Garden of Eatin’

Meet the green-thumbed guys getting city folk in the soil

Garden of Eatin’

Photos courtesy of Little Veggie Patch
“It was very ‘organic’,” says Mat Pember, describing how Little Veggie Patch Co came to fruition, “as much as we hate that word.” Really? There I was thinking he and co-owner Fabian Capomolla would be down with the virtuous, foodie vernacular. But it seems that these lads are instead, rather, down-to-earth.

“In gardening a lot of things aren’t organic, and some people don’t really understand that it’s okay. It’s like we’ve invented this idea that everything has to be organic, but nobody knows the reason why.”

It’s become, as Mat points out, a “fashionable sort” of word. “Much like heirloom, as in ‘heirloom vegetables.’ It’s become a real cool, trendy word. And the number of people that say ‘hair-loom’ – it’s incredible!”

More incredible is how he and Fabian have spawned a micro-gardening trend and nurtured a brand now only ‘little’ in name. With edible garden beds inhabiting many a Melbourne home and a sizable ‘pop-up patch’ in the city, they’ve urbanised the concept of farm-to-table, kicking off a balcony-to-bench, or courtyard-to-kitchen, movement.

“People living in the city are really interested in food and the story behind it; they want to be immersed in that culture,” says Mat.

It all began with the highbrows. Two years before joining forces with Fabian, Mat had started The Little Veggie Patch Co, pedalling raised garden beds to “middle and upper-class mothers concerned about healthy eating” despite the commerce degree hanging proudly on his parents’ wall.

“As a kid I was always in my grandparents’ garden. I think that’s what started everything.”

Mat’s adult years saw him growing herbs and veggies in share houses while venturing into landscaping – a gig that landed him in the garden of famed chef, author and food educator Stephanie Alexander, who suggested using discarded apple crates as garden beds.

Fabian was working in marketing with Mat’s sister at the time, becoming his business partner over two strong flat whites and a shared love of getting down and dirty in the garden. He came with a rather advantageous family connection to stone fruit and apple growers, the Montagues, whose crates, Mat says, became a huge part of the business. The pair installed beds all over the city, sprouted their own seed range and published the first of three books, How to Grow Food in Small Spaces.

In 2011 a considerably larger space presented itself which eventually became The Little Veggie Patch Co nursery. “We really loved it. We thought it was an opportunity to have a showroom of things that we could do and give people an opportunity to touch and feel. Gardening is very much a visual thing, and while it’s nice to see pictures, getting your hands dirty is really important,” he explains, and then, despite himself, “we just branched out from there.”

Their pop-up patch came about the following year. “That was just luck,” says Mat of the rooftop carpark plot, smack bang in the middle of Melbourne’s business district. “We’d done some work with Federation Square and they approached us to run a few gardens for their food tenants.”

Restaurants weren’t the only ones interested – around two-thirds of the patch has been taken on by city dwellers. “A lot of people in the city don’t have the opportunity to garden, so we thought, wouldn’t it be great to rent out plots and be there to help them fully facilitate the process?”

It’s simple – people rent a plot, pay AU$25 a week and get all the tools and materials they’ll need, along with round-the-clock gardening assistance. And the patch has produced more than edible fare.

“We’ve been told by a lot of people that the city is quite a lonely place. Now they have the opportunity to meet in the garden, so it’s very much brought people together,” says Mat. They have something in common, after all. “They’re all great cooks and they’ve all got the same approach to food, you know? It’s all about taste, trying different varieties and freestyling in the kitchen.”

While we might dream, the idea that you’re going to become entirely self-sufficient is not a feasible one. “It’s completely unrealistic,” laughs Mat. “Maybe if you want to be sufficient with parsley or radishes you could. But you’d go really hungry if you tried to get by on whatever you can grow living in the city.”

You can, however, put a dint in some relatively pricey items.

“Lettuce and herbs for example – they’re so easy to grow, yet so expensive to buy from the supermarket.”

And as Mat goes on to explain, whether or not you subsidise your food bills is not really the point. “I think it’s the experience of getting in there and giving it a go. Grow a few things and get the intangible feeling – that’s what spurs it on.”

For Mat and Fabian, they’re more about a healthy attitude to life.

“I guess that’s the reason we don’t harp on so much about being organic and healthy in terms of chemicals and foods. We promote a healthy lifestyle, and food’s really important for that.

“We all eat every single day, so why not make the experience interesting? And food is an experience that begins in the garden.”