Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where CAMDEN COMMUNITY GARDENS, NEW SOUTH WALES
If you've ever considered joining your local community gardens but are yet to take the leap, this interview with 35-year-old Justin O'Brien is likely to have you donning your overalls and racing out to buy a garden hoe.
Justin's obsession with gardening began early - following his nan around her garden and taking cuttings from neighbouring yards. While his skills are mostly self-taught, it was these childhood experiences that nurtured a lifelong love of growing vegetables.
His 6-year-old plot at the Camden Community Gardens enables him and his wife Chantelle to have more control over the food they eat and how it was grown, as well as learning and sharing their knowledge and joy of gardening with others.
1. How long have you been growing vegetables and did you have a family member or friend inspire your love of gardening?
I've been gardening nearly my whole life. When I was a kid I had a couple of veggie patches at my mum's house. Most of my skills and knowledge have been self taught through trial and error, and I also read a lot of magazines - Gardening Australia and Organic Gardener are my favourites.
As far as influences in the early years, I would say that would have been my nan. When I was really young I used to follow her around her garden taking cuttings to grow in pots to take home. When I ran out of things to strike from her garden I used to take cuttings from people's front yards nearby her house. Then when I got a little older I guess my mum became more of an influence as she'd always have amazing annual displays under her roses in her front and backyard.
2. Why do you think you're so passionate about growing vegetables? And does your wife Chantelle share your love of gardening?
Yes, Chantelle is definitely interested in growing veggies and has learnt so much since we've been together. There were a few sacrificial seedlings in the early days mistaken for weeds though, and she did cut back a fruiting blackberry vine to the ground to 'tidy it up for me'! But she loves having fresh eggs and veggies and is always cooking amazing dishes and helping out where she can.
One of the many reasons I think I'm so passionate about growing vegetables is I feel like it gives me more control over what I eat and the processes involved in growing it. I also really enjoy being creative, so I try to make the plots as aesthetically pleasing as possible (much to the amusement of Steve Cooper, the curator at the community garden!). Another bonus is it's incredibly relaxing. When I'm working in the gardens I don't have a care in the world.
3. Your veggie plot at the Camden Community Gardens looks amazing! When did you first start growing here and what made you want to be involved in the community gardens rather than growing at home?
I've had one plot for roughly 6 years now and picked up a second plot about 2 1/2 years ago. I decided to get involved as I'd been reading lots about how community gardens were popping up everywhere and loved the idea of sharing my passion with other like minded gardeners and the community.
Up until recently when we moved house, I had a veggie patch, orchard, chickens and native bees at home in Narellan Vale on 581sqm as well as the two plots which allowed me to rotate crops and grow a greater variety of veggies. These days though the chickens are located at the community garden and my native bees are at the new place two minutes up the road. I also have honey bees at my in-laws property.
4. What are the benefits of growing in the community gardens and would you recommend it to others?
There are so many benefits to being an active member of a community garden. It gives people without enough space at home the opportunity to grow their own veggies, and it's a great way to learn and share knowledge with others. I find when other members are picking produce there's always a bit of bartering going on as well. I actually can't believe more people don't get involved!
5. What do you do for a living and how does your garden fit into your life?
Gardening is something I enjoy and I love sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm. If I had a dollar for every time I've been asked if I was a landscaper I wouldn't need a job! Since leaving school I've been working in the printing industry as a heatset web printer (basically I print magazines and catalogues). During my apprenticeship I also worked at Big W in the garden shop. Every weekend I would re-arrange all the plants and potted colour into an impressive display only to have it pulled apart by the pesky customers!
6. Spring is almost over and Summer is well and truly on its way. What are you growing right now and what are you looking forward to growing in the coming months?
At the moment I'm harvesting the remaining winter crops (red cabbage, broccoli and leek) and planting my second wave of summer veggies.
Plot No 1 is already well established with three different types of heirloom beans (borlotti, butter and lazy housewife), zucchini, sweet and painted mountain corn as well as kifler potatoes and asparagus. Plot No 2 currently has a couple of butternut pumpkin vines climbing ladders (when you don't have a lot of space you need to go up not out!), watermelons and a 5m screen of four different heirloom varieties of tomatoes. This season I've really put an emphasis on growing as much as possible from seed, concentrating on heirloom varieties. My wife gifted me a Diggers Club subscription for Christmas last year so I've definitely been making the most of that.
Honestly, it's so satisfying growing your veggies from seed. I've actually gone a little crazy in the greenhouse sowing seeds just to give away! I even germinated a dozen yellow and green zucchini to plant in the communal area so everyone can share in the bounty.
7. Do you share any of your garden spoils with family or friends, or do you have excess that you sell or trade?
Yes, I give heaps away, usually to neighbours and family. Recently my niece was blown away by the blue eggs my Araucana lays. It's nice to be able to give them produce that they don't typically find in the aisles at Woolworths. I do sell honey from my hive but I don't harvest a lot so after I've kept enough for myself and family I normally only have 6-12 jars left, which get snapped up pretty quickly.
8. What do you see in your vegetable growing future?
In the near future I think I will just keep doing what I'm doing at the community garden. My wife and I are expecting our first child in March next year so it's all about balance at the moment.
I guess it's always been my dream to have enough space to grow all the veggies I want to grow and have an extensive garden with a tree lined driveway, almost like a life's work type of thing. I guess I just want to build something I can look back at when I'm 70 and feel proud of what I've created.
9. If you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?
Thats such a hard question to answer! The veggie that keeps coming to mind is an onion. It doesn't require a lot of attention, it's easy, multi-layered and versatile.
Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful space with us Justin!