Justin Stahl has been selling heirloom seeds and seedlings at Perth farmers markets for over five years, and loves encouraging people to grow their own food. An admittedly average gardener, his interests lie in promoting food security and a decentralised, resilient food supply, while raising awareness of the fragility of the current system. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, with degrees in Political Science and Journalism, he is currently a freelance writer for the Herald and Perth Voice. He also sits on the council of the Royal United Services Institute for Security and Defence Studies, and can be contacted at email@example.com.
YOUR typical gardening column may include some pretty pictures, some pest removal tips and a handy ‘what-to-plant-when’ guide – but we are not your typical newspaper. We will of course cover these things, but before the What, When and How next month, I would like to briefly discuss the Why. In an era of shrinking block sizes, increasing screen time and less spare time, the concept of establishing a garden might seem quaint and pointless. But it’s not. There has never been a better time to set aside a few hours on the weekend to take a good look at your backyard, balcony or even bathroom, and plan your green mission.
There are good reasons that the world’s palaces and mansions contain extensive gardens. Michelle Obama famously planted a vegie patch on the White House lawn in an effort to demonstrate how easy healthy, organic food can be, to a nation often characterised by ‘McDonaldization’.
We instinctively love to be in and around nature, and our bond with nature couldn’t be demonstrated better than by nourishing a garden. Flowers for the soul, food for the body.
Reason 1: It’s good for you
Food is the building block of our bodies, and the old saying ‘you are what you eat’ has never been truer.
Commercial imperatives have driven greater yield plateaus and bigger fruit, but at the cost of flavour and declining nutrient density.
Ask anyone who has eaten an heirloom tomato what they now think of the supermarket offerings and you may hear some naughty words interspersed with ‘bland’, ‘tasteless’ and ‘doughy’. Organoleptic factors aside, the sheer novelty of having a wider choice of varieties (think large, stripy, hairy, tiny, fleshy or saucy tomatoes…) that can suit your garden and personal tastes is a wonderful thing, and a palette of colourful food will encourage even the pickiest kids to learn about where their food comes.
Not only is home grown food healthier and tastier, but you maintain sovereignty over what you put into your body.
Don’t want to put glyphosate, pesticides or industrial-strength fertilisers on your plate? Then don’t.
Worried about iron deficiencies, but aren’t keen on iron pills? Plant some silverbeet, spinach or beans.
Not convinced about the safety of transgenic (‘GM’) food yet? Then plant your own alternatives.
And let’s not forget the proven mental health benefits of putting down that screen and getting out into the garden. It has been shown to help ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety, it’s good exercise and even something as mundane as weeding can give you respite from the daily hustle.
Reason 2: It’s good for Australia and the world.
Aside from the benefits to your own household, growing your own food helps our fragile planet in a number of ways.
In terms of environmental sustainability, your ‘food miles’ become mere food metres, and all the carbon emissions that come from production, refrigeration, trucking, storage and distribution in commercially grown produce are avoided, let alone the significant chemical usage.
If you choose to use heirloom varieties instead of commercial seeds, you will be safeguarding our precious agricultural heritage for future generations.
Many varieties have already been lost for good, with National Geographic finding 93 per cent of seed varieties previously available in the US are now extinct.
Using open-pollinated seeds means that every year you can save your best performers to plant the next year, gradually adapting it to your own personal ecosystem and tastes.
Best of all, you’re keeping our food production out of corporate control, which has already been linked with farmer impoverishment.
Our society can only benefit from a surplus of food, and by growing your own you take pressure off others.
Simply put, you will not only be feeding yourself but can feed others with your excess produce, and in doing so increase the food security and resilience of not just your neighbourhood but Australia as a whole.
And besides, nothing says ‘I’m a good neighbour’ like sharing a box of fruit or vegies with the family next door.
Reason 3: It’s good for your wallet.
Food is not getting any cheaper, and as we enmesh ourselves in globalised food chains we become far more susceptible to international food supply shocks.
The Chinese outbreak of African Swine Fever (often called ‘Pig Ebola’) and subsequent culling of over a million pigs has already caused Australian pork prices to rise by around 20 per cent, putting pressure on other proteins such as mutton, climbing around ten per cent this year alone.
Rabobank is predicting that approximately half of China’s estimated 440 million pigs will need to be culled by 2020, doubtlessly further increasing the prices of all alternate proteins significantly, as Chinese consumption of chicken, seafood and beef rises.
Assumptions that Australia produces enough to comfortably feed ourselves are questionable when comparing China’s lost production of 20 million tonnes with our 500,000 total.
The laws of global supply and demand will mean a hit to your wallet if nothing else.
Permaculture pioneer David Holmgren noted that “Australians have been living in a dream world of cheap energy, low interest rates and benign climates.”
A passionate advocate of backyard ‘garden farming’, he sees additional social benefits in what he calls “Retrosuburbia”–kickstarting “household and community non-monetary economies of gift, barter and reciprocity”.
John Hartley, from Perth think tank Future Directions International, recently said we are in a “period of transition from food abundance to food scarcity”, with one third of global farmland losing topsoil faster than it can be replenished.
He noted that one billion people are starving, whilst two billion are overweight, and that the effects of climate change will only exacerbate the problem.
China is losing over 600,000 acres a year of soil to desertification, and 25 per cent of Indian soil is threatened with the same fate. Africa now has over 80 dust storms per year, up from less than five in the 1960s.
What to do?
Despite all this doom and gloom, it should be remembered that when our leaders last felt our food supply was threatened during World War II, Australians were encouraged to plant household ‘Victory Gardens’, supplying their own family with much of the nutrition they required, and taking pressure off a strained wartime economy.
Examples abound of people producing huge amounts of food from home gardens, with one inner Melbourne 271sqm block recently producing over 350kg of food annually, while even a 64sqm block has supplied over 234kg.
The concept of planting a garden does not have to be a burden, but rather a way to contribute to the wellbeing of everyone around you.
Don’t worry that you’ve killed plants before, everyone does–they make great compost for your next attempt.
Even if only one tomato plant survives, some varieties will happily produce 20kg of fruit each, which could cost between $60 to $600 from the supermarket duopoly–let alone the simple joy that comes from a backyard that smells of flowers while bees softly buzz in the afternoon sun.
So go on, get ready for spring.
Next month we will bring you a collection of hints and tips for a bumper tomato crop–and we welcome community input too.
Feel free to send your advice, tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and the best will be featured.
Planting the seeds to success
What does organic mean?
NO term is perhaps as incorrectly used as ‘organic’.
Many people ask me if the seeds I sell are organic, to which I usually reply that they will be as organic as whatever soil you grow them in.
Many products will spuriously claim to be ‘organic’. The Australian Organic certification body defines it as: “farming in a way which cares for the environment, without relying upon synthetic chemicals and other unnatural interventionist approaches.”
To be sure the product you are buying is indeed organic, look for the distinctive Australian Organic ‘bud’ logo.
Why should I use heirloom/heritage seeds?
Simply put, heirloom seeds are varieties of plants that have been passed down from previous generations of farmers, and prized for their specific qualities.
Open pollinated seeds will reproduce faithfully to their progenitor, meaning that seed saved from the previous crop can be used to produce the next.
I like to compare it to dog breeding–out of a litter of puppies you might choose the biggest or most ‘purebred’ dog to breed further, or you might take the only one with a bushy tail or blue eyes.
This process of selective breeding is how tomatoes with stripes or certain colour markers came to exist.
Hybrid seeds of the sort used in commercial agriculture are a non-reproductive product, and the corporations that sell them make money by selling a consistent product tailored to a farmer’s particular needs each year.
What about GMOs?
Another widely misunderstood phenomenon is genetically modified organisms, which come in many forms.
The selective breeding pressures and random mutations of heirloom varieties have caused genetic modification, but by that logic, the second your mother caught your father’s eye some form of genetic modification to a potential breeding line occurred as he made his choice.
What many people think when they hear the term GMO is more correctly called ‘transgenic’, which means that genes from one organism have been artificially moved into another in a laboratory.
Corn that expresses bacterial proteins from Bacillus thuringiensis (‘BT corn’) is the most widely known of these organisms, forming over 90 per cent of the total corn grown in the US and increasingly in developing countries.
Transgenic salmon, modified to excrete additional growth hormones, has become the first modified animal to enter the food chain.
There have been numerous studies that have found animals fed transgenic feed experienced negative effects, but other well-funded studies have found no health impacts.
At best we can say the transgenic field continues to be controversial, but is steadily gaining acceptance from both governments and consumers, despite vocal and continuing opposition.
PERTH GARDENERS! Here’s your chance to bloom
Are you a gardening guru? Do you consider yourself to be the Costa Georgiadis of Perth? Have you grown a pumpkin the size of an excersise ball? We want to know your gardening stories, hints and tips, achievements and we also want to see your photos. We’re inviting all Perth Voice readers to submit their gardening articles to feature in this brand new feature, so get writing. Submit your articles to email@example.com and the best will be featured.