One step into the house of Luka Haines betrays her priorities. A pair of gardening gloves and a selection of tools live permanently near the front door, ready for when the next weed rears its ugly head. Bags of potting mix are stacked neatly on the porch, and overflowing pot plants line the walls. The inside lives to serve the outside. Luka Haines loves her garden.
“I think being exposed to the genuine joy my mum found in watching her veggie seeds sprout and my dad found in a well-manicured lawn, stuck with me through adulthood,” says Luka, sidestepping the lawn mower which has taken up residence on the porch.
Luka is 23 years old and lives in a share house. She’s taken a break from university this semester after feeling some end-of-degree burnout. With more spare time, her new focus is a form of self-care which nurtures from the ground up.
“I love how it reconnects you with nature, I love the science of it, I love how my mind and body feels after a day’s work in the garden,” she says.
Perhaps not considered a traditional hobby for people in their early 20’s – especially for those living in rentals – gardening found itself in the spotlight after the pandemic shined a light on the benefits of self-sufficiency. Luka says many people are joining her in reaping the rewards of toil in the soil.
Platforms such as Instagram and YouTube have seen home gardening influencers and ‘homesteaders’ amass followings in the thousands, and Luka says inspiration is everywhere online.
“They have so many fabulous ideas for getting started on a budget that are often sustainable as a bonus,” she says.
Journalist and gardener Deryn Thorpe agrees, and says growing your own food has more health benefits than just a serving of vegetables.
“One of the things that’s amazing about our food is that it’s associated with a bacillus, so it’s a bacterium, but it’s a good one. And that’s called bacillus vaccae. And that actually adheres to some of the food, fresh food, and when you eat it, it makes you feel better,” she says.
Several studies have been done into the effects of mycobacterium vaccae, including a 2013 study which found the ingestion of the bacteria led to decreased anxiety-related behaviours in mice.
Beyond the bacterial science, Deryn says the mental health benefits of gardening are indisputable.
“We know that if we’re outside, in the garden, green around you, it actually does help with your mental health. I mean, we’re meant to be outside people, we’re not meant to live in our houses!” she says.
While the mental health benefits have recently captured the attention of scientists and gardeners alike, there remains a perk to gardening which humans have reaped for thousands of years: free food.
For many people, increases in cost-of-living remain front of mind. In its most recent report, the ABS revealed a 1.6 percent increase in the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages in the March to June quarter of 2023. In 2022 there was an annual increase of 7.5 percent in food and beverage costs for Australian employees.
Meanwhile, for Australian supermarket giants profit margins are on the rise. In 2023, Coles reported a 6.1 percent increase in supermarket revenue compared to the previous year. Woolworths reported a five percent increase in Australian food sales for 2023.
Shani Graham is a sustainable living educator and runs Ecoburbia with her partner Tim Darby. Ecoburbia is an urban farm in Beaconsfield which aims to connect the community to a more sustainable way of living. She says growing your own food is an important step in changing how we consume food for the better.
“Major supermarkets are not going to see any differences in their bottom line that I’m not buying lettuces from them, but I think that if enough people do it, it will, if enough people have that voice there,” she says.
Shani says while you may not see the savings immediately, you will reap the rewards into the future, as food prices will only continue to rise.
“We saw it during Covid, everyone suddenly became a gardener, and so those people that did know how to garden are at a huge advantage when it comes to that,” she says.
“I’ve got to the point now where I don’t have to have a lot of input into my garden, I’m making enough compost for it, the soils good enough, I’ve saved a lot of my own seed, I am actually saving money in the garden.”
Despite the cost-of-living crisis, there is still a big problem with food waste.
Australian households waste 2.5 million tonnes of food each year, and that’s only in the kitchen. Across the food supply chain, 7.6 million tonnes of food are wasted annually, costing households up to $2,500 a year.
Peg Davies is a waste educator and home gardener based in Leederville. She says home gardening combined with food-waste management can provide a solution to Australia’s waste problem.
“My parents grew out of the depression kind of times, so it was always using what was around, not wasting things. I’m just coming out of that generation, but also crossing into the generation of things being manufactured, available and cheap,” she says.
Peg says people are throwing away precious organic material every day, and for new gardeners, such food waste can provide the perfect start.
“We can generate our own soil using the materials that are around us. And they’re all free. Nothings costing money, I don’t like spending money and we don’t need to. And we don’t need to travel far,” she says.
What should I grow?
When it comes to starting out, Peg says it’s vital new gardeners are realistic, and while the thriving gardens shown on social media seem ideal, in reality most people don’t have the time for something that size.
“It might be the parsley plant on the windowsill, it might be the little herb garden, it might be a few lettuces and a bit of spinach, and we see how easy that is, using what we’ve got,” she says.
Shani agrees and says the best way to start is to focus on what you eat. She says people should start by looking at their weekly grocery receipts.
“So, if every week you’re buying a lettuce, then plant lettuce. If every week you buy some sort of greens, whether it be spinach or silver beet, then grow spinach and silver beet.”
What do I grow it in?
Deryn suggests wicking pots or beds as a great start for beginners. They’re manufactured with a water catchment section at the base of the pot, which self-waters the plants.
For beginner gardeners with less disposable income, Luka says anything can be a pot.
“Be resourceful. I plant veggies in Styrofoam boxes that I get from my work or scrape a few seeds out of my tomatoes and plant them in old food cans.”
Peg says your focus shouldn’t be the pot, but the soil. She says avoiding buying potting mix is not only cheaper, but better for your veggies.
“Potting mix, if you think about it, has organic material in it, plus sand. Well, if we live in Perth, we’ve got the sand already in the garden or the verge.”
As for the organic material, she says we’ve got plenty of it at home already.
“First step, well you have to collect the organic waste. So have some kind of system in your kitchen. Look at what your waste is first as to how you’re going to process it.”
Peg says the options vary depending on the kind of waste you’re producing and the resources you have available.
“If you’re interested in composting, finding a couple of compost bins, I’m saying finding – going on gumtree, social media, and asking friends. Then you bury that in the ground, under the tree or in the garden bed,” she says.
“If you don’t have room for a compost bin, maybe a worm farm’s interesting. You can have a worm farm inside; you can have one in your office. It doesn’t have to be an outside yucky thing.”
Peg says once you’re processing your own food waste, you’re creating rich and abundant soil, for free.
Where should I put it?
The experts agree you can grow your food almost anywhere.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Shani.
“Whether it be a pot on your balcony, a little spot, anywhere you can find that has sort of 6-8 hours of sunlight a day, it’s going to start producing something. Then you’re going to get excited.”
Peg agrees and says utilising the space we’ve already got is the easiest start.
“We have to utilise our verges, we have to utilize the sun coming into our verandas, there’s lots of options there. We can live on the 10th floor, and we can have a tiny little veranda, and we can try and grow some things.”
What if I have no space or money, can I grow food to?
For some people, growing food at home isn’t possible. It may be because they live in an apartment without any outdoor space, or their living situation doesn’t allow for it.
For those people, utilising their local community garden may be an option. Perth has many community gardens, most of which accept volunteers who would like to learn to grow food, and some rent out allotments to people without the space to grow at home.
The most central of these gardens is Perth City Farm in East Perth. It was established in 1994 when founding members transformed an industrial site into an urban garden where people could learn about producing food and connect to community.
Today, Perth City Farm welcomes volunteers who would like to learn more about producing food, soil health and sustainable land care practices, as well as providing regular workshops to the public.
While there’s many ways to get out and garden, Shani says it’s important to remember growing your own food is a privilege and recalls fondly the experiences of her community interacting with Ecoburbia.
“The little boy across the road used to come every afternoon, and just hang out here doing whatever we were doing. One day I was picking some carrots to freeze, and he was helping me. He said, ‘it’s sad isn’t it Shani,’ and I said, ‘oh what’s that?’ He said, ‘most people don’t get to harvest their own food.'”
“I think that’s true. Most people don’t get to harvest their own food, and the experience of harvesting does so much, it’s connecting you to nature, it’s connecting you to your food source, it’s connecting you to other people,” she says.