Clockwise from top: A couple of ladies; Aerial view; Rainbow chard coming up in the annual beds; Jodie with a range of produce from the garden. Photos by Craig Clitheroe
Could you survive if the only fruit and vegies you ate for a year where those grown in your own backyard? Jodie Vennitti from Perth, WA decided to set herself a challenge and try it out?
Jodie’s garden is productive and beautiful, although it hasn’t always been that way. ‘Originally when I bought it, it had no trees, with grass front and back,’ she says of her Coolbellup, Perth backyard. Jodie soon transformed the 728 m2 yard into a thriving permaculture food forest, inspired by the nearby Jetto’s Patch edible garden (profiled in Pip issue 8).
However as Jodie was busy working full-time and looking after her daughters, she wasn’t making the most of her yield. She found herself still buying produce from the shops and discovering forgotten wilting vegies at the bottom of the fridge crisper. So she decided she wasn’t going to buy any fruit or vegetables for a year and instead make full use of what she was growing. ‘I was already spending time in the garden maintaining it, so it was just making sure that as I was going around I was actually harvesting,’ says Jodie.
Having set herself this goal, Jodie went about researching various plants to find out how she could make the most of them. She soon discovered that many of the plants in her garden had far more to offer than she’d been aware of. ‘That pumpkin plant, is it just a pumpkin that I can eat, or can I eat the leaves? Can I eat the frangipani flowers?’ she says of the questions she started asking herself. ‘It was very educational in so many different areas.’
Looking to Italian and Asian cultures to see how they used produce, Jodie was impressed by the way they tended to use most of the plant. She also noticed that there was a greater community aspect to growing food. ‘In the Italian culture, everything is social, so a lot of the jobs are done as a group.’
Despite the time she spent researching, Jodie says she had more of a dive-in attitude rather than trying to work out everything ahead of time, something that served her well. ‘If I’d actually thought about it beforehand, I think the magnitude of it would have prevented me from starting.’
A simple addition to her garden walks was the carrying of a basket, so she could harvest produce there and then. Jodie utilised the extra space she had in her laundry for food storage.
Not only did Jodie reduce her food bill, but she became more aware of what was happening in her own backyard. ‘You become more intimately connected with it, as you know what plant is being attacked and what is coming up,’ she says. ‘That connection to my garden is something that I still have now, even though I’m not doing it as strictly.’
Throughout the process, Jodie has learned what works and what doesn’t work in her garden. Due to hydrophobic soil (‘you pour water onto it, watch it sit in this little bubble at the top and it won’t go through’), she regularly mulches, however she’s lost a few fruit trees as a result as they couldn’t get the moisture they needed through it.
Yet there are plenty of fruit trees still thriving, with bounties of mangoes, apricots, peaches, nectarines and avocados. There is ginger, galangal, sweet leaf, turmeric and mint, as well as acacia, walnuts, frangipanis and grapes. Sweet potatoes have also thrived. Banana trees have done brilliantly and provided multiple uses. ‘I can walk through the garden, go to the nearest banana tree and take one of the dried stems, twisting it into a rope for use as twine,’ she says. ‘The fruit grows really quickly, so in any new garden bed I’ll put banana pups in. You can eat the banana flowers, the stems, and the leaves look really good on a dinner table when you’re serving up.’
Clockwise from top: The chicken run; Lush, productive goodness; Baby chick with eggs for sale; The Food Is Free cart. Photos by Craig Clitheroe
However, a banana shortage during the challenge led to temptation. ‘My daughters weren’t really fruit and veg eaters, but I found my younger daughter smuggling bananas into the house!’ Jodie laughs. ‘I said, “you’re not meant to be doing that, that’s cheating” and she’s like, “Mum, I need a banana, you don’t know how much I need a banana!” So it actually changed their perspective towards fruit and veg as well.’
The garden is a mix of both annuals and perennials. ‘Annuals take a lot of work, whereas once you get perennials going they pretty much go and reward,’ says Jodie. ‘Our diet is very annuals based, so it’s important to look at those different perennials and ask, ‘are they viable?’. Because I have such a small space, I have to be careful that if I do put a plant in there that’s taking a lot of space, you have to have the yield to justify that.’
Jodie has since added more flowers to her garden, something she would’ve balked at previously. ‘I was a bit of an edibles snob when I started,’ she says. ‘Everything in the garden had to be edible otherwise it was not going to be there. I’ve adapted that, because it’s nice to have something there just because it looks pretty.’
While growing all of her own food wasn’t feasible, Jodie started to look more closely at how she sourced other products such as meat. She keeps chooks for the purpose of meat, eggs and fertiliser, and buys pork directly from a local producer. ‘You can’t do everything yourself, so it’s about making sure that we hook into the systems of other people who are doing really amazing work.’
Community is close to Jodie’s heart, and she says being a member of the Freo Permies helped her stick with the challenge. ‘You go through periods where you get tired and think “am I doing the right thing?”, and you go to the social catch ups with the group, hear what they’re doing, and you get your energy back. Everyone in the Freo Permies knows my garden as intimately as I do, and I know theirs. Whenever you visit people there’s always that traditional sharing of produce.’
Besides occasionally swapping eggs for bottles of wine, Jodie doesn’t barter much, preferring to simply gift her excess produce. ‘I get so excited to give it away, so I prefer to do that.’ In line with this ethos, she started Food Is Free Coolbellup, inspired by the permaculture principle of fair share.
An old dog kennel was fitted with wheels and now serves as the Food Is Free vegie cart, left on the verge outside Jodie’s house. People donate their excess produce and Jodie also adds in the surplus from her garden, making for a bountiful selection and an opportunity for community connection.
‘As a society, we have high anxiety and depression, with people feeling really lonely in busy cities,’ she says. ‘If we can do things to help each other and have something beautiful just around the corner, we certainly need that.’
Jodie’s advice if you’re wanting to take on a similar challenge is to start small. ‘Don’t go too big too quick so that it becomes this chore that you end up not loving,’ she says.
And while it’s obviously easier to grow your own food if you have your own garden, there are other options.
‘Find a community garden, or a verge, or guerrilla garden,’ suggests Jodie. ‘Think outside the square and have fun with it. Plant some sunflower seeds on the verge and have a smile every time you walk past and see them coming up.’
Jodie’s year of growing her own fruit and veg is featured in the upcoming film Permaculture The Documentary. www.facebook.com/permacultureDoco. To view her story search Jodie Vennitti on YouTube.
To listen to Jodie telling her story to our editor Robyn, go to: www.pipmagazine.com.au/pip-permaculture-podcast