Mat Pember is the founder of Melbourne’s Little Veggie Patch Co (LVPC), a job that sees him establishing edible gardens across Australia, through a gamut of innovative products and ideas.
LVPC began in 2008, as a service based company, installing raised garden beds and larger edible gardens in people’s homes. What was your background in gardening, and how did the idea for your business grow?
I really had no background in gardening, other than vivid memories of my Nonna’s and Nonno’s, but after finishing a commerce degree I fell into a landscaping job. It’s true that we are symptoms of our environment and quickly the idea of working in commerce became outdated for me. I really enjoyed being hands on and my only true motivation was doing something for myself. In late 2007/early 2008 there seemed an opportunity to start a niche business installing edible gardens.
This was around the time of the GFC and the slow food movement was gaining momentum. People were beginning to readdress how they spent their money and grow more concerned about the origins of their food. And I also happened to be living and working with a vegetable growing, love torn French man in a share house. And from there the LVPC was born.
I remember the Italian half of my family being very sceptical. “Why would people want someone to help them grow their vegetables?!” But over the years the business has changed (thankfully) from niche to mainstream, and edible gardening has become a lot more accessible. It’s no longer stereotyped as something that farmers, hippies or ethics do. Maybe it’s becoming stereotyped as something more for a bearded, inner city hipster, but all that proves is broad appeal and that maybe, just maybe, you really do need a beard to be able to grow food. That’s why the industry is so appealing right now: there are so many important questions that need answering.
The concept for LVPC is based on the belief that everyone can grow their own produce, regardless of the space they have available. What’s the most unlikely edible garden you’ve created for someone so far?
The edible garden at Little Creatures Geelong would be one of the most unlikely, but one that works so well. We were given free reign of a long laneway between a couple of early 20th century factory buildings, and it’s turned out to be a great micro climate for growing fruit trees and herbs. As part of the build we were able to go junk foraging through the site and uncovered plenty of treasures. Old wind turbines, wrought iron piping, drink troughs. But the piece de resistance was a giant concrete mixer we refurbished and turned into a giant pot for a mature olive tree. Thankfully for us the site was absolutely devoid of any greenery so what we created made an immediate impact. Hands down our favourite job to date.
One of your most popular products is your veggie crates – raised garden beds made from recycled apple crates. How do they work, and how long before a novice gardener might see some edible rewards for their investment?
The apple crates have turned out to be perfect growing infrastructure for growing food. We didn’t imagine that they’d become so popular, but just like a half wine barrel has become a pot, the apple crate is now the little veggie patch. It’s a decent, manageable size (1.2m by 1.2m), self-contained, which allows us to import our secret soil mix (it’s not so secret, but that does sound better), stands at 73cm so drains perfectly, chases sun and is at an ergonomic height for tending. And a beautiful aged timber, recycled from apple orchards. I could go on!
We got in our lab coats and ran some growing experiments, documenting how long before you can begin pulling produce ($) from the garden, and within the first month growers were harvesting leafy greens and springs of herbs. That sort of produce is simple to grow – just add water and sunlight – and also regenerates when picked. Of course, along with the quantitative measures we also measure those things less tangible, and during the experiment one grower invited a friend to the patch to help with watering and with the hose hardly dry the friendship blossomed into something much more. So many possible rewards and not just food.
In 2009 you developed your own range of heirloom seeds. What exactly is an heirloom seed, and why is this important?
The definition of an heirloom explains a lot, being “a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations”. Inherently, heirloom seeds are the same; they are varieties of seeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next because they have been considered valuable. Of course, everyone’s definition of valuable is different, so it may be saved because of its taste or its yield or resistance to disease or just because.
All heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, non-hybrid varieties, meaning that they produce a true copy of themselves that can then be collected and saved. This means they are able to evolve as nature intended, and as the good man, Charles Darwin explained.
Very serious people, much more than ourselves, believe that heirlooms need to be in existence for more than 50 years to be considered such. We’re a little more lenient. Heirlooms are being developed all the time, and as long as their genetic make up is pure, we see no problem with heirlooms ‘getting it on’ with each other and forming more interesting and diverse varieties of plants. In fact many mad garden scientists get their kicks out of breeding different varieties of plant and seeing the madder results.
Some may be concerned in hearing this: isn’t this genetic modification? Well yes, it is. But genetic modification, done naturally, is how most, if not all heirlooms come about. It’s like an Italian woman and Australian man coming together, cross pollinating and forming me. Completely natural, a little gross, but such a beautiful result.
Heirloom seeds should be used and saved when possible in the home garden. This is the only way we are able to develop better performing, better tasting, better yielding, better ‘je ne said quoi’ types of vegetables. This is why we have developed our range and why people need to come to Bowerbird and buy up big. Darwin is no longer, and it’s up to us!
You’ve now published four books including the best selling, ‘How to grow food in small spaces’. What’s the secret to your success in the publishing world?
The secret to our success in publishing is not too fascinating. Say you’re looking to enter the Guinness book of world records. You wouldn’t compete in heaviest lift, or longest run, or something that a lot of people would do really, really well. You may instead choose to compete in ‘running a marathon backwards juggling balls’ and hopefully the likelihood of breaking that record would increase. We’re lucky because we’re writing about gardening and we’d have to admit that it’s been a pretty dry genre to date.
We don’t consider ourselves gardeners and so we put the information in words that we hope people will better understand and digest. People also seem to enjoy reading about failures rather than success, so we definitely don’t rub faces in the amazing projects, rather the time I planted herbs in a watertight Ikea metal tub and then proceeded to drown and then burn them in our hot bluestone courtyard.
Our ideology is also about showing, not telling – so the books are heavily illustrated with step-by-step examples – and if they don’t work we do our best with whatever loose analogies we feel will resonate. In fact, every gardening fact or tip in our books is usually explained by some type of analogy. So much so that our most recent book was almost titled The Little Veggie Patch Co’s 38 gardening analogies.
Tell us about the Fed Square Pop Up Patch (PUP), that you set up in Melbourne’s CBD and how this fits into your overall company vision.
PUP is a hands-on learning, inner city gardening club (to put it succinctly) and rather than just being about growing food is about enjoying unique green spaces. The people we talk to, grow food for/with and generally enjoy hanging out with are people who love food and the entire food experience. For us that begins in the garden, and giving everyone the opportunity to grow, and making it accessible – particularly where space doesn’t usually exist – is exactly what LVPC is about. PUP has pulled out a number of great people and businesses from their city holes and as we’re helping people evolve their skills, they’re teaching us some new skills too.
So in that way PUP is a great experiment and learning space for our business. It’s something we never dreamed of doing and unfortunately (or fortunately) don’t have a great plan for it other than to stand back, let it evolve and take notes. Currently it’s being trialed as an event space and we have just opened up a small cafe. We continue to run edible gardening workshops, play table tennis and drink beers there too.
What are you looking forward to at the next Bowerbird and what will visitors find on your stall?
We loved being at Bowerbird last year because it was a chance to get out of Melbourne and meet a new city and its people. This year it’s the place we get to release some new wares for the first time – a new range of hand made gardening tools; and showcase our new book “DIY Garden Projects”. So if you want an idea of how to convert common cafe junk, milk crates and hessian sacks, into the perfect hanging basket; or how to put the rouge spoons that end up in your cutlery draw to better use (turning them into life long garden markers) please visit. We also plan on testing a Santa costume to see if it’s suitable for Christmas or whether to save it for next Halloween.