Going organic in St Kilda

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I love to cook with organic ingredients whenever possible, so this week I made it a mission to set up my own little balcony herb garden. Buying fresh herbs from the supermarket seems such a waste of money – especially since they always seem to be dead at the bottom of the fridge by the time I get around to using them. Given the opportunity, most of us would readily choose to eat organic produce. However, this can sometimes be a costly exercise.

Did you know that St Kilda is one of the most densely populated suburbs in Australia? The Australian Bureau of statistics has estimated the resident population for the city of Port Phillip to be 97,429 people (at 30 June 2010). That’s more than 6,400 people per square km.

Many St Kilda residents live in flats. Only about 12.4% of total dwellings are houses with back yards. For those of us living in the inner city, a lack of space often limits our ability to grow our own food. We often have to resort to indoor gardening or to growing plants in window ledges or on sunny balconies.

If you’re like me, you won’t have had much luck in the potted plant department. So, I decide to see what I can learn from Fabian Capomolla, co-owner, along with Matt Pember, of the little Veggie Patch Co Shop.

It’s located on the corner of Brighton Rd and Chapel St, (at the end of the Chapel Street tramline). I only discovered it by chance, because I happened to be collecting a parcel from the Australia Post Depot across the road. If it hadn’t been for that, this oasis of edible delights housed in a beautiful old building near the St Kilda Primary school, may have gone unnoticed by me.

The Veggie Patch Co Shop deal exclusively in organic garden edibles, and Fabian was happy to help me with advice. “After hunting and gathering,” he says, comes farming, so when you think about it, man has a natural desire to cultivate. It’s built into us from early on.”

Considering my past gardening history, I think it best if he starts with the basics. “One of the most common mistakes made,” Fabian says, “is to keep outdoor plants inside – unless you have a well lit balcony. You can grow almost anything in a pot, but leafy edibles need lots of air and sunshine.

“The next point to consider,” he goes on to say, “is the soil. You must use good quality potting soil.”

I have already learned a great deal from the simple advice he has given me. And as we chat, I can’t help but mourn the countless pots of oregano and mint that I am guilty of either suffocating or drowning by over watering.

“What about fertilizer?” I ask. “If you have good potting mix,” he says, “it already has fertilizer in it. It will be much better than the $3 stuff you get in some supermarkets.”

I also tell him about my insect problems – like that fat green caterpillar that stripped my last mint bush bare. He responds by saying “You can spray a little soapy water to deter them. The trick is to plant a variety of plants to confuse the insects”.

I am sure that he is completely serious, but I go on. “I hear that you can plant marigolds to deter insects?”  “Yes,” says Fabian, “we also have a full range of flower edibles, like violets and dandelions.”

That’s when I noticed lots of brightly coloured petals. There were also various miniature fruit trees, olives, chillies, tomatoes and a full range of seedlings. I was excited and eager to explore to see what else was on offer.

Fabian also suggests planting herbs in brightly coloured pots to compliment their leafy green foliage and make them more of a decorative piece for the home. It was no coincidence that there was an ample collection available there as well, along with watering cans and the like. I was in ‘Veggie Heaven’!

Being on foot and armed with only several strong carry bags meant that I had to focus on my original mission: an affordable organic herb garden. Eventually I choose huge lush pots of basil, oregano, lemongrass, mint and thyme as my kitchen staples – all of which I carry over my shoulder like a live walking garden. It was great exercise and anyway. I know that many stranger things have been seen on the streets of St Kilda.

Fabian, who is obviously passionate about gardening, says ”I’ve been surrounded by veggies all my life, some of my earliest memories are of being told off by my Nonno for kicking the footy into the veggie patch.

Aside from the obvious health benefits, going organic means that will I now always have fresh, flavoursome herbs at my disposal. And my balcony has never looked so good. Mission accomplished!

The Little Veggie Patch Co is a Melbourne based business that specialises in the design, installation and maintenance of chemical-free vegetable gardens. “As much as it is our business, it is our passion to see more people living a greener lifestyle – growing their own vegetables”.

They also have a website : www.littleveggiepatchco.com.au and have published a book called “How to grow food in small places.”

By Steve Anderssen




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