Ever dreamed about ditching city life to grow your own veggies in the country? Well, you’ll be happy to know you don’t have to relocate to fulfil your green-thumbed dreams. We caught up with horticulturist Justin Calverley, author of The Urban Farmer, about his own journey into horticulture and how all of us can start growing our own little patch, whether we’re a city dweller or not.
Hi Justin. Tell us about your life as a horticulturist.
My life as a horticulturist is fantastic. I earn my living by interacting with the natural world and sharing my experiences and knowledge with others. Horticulture by definition is "the care of plants" so all things involving plants is how I spend my days. I am very well aware of just how fortunate I am. Every day is filled with sensory experiences and wonder.
How did you get into the profession originally?
I was always an “outside” kid and the natural world I observed whilst just being outdoors always fascinated me. I was so curious as to how all these plants and animals and insects and fungi etc. all worked, so I was always going to do something involving living things.
After High School I wasn't keen on studying again so soon, so I sort out casual labouring jobs with various landscapers. I really enjoyed learning the construction side of the industry but plants were always my favourites. From there I tried to gain experience in as many fields within the industry whilst also going on to study in each of those fields. They included general Horticulture, Landscape Design, Permaculture and Training.
What tips would you give to someone who would like to follow a similar path?
Cliche I know, but it's all about passion and interest. If it is something that lifts your spirit then find a way to do it every day. If that ends up a way of generating an income then even better. If not, you will still be rewarded in wellbeing and vitality.
I just followed my simplest gut feeling of acknowledging that I am most comfortable and happy when I'm in nature. The rest was discovery and jumping at new opportunities as they were presented.
Tell us about your book, The Urban Farmer.
The Urban Farmer resulted from a 14-session course that I teach at Ceres Environmental Park in Melbourne. The course aims to provide people in built-up areas with the tools to produce yields on any scale. All methods are organic and the course focuses on all aspects of sustainability.
The course and book aim to give beginners to intermediate gardeners a “how to create your own Garden of Eden” per se. It covers everything from design, soils, veggies, fruit, compost, worms, fertilisers, pests, chickens and preserving and that's just to name a few. It was a lot of work but something I am proud of.
Many city dwellers dream of moving to the country and living off the land. How viable is it to grow your own sustainable fruit and veggies in the city?
It is absolutely viable to grow great yields in the city. The biggest mistake city gardeners make is by only using the horizontal square meterage of their garden. Plants and animals occupy a three-dimensional world, so if city gardeners calculated the full volume of their space they would be astounded as to how much they could grow and harvest.
Vertical gardens, polyculture practices in pots and plant stacking are all ways in which city dwellers can produce substantial yields. The days of the rectangular veggie patch in the back lawn are over. We know much better strategies now, which is great.
What are your favourite things to grow and why?
Fruit trees are my favourite things to grow – I’m somewhat of a collector of apples I'll admit. At home, we have many fruiting trees and due to multi grafting, somewhere around 50 varieties. We can harvest hundreds of kilos per year just from these trees. My family and I can pick fresh fruit from our gardens for approx 11 months of the year. October is the gap I am working on at the moment.
Some of the trees I have had since the old share house days, and now some 15 odd years later finally going into a permanent spot in my gardens. Trees are vital oxygen producers for us too, as well as being home to so many other creatures. Apart from all those great traits, they also provide nectar and fruit to those that visit them, including us. Trees require way less maintenance than veggies and the yields are massive. Plant more fruit trees, folks.
Tell us about the nine-week course you offer, Introduction to Horticulture.
The Intro to Horticulture 9 session course I conduct at Edendale Farm in Melbourne is a beginner course to inspire people who have little-to-no knowledge of the horticulture industry to find out more. It provides them with some insight into all the many fields of horticulture and covers current practices in soils, pest and disease management, food production, as well as some basic botany and design to name a few. It's a great course for those curious as to whether horticulture is something worth pursuing as a career.
Talk to us about your own horticultural business, Sensory Gardens.
I started Sensory Gardens 20 years ago. I had worked for many other people in various horticultural fields for over 10 years and had studied along the way. I just felt at that time I had acquired the skills and knowledge to go out on my own and provide people with my take on what I had observed and learned.
Initially, it was a construction business which then grew to include design, consulting and education. I have also been fortunate enough to add various TV and radio roles to my resume. I am just as comfortable working in the commercial world as I am the domestic. The natural world does not differentiate, so neither do I.
These days I have hung up the tools (I got old) and spend my days consulting, designing and presenting. I now find myself being asked to contribute to projects all over the state, which is so stimulating. On any week I could be consulting on a rural property, then a city rooftop, then teaching at various locations, spending a day at home designing and throw in a radio segment. Sensory Gardens has given me an incredibly diverse working life.
Outside of being a horticulturist, how else do you go about living an eco-friendly lifestyle?
Our biggest eco focus at home is simply minimising our footprint and impact. No one is perfect but we try our best. We have solar power and are very conscious of how we use electricity. Water usage is also something we monitor closely at home (my kids don't mind skipping a bath every so often). We minimise car usage, avoid packaged goods and are constantly talking about things we could do that would not impact on the environment.
Do you have anything exciting in the pipeline you'd like to share with us? Any fun plans for the summer holidays?
I can't share too much but I am part of a few teams designing some amazing domestic and public gardens that will become models for how we can feed our communities locally in the future. Big agriculture is a model that isn't sustainable, so we are trying to see if the village model can be re-designed for modern times and needs.
Summer holidays are spent either camping by a river or holidaying at a family beach house or both! Kick off the shoes, stop caring about what you’re wearing and just hanging out laughing with family and friends in our magnificent natural environments. That's where the best memories are made for me.
All photography by Tim Turnbull
Fancy winning a copy of Justin Calverley's book, The Urban Farmer? Enter our Giant Green Gift Giveaway now to be in for a chance! Ends 11th Dec, 11:59PM AEDT. Terms apply.