Health and Lifestyle
University of Canberra Assistant Professor in humanities Bethaney Turner tells us why people are growing more fruit and veg at home and how it helps us live healthier.
From supermarket to self-sufficient
Most people are unlikely to ever be truly self-sufficient when it comes to food production, but severing some of our dependency on supermarkets may provide new perspectives and reconnect us with the world we live in. Growing our own food, even if it is just a small supply of a favourite herb or two can help cut down on food costs, ensure we know exactly where our food is coming from and can even cut down on the amount of food going to landfill.
A small vegetable bed in a backyard, a plot in a community garden or even a fruit tree in a pot on a balcony provide us with the chance to grow our own food and University of Canberra expert in alternative food networks Bethaney Turner says that’s enough to impart valuable lessons.
“I’ve found that growing their own food helps people forge a more responsive relationship to the land, to the changing seasons and to the food we eat,” Dr Turner says.
“It might shock people to know that globally between 20 – 40 per cent of the food we produce goes to waste. Planting even a small vegetable plot can have a positive impact on that figure. By growing our own food we know exactly what went into it, whether that is water, fertiliser or just love and care. When knowing this, people tend to value the food above and beyond its economic costs and are more likely to use what we produce better, waste less and enjoy our food more,” she says.
Dr Turner also pointed to the importance of small producers in preserving certain types of crops, commonly referred to as heirloom varieties.
“The supermarket system prizes uniformity in its produce as well as varieties that transport and store well and unfortunately that means they end up stocking just a small proportion of the fruit and vegetables that are available. Instead, it is backyard farmers that are reaping the benefits of old varieties, which may not have the look the supermarkets are going for, but have different and much more flavour,” she says.
For many small producers the cultural importance of food is a way to stay connected with their traditions, but it can be confronting.
“One of our students recently worked with a Burmese refugee group growing a vegetable garden in the Canberra suburb of Pialligo. They found many of their traditional crops are very difficult to grow in Canberra’s climate, so that’s been tough for them, but it has helped to improve their flexibility as well. When a backyard producer sees that something isn’t growing they might try something different or reach out to others and take suggestions for different crops. The garden is a site of experimentation and ecological adjustment which can contribute to place-making.”
Six steps to a greener thumb
UC nursing student and successful home gardener Connor Lynch has six tips to get us started.
Bachelor of Nursing student Connor Lynch prides himself on the productive garden he lovingly tends at his O’Connor home in the heart of Canberra. He grows seasonal produce to supplement what he has to buy and has been advising his neighbours on getting the best out of their own backyards. Connor says his family started his love of growing food, having grown up in Canberra but with a small farm at Jugiong. “We had a little vineyard and a veggie patch, so growing our own food was just a part of life. When I started out it was in a small place in Narrabundah; there wasn’t much room, but part of the learning experience is working out what to do.”
1) Start with soil. You get out what you put in, so time to start composting. So much green waste goes to landfill and it should be composted. A little compost bin means all that goodness that would be lost goes to make more productive soil.
2) Location, location, location. Find a nice sunny spot to start your vegetable garden, but if space is at a premium a pot or two is enough to get you started. A couple of pots of herbs or even a strawberry plant is a great first crop.
3) Grow what you love. It makes sense to plant the kind of vegetables you love to eat. You’ll enjoy the fruits of your labour that much more. Growing herbs such as basil or chillies or lettuce in a pot is easy and you’ll never go back to packaged expensive produce from the supermarket.
4) Experiment – it’s a learning experience. When I started out I was just sprinkling seeds in the backyard and had as many failures as I did successes. But I learned what worked and what didn’t and the next time I swapped the failed crops with something different. It teaches patience and flexibility.
5) Plan your harvest. Canberra has a large itinerant population and with so many people having limited time Connor says they should focus on short-turn around crops. If you’re in a share house, studying or are a contract worker consider quick-growing veggies, I wouldn’t be planting an apple or a fig tree.
6) Sharing is caring. Connor says that gardening has turned his neighbourhood into a community and people share what they have learned, hints about what crops worked and what failed and they even trade their produce. Having 20 kilos of pumpkins ripen at one time would test any cook, but if you trade or sell a few your glut becomes someone else’s dinner.