A more locally connected, resilient and tasty Australian future? How to support all these newly enthused food gardeners

So, you are stuck at home. You may be isolating, quarantined, or suddenly found yourself under- or completely unemployed with too much time on your hands. You sit with your family, your children, your housemates or by yourself. You watch the news and hear from others about the panic-buying. You’re concerned over food supplies and the fresh food you can find at the shop seems expensive. What are you going to do? Well you could do what many people have done, rush to buy a bunch of food seeds and seedlings. The idea is to “grow your own” and hopefully secure a more reliable (and cheaper?) supply of fresh food. The only problem is, you’re not really sure how to grow food plants – you can keep your house plants and the shrubs in your garden alive sure, but this seems a bit more complicated…

This is the reality for many Australians at the moment. This swell of new food gardeners is a wonderful outcome from the concern and restrictions of the COVID-19 crisis. But how likely are these gardens to flourish? Do newbie gardeners have the skills and experience to produce reasonable and consistent amounts of food for their households this autumn and winter? Or will most of them watch disheartened as their newly minted “victory gardens” fail? The latest results from “Edible Gardens“, a state-wide citizen science project from the University of South Australia, suggest huge variability in the effectiveness of home food gardens.

So, what can we as a country do to help all these newly enthused food gardeners succeed? And how good would it be to come out of this crisis with households and communities that were more resilient, more productive, and more inter-connected than ever?

The current crisis has highlighted much of the fragility of our economic systems. Recent calculations by the Grattan Institute predict that over the coming weeks as many as 14-26% of Australians could be out of work. We may have more time on our hands, but also less money to support ourselves and our families.

Which brings us to our next question: Can “growing your own food” really save Australian households money?

There are three ways to look at this question:

  • By overlooking your garden setup costs and just considering your ongoing garden costs (including water)
  • By considering both your setup and ongoing costs
  • By applying a wage-rate to your time.

Our Edible Gardens research first found that if you overlook your garden setup costs, 79% of the study gardens were set to save more than $250 per year on their grocery bills (not a bad effort!).

But setup costs cannot be easily overlooked – especially while money is tight. The median setup cost for a food garden in our study was $500, a decent amount of money and quite likely a barrier to households struggling to make ends meet. When we included setup costs, 65% of our study gardens were set to overcome both their setup and ongoing costs and break even within 5 years. Of course, there are ways to help reduce garden setup costs. Some suggestions from our participants included: finding materials or parts for building garden areas for free, salvaged or purchased second-hand, making your own good compost or soil at home, and growing plants from seed instead of purchasing seedlings.

Now, if you would like to consider your time as valuable (as we normally do when working), then it can be very interesting to apply a wage-rate to time spent growing. We found that just over 1 in 6 of our study gardeners produced enough food to cover their ongoing garden costs and effectively pay themselves the Australian minimum wage ($18.93 per hour). Thus, for those currently under- or unemployed but still needing to buy fresh food, a productive food garden can be one avenue for saving money while employing yourself.

Furthermore, given that gardening at home is something that delivers an essential service (food!) without compromising social distancing, means that if done well, this is actually a potentially great way for people to remain ‘productive’ and in touch with nature while isolating during a crisis. And that’s without considering the benefits for kids’ education and connecting with the community. Many garden activities are suitable for kids currently out of school and offer opportunities for home-school lessons.

And while you may be thinking that isolating and social distancing mean we cannot reach out to our neighbours and friends – there are still plenty of ways to connect. Learn what you can grow well but remember, you do not have to grow it all – that’s what sharing and swapping are for. Find ways to let your neighbours know that you’re starting a food garden and would be happy to hear any tips, or swap seeds or produce (from a distance of course). If your community is really tightly knit you could even co-ordinate what each of you plan to grow to get the best spread of fruit, vegetables, herbs and maybe even eggs. Grow too much? Gift extra produce to a friend or neighbour, track down your closest “Grow Free” cart or read up on the merits of freezing, canning or fermenting.

Coming back to our original question, what can we do to help all these newly enthused food gardeners succeed?

I believe the answer could be an urgent, coordinated education programs in productive gardening. We need simple guidance and knowledge sharing from experienced food producers and professional gardeners to help support new (and old) gardeners really ramp up their food production. Here are some examples of great resources already being offered online: “8 weeks to Victory! An 8-week veggie patch from scratch, in a rental” by Kirsten Bradley at Milkwood, “Vegie Garden Basics” a video series by Sophie Thompson, this brilliant free e-book from Nadja’s Garden “Starting a Garden in Adelaide – a guide for beginners“, or the Crisis Gardening video series by Good Life Permaculture. Read, watch and share them around – let’s get everyone feeling confident about keeping their gardens growing.

Overcoming common challenges is another concern for new gardeners. Early in our research we surveyed gardeners across South Australia. The top six challenges for our home gardeners when they first began growing were: 1) Lack of time, 2) Unsuitable conditions, 3) Lack of knowledge, 4) Lack of space, 5) Cost and 6) Water issues. Tips from our latest research relate to time, irrigation, garden size and diversity. To start, growing food does not appear to take nearly as much time as people think – typically around 1.3 hours per week. For those who are really time poor, the two activities which took the most time were harvesting and irrigating. Water is critical. To reduce the worry of keeping up a consistent watering regime you can install an automatic irrigation system (preferably one with flow-meters built in so you can tell how many litres it uses), build wicking beds or plant fruit trees in the ground – two ways of growing which require less frequent irrigation. If you worry that your garden area is too small, we found smaller areas to be more intensive (require more time, water and money per m2) but also return higher yields and value per m2. By growing food in 2 or 3 different ways (for example, a mixture of in-ground beds, raised beds, wicking beds, fruit trees or keeping chickens) can help to provide more consistent year-round harvests and produce the most even (and diverse) combination of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and animal products.

Each of these different ways of producing food also have their own strengths and trade-offs. For example, we compared these areas (by per m2 per 30 days) and found:

Strengths and trade-offs of different food garden areas - 2020

Home food gardeners were already the largest target for potential sustainable change in local food even before all this happened. Imagine if all of us (local councils included) could work to encourage, support and guide this upswell of new gardeners to create long-lasting positive change for our future. A more locally connected, resilient and tasty Australian future, post COVID-19.

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