Interview: Little Veggie Patch Co.

The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen

There’s certainly no shortage of studies purporting the fact that gardening is a good contributor to happiness – which goes a long way to explain the perpetual smile that graces the face of Mat Pember, founder of Little Veggie Patch Co.

Mat has been hands-deep in the soil of Melbourne veggie patches since starting his business in 2007. Originally founded as a landscaping business which took their now signature discarded apple crates and turned them into vegetable plots in the backyards of local Melbournites, Little Veggie Patch Co is now a multi-faceted marvel of all things gardening and education.

While still setting up their plots all over the city, Mat and his team now also run a landscaping nursery in St Kilda East, a line of heirloom seeds, several popular books teaching people to grow food at home, and an exciting space atop Federation Square in the city known as the Pop Up Patch – a rooftop growing space for businesses and locals who otherwise have no growing space to take over their own edible plots.

With an aim to offer guidance on growing our own food, Little Veggie Patch Co does so in the most approachable of ways, acknowledging that nobody is born with the skill or the green thumb required – it’s a skill that’s learnt by simply starting. As such, their first book (which Mat wrote with then-partner Fabian Capomolla who has since moved to Italy) went on to become the best-selling gardening book in Australia – and they soon have their fourth on the way this September!

Can you tell us about Little Veggie Patch Co, who works there, and what you do?

“Little Veggie Patch Co is a business which is broadly based around helping people grow food. It started out as a landscaping business about seven or eight years ago and we then moved into a retail space, then found a niche in doing some books as well and have moved into education. And I guess more than the landscape and the retail side that’s where we see business moving forward because there seems to be a real demand toward knowledge these days.

“We also have the Pop Up Patch, which is a hands-on learning space. It gives inner city residents and businesses the opportunity to grow food and develop a bit of a hands on learning experience at the same time. We found that most of the gardeners are actually pretty self sufficient in that regard and just want to get on with the process so that keeps evolving and we keep trying to find a way of fitting in more with the business needs of restaurants, because that seems to be where more education is needed and demand for produce.

Little Veggie Patch Co is myself… there is also Dillon Seitchik-Reardon who has been a collaborator for quite a while, who I’ve written the most recent book with. There’s Tom who works in the retail space. We’ve got Jack who does the installations and the crates. Millo who manages Pop Up Patch, Andy who does workshops, and then a handful of casuals who work alongside us.”

What’s your background and what led to you starting the Little Veggie Patch Co?

“My background was commerce, I did a commerce degree, and then I went travelling. I never intended I don’t think to get a job in that area. I ended up in Spain for about three or four years. I came back with the motivation of wanting to work for myself, and then fell into a landscaping job that was casual, then part time, then full time. Around 2007 there seemed to be a real niche opportunity for helping people grow food and since I was working landscaping those two things connected, and that’s how the business evolved. So I don’t have any formal training, I tried to do a horticulture course but I found that I already knew most of the things just from learning on the job and then worked on the other courses that specialised in growing food components so it’s all been learnt on the job – a lot of Googling as well.”

Did you grow up with much knowledge of food growing?

“Well yeah, I have an Italian side so I reconnected with what I remembered as a kid. I grew up in my Nonna’s house in Fremantle and I remember the backyard and the smell of tomato plants and the chillies and the sandy soils. That’s not to say I knew how to plant a seedling or anything when I decided I wanted to do landscaping, and that was all taught again, but the interest in food definitely stemmed from family.”

What does a typical week involve?

“Monday is maybe coming into the shop to hang out with Tom. I’m partly across the shop, and there’s a lot of writing obligations and work to do when the shop’s closed Monday and Tuesday, including a monthly thing for Gourmet Traveller and a weekly thing for Herald Sun. By Wednesday I’m feeling like it needs to be more productive and get out and check what’s happening with the crates and doing hands-on things. The installations, the apple boxes… so I might help Jack out on some jobs if there’s a bit of a shortage of hands on. There’s a whole lot of accounting stuff and invoices and finance things that sort of bog you under.

“And then the Pop Up Patch and trying to get that on track and keep the members happy – there’s about 40 or 50 people that you have to manage, and they’ve all got their expectations so I spend some time there and say hello to members. The hardest thing about that space is you always see something to do and you’re constantly getting distracted because you’ll write an email and then see a weed in a crate and go take the weed out and then all of a sudden you’re planting seedlings and you’re watering and then you’re wondering what you’re doing in the first place.”

The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma BowenThe Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen

Do you have a common piece of advice that you like to give those who think they can’t garden?

“We try and take away any idea that people have skill in the first place. I think gardening can sometimes be daunting because there’s an implied level of knowledge projected by a lot of gardeners. And we try and take that barrier down and just start right at the basic level and explain how to plant a seed and a seedling – because I mean, I didn’t know how to do that when everything started up. And we try to be as inclusive as possible I guess.

“But start small and make sure you’ve mastered those small spaces because I think a lot of people get excited about growing food and plan and start quite large in their heads, but there is work as well and the worst thing you can do is overcapitalise, you don’t get success, it fails and then all of a sudden you’ve tried and moved onto the next thing. So start small and build on it is the biggest thing.”

What are you looking forward to growing this season?

“I always look forward to tomatoes – I just look forward to the warm weather after a very slow winter. But I get a buzz out of growing anything as long as it grows and the most exciting thing, even in winter, is just turning away from the garden and not paying any attention to it and three weeks later things are looking green and lush. Because often the spring garden is quite a difficult garden, it’s high maintenance and the winter garden just seems to flourish without having to do too much. Anything green excites me.”

What, to you, is the importance of gardening?

“I think it’s a time out space and I think it’s really important for people to get in tune with really basic things. Technology complicates so many things and we’re so connected to our iPads and our phones and I think there’s something quite reassuring about getting our hands dirty and getting in the sun and vitamin D and all those sorts of things both tangible and intangible.”

What inspires you in what you do?

“Probably kids. Seeing them interact and pick and smell and sniff and experience these first little sensory experiences that I remember as a kid. I can’t place the time or day to even feeling a tomato plant for the first time, but for me that touch and that smell is the first sense that I remember, and a lot of those things are the most profound.

“So seeing the kids try things and get excited about being in the garden is really an inspiration. I’ve got two little girls that are three and two and it’s pretty cute when you see that and it makes a lot of sense. My three-year-old always wants to come to work with me because she’s in the helping phase of her life, and they destroy most things but even seeing them do that they’re trying 100 percent so it’s very nice.”

What do you love about what you do?

“I love how broad growing food as a business is and how many directions it can go. There’s something I certainly love about the opportunities it presents. It’s also a little bit of a hindrance in staying focussed because there’s [such a range of] things that pop up but that’s the great thing about it. I just love the fact that this is exactly what I want to do as a person and as a business.”

What’s next for Little Veggie Patch Co? 

“There’ll hopefully be a little move to Tasmania, my family has bought some land there and it’s such a nice refreshing place to go that cleanses your palette and gets you all inspired again about work and life and everything else, so I’d love to do and take part in the business down there.

“I really love writing the books and that’s something I’ve enjoyed since day one. We have a new book coming out in September, our fourth book, and it’s a project based book that’s about sinking your teeth into larger activities that revolve around the garden. That comes out September 1st and has been a lot of fun to do it with Dylan, who is a friend from a long time ago.

“We also want to do maybe a little TV show about creating a piece of country in the city, because we can’t all be living in the country and it’s a pretty idyllic lifestyle but we want to be living that lifestyle here in the city so we’re pretty excited about maybe doing something like that as well.”

To find out more about Little Veggie Patch Co head to their website, www.littleveggiepatchco.com.au and find them on Facebook and Instagram.

The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma Bowen The Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma BowenThe Slowpoke: LITTLE VEGGIE PATCH CO // Photo by Emma BowenWords and photos: Emma Bowen

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1 comment:

  • Wendy

    Wow! What a wonderful and inspiring story which I hope inspires more edible greenery in the city. I would like to know what the climbing plant is on the archway? Is it an edible climber? I would love to grow an edible climber on an old ladder in my garden, so would appreciate any information about this.
    Thanks, Wendy

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