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In the Transition to Self-sufficiency, Suburban Food Gardens Have a Role to Play

In all my 25 years gardening and landscaping, I’ve never seen anything like the interest in food gardening of the last year or so.

About 18 months ago I changed the focus of my gardening and landscaping business from ‘ordinary’ gardening to produce gardening, and started Edible Eden Design. I had realized that I was happiest working with edible plants and decided to try to make them the focus of my work. I wanted (amongst other things) to promote the idea of using edible plants in an ornamental way. I had no idea at the time the changes that were happening in society and the interest it would generate.

Since then I’ve been on National Radio and TV, all due to the interest in home food gardening.

I have been designing and installing gardens for 20 or more years, and in that time maybe 10% of my clients have wanted something edible in their gardens. Perhaps a couple of fruit trees and a tiny vegie patch. I’ve always slipped a Rosemary ‘Blue Lagoon’ into everyone’s garden, explaining that, yes, you can cook with it and its sky blue flowers not only feed bees but brighten the garden.

About a year ago that 10% became the ones who didn’t want anything edible. Now I’m designing whole gardens with edible plants to appear indiscernible from other ornamental landscapes in garden-conscious Melbourne. The public has embraced the concept of food gardening wholeheartedly.

To help show what can be grown in a suburban or city garden, I have opened up my home garden, with its 150 or more edible plants, to classes and open days. In my classes I try to give students the confidence to grow what they can, no matter what size garden they have, in soil or pots. If they see various edible plants growing in my garden they can imagine growing them at home, and seeing how plants fare in various situations teaches the range of situations they tolerate. Suburban gardens often have less than perfect conditions for growing food plants, and I like to show what is possible despite this.

I try to give them the whole picture, so we eat food made with ingredients from my garden, we sample fruit from the garden in season and they leave with vegetable or herb seeds collected from my garden.

Meanwhile, in April 2008 the NIAV (Nursery Industry Association of Victoria) reported a huge shift in buying habits of the nursery going public. (This is still continuing in 2009, with nurseries reporting increases in sales of vegetable seedlings and fruit trees even as other plant sales decline with the harder economic times). This was in line with reports from the USA and UK. In the US, the National Gardening Association reported $US1.4 billion spent on vegetable growing in 2007, an increase of 25% on 2006. In the UK, sales of fruit trees and seeds of edible plants were up 13% in 2006 and 43% in 2007.

These reports piqued the interest of the Bush Telegraph programme on Radio National, and I was asked to be a guest to discuss these changes and my observations of them. There was so much interest they invited me back on a subsequent occasion. Home food growing had become news.

Fast forward to April 2009 and current affairs programme ’60 Minutes’ included my garden and I in a segment called ‘Backyard Revolution‘. I was fairly amazed when they called me, as anyone who has seen ’60 Minutes’ would understand that unless they thought this was of interest to the general public of Australia; they would not run the story.

The segment described how the Australian public was enthusiastically learning to grow their own food, from the school children of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Programme, to the community gardeners of inner city Melbourne, aided ably by the grandfather of vegetable gardening, Peter Cundall, and a gardener in inner suburban Melbourne. (!)

The 60 Minutes cameraman told me his own front garden was devoted to fruit and vegetables, and the whole film team that came was highly receptive and interested in the idea. I was their web guest afterwards, so spent an hour or so answering questions emailed in, from all over Australia. That night I watched as my email box filled up with questions and class bookings. The next home gardening class I was due to run was quickly booked up – I ended up running that class 5 times in 10 days, to cater for the demand. I now have a waiting list for all my classes.

Since 2007, more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities (1). In Australia, 80% of us live in cities. Given these figures, suburban food gardening takes on a whole new significance.

Not everyone has access to land in the country to grow all their own food, but surprisingly large amounts of food can be grown on the large tracts of land still unused in our cities. Digger’s Nursery at Dromana, Victoria says that we need around 10m2 to grow each person’s food and many suburban gardens have more than this available. Urban food swaps can fill gaps that we may have in our capacity to grow our own food. Many food plants can be grown in pots on balconies or apartment windowsills.

The food we eat may contribute up to 30% of our carbon footprint, with a lot of this due to transporting the food over long distances and its subsequent need for refrigeration. Growing food where we live can substantially reduce our impact on the earth. Food harvested just before eating is far more nutritious than food carried long distances, and small food allotments are able to have their pests and diseases more easily managed without harmful chemicals. Home grown food may require 1/17th of the need for watering as commercially grown food (2) – of vital importance as some parts of Australia experience perhaps the worst drought in recorded history. Prominent public figures are setting the example – the Obamas and the Queen have installed vegetable gardens, our prime minister has yet to follow!

Large companies have picked up on the shift in public sentiment.
I watched a TV commercial recently where wide-eyed children cuddled chickens and harvested eggs, an apartment dweller picked fresh herbs from a window-box over a city laneway and neighbours handed home-grown vegetables over the fence. Our new warm feeling about growing our own food was being hijacked by ‘the fresh food people’!

My local large hardware store starting with B has an expanded stand of vegetable seeds, showing that they too have done their market research.

Not that long ago, my older European descent neighbours lamented to me that none of their children wanted to learn the vegetable and fruit growing skills that they had brought from the villages they grew up in. Now everywhere I turn, there is a great hunger for that knowledge, to learn how to grow, cook and preserve our own food.
Every magazine I pick up has articles on home food growing and self-sufficiency, from starting a herb patch to keeping chickens.
The enthusiasm my students have for learning how to grow and use their own food, gives me hope for the future!


  1. United Nations, “World Urbanization Prospects – The 2007 Revision”
  2. David Holmgren, from Lenzan and Foran reports 2001 and 2005


  1. I agree the interest in growing food has expanded much over the past few years. Along with this interest in growing the desire to know how to cook and preserve is most encouraging.

  2. Good afternoon Karen,

    I would like to see public awareness raised further. On the mainstrean channels i see too much emphasis on backyard landscaping that suffocates with the spread of paving rather than using that land for sustianable growth.

    Cheer’s, Mark

  3. “Our new warm feeling about growing our own food was being hijacked by ‘the fresh food people’! ”

    that’s ridiculous – they are the reason why we grow food in the first place, to become self-sufficient and lower carbon emissions’

    (they aren’t trying to encourage us to grow our own food, otherwise they would go out of business).. they are trying to look like the good guy’s – and that ticks me off’

  4. Hi everybody,

    I’m writing from the North of Namibia. We run a project for Orphans here, and with that a newly established campsite to raise funds for the project. A few months ago we heard about permaculture, just after a flood destroyed all our gardens. We decided that this is the way we should follow to establish our gardens again – edible!!! Then it’s also our dream to establish this idea in our local community. People here are very very poor and sleep hungry many nights. Now we are looking for enthusiastic volunteers to come and help (and teach) us setting up the permaculture gardens here. We have two hectares of beautiful soil, and a magnificent river flowing along the premises. We truly hope to get someone interested to join us for a while!!!
    Looking forward to reactions. Ellen

  5. Stop using the term “Self-Sufficient”:

    The word self immediately puts people off since it puts them apart. It also is usually used in words like selfish, self-obsessed, self aggrandizing, self appointed, self centered etc. etc. so this association is a negative.

    Then we have the word sufficient which means ‘just enough’ rather than more than enough and people don’t like to have just enough.

    So self-sufficient is to be dependent on oneself for just enough.

    Well that is completely impossible. No living thing can possibly be self-sufficient. They require air, water, food, love etc. and non of these are provided by the self. It can therefore clearly be seen that this word is complete and utter nonsense. How can it possibly be that intelligent people in academia, the media etc, use such moronic language? Could it be that someone or some people are attempting to make a natural life seem anything but appealing? If you yourself have to provide everything without any help from anyone or anything that sounds like a lot of work really doesn’t it and who on earth would want to be a loner? Ofcourse it is still preferable to other slanderous phrases like “peasant farmer” and “subsistence farmer” that just go to proove my point. Think about it.

    Might I suggest considering using “Auto-Abundant”.


  6. “The food we eat may contribute up to 30% of our carbon footprint, with a lot of this due to transporting the food over long distances and its subsequent need for refrigeration. Growing food where we live can substantially reduce our impact on the earth. Food harvested just before eating is far more nutritious than food carried long distances, and small food allotments are able to have their pests and diseases more easily managed without harmful chemicals.”

    Reducing ones “carbon footprint” is not a primary reason to plant a garden and is certainly not going to sell the idea to people. Points about fresh food are good but what about other benefits like cost savings, time savings, taste, health benefits, personal relationship with plants, food grown especially for you, ideal place to relax, have something special to give friends etc.

    Also people do NOT grow food unless you are talking about canabilism. I would have said, “planting a garden” as it is much more accurate and sells the idea far better as it sounds much easier to do than something impossibile like carrots growing out of peoples ears.

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