of our primary producers wind up in the garbage bin, uneaten and unwanted. You’re not just throwing away your own money, but also the labour, water, nutrients, transport and storage that got that food from the farm to you. It’s not just the lost resources either. Food rotting in land fill produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more climate-affecting than CO2. That’s a whole lot of unnecessary waste!
How bad is the problem? I don’t know about the rest of the world, but here in Australia we throw out around 7.5 million tonnes of food waste every year. That works out to about $ 7.8 billion in food waste, just looking at sale price alone! 40 % of our average household garbage is food waste – that’s taking out the people who compost – and in some parts of the country as much as 20% of the total food we buy is thrown away. With 30% of our population living below the poverty line how can we afford to waste so much food? I just don’t get it!
Lately I’ve come across a few organisations doing their bit for reducing food waste in Australia by taking the surplus from the fortunate and using it to feed the hungry. Here in Tasmania there’s Produce to the People, who collect the excess from backyard veggie gardens. In the bigger Australian cities groups like OzHarvest, Second Bite, Foodbank and Fare Share collect from supermarkets, restaurants and farms. Similar volunteer groups and food charities are popping up in major cities across the westernised world. These are fantastic programs, helping to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and redistributing the surplus it to where it’s needed, but I think it’s also important to do what you can on a personal level to ensure you get the most out of the food you grow and buy.
Very little food goes to waste in my house and what does goes back into the system via my compost bin, rather than rotting away as landfill. It does take a certain amount of effort though! I have to think about what I’m buying and make myself cook even when I really don’t feel like it. I buy in smaller quantities and seek out fresher local produce, so have to hit up the shops a little more often, and when I have over-bought or have been too busy to cook I need to come up with creative ways to use up the excess before it spoils (or freeze it until I land an idea later). As a side benefit, getting the most out of my food gives me a little more disposable income to splurge on a nice wine to wash my meals down with, or the occasional gourmet treat!
Here are my favourite methods for using up food and preventing waste:
- Save any sad-looking veggies or edible offcuts for making stock. I have a bag in the freezer that scraps get thrown into as I go, then once it’s full I’ll add some dried mushrooms or the bones from a roast chook and turn it into tasty stock.
- Preserve it! Make sweet sauces from over-ripe fruit, turn a tomato glut into chutney or simply pickle extra veggies for a piquant treat to enjoy when they go out of season.
- Turn extra herbs into pesto, or chop them finely and freeze in small servings for future cooking.
- Freeze cream or plain yoghurt into icecube trays, then add a few cubes to stews or sauces when you need to.
- Poach or bake fruit that’s past it’s best and add it to your morning cereal or enjoy it as a dessert.
- Get creative in the kitchen; challenge yourself to use up everything perishable before buying fresh food and see what you can invent from the odds and ends hiding in your fridge and cupboards (I’ve made some of my favourite meals this way)
- Cook it all up into tasty meals and freeze them in portions for lunches. With a hot home-made curry or stir-fry instead of a sandwich you’ll be the envy of the work lunchroom!
- Share the love: put on a feast for friends or give away food you won’t use instead of letting it go to waste.