Go ahead, laugh at those wonky carrots. Couldn't care less, they tasted wonderful last night. So did the snow peas and beans. There would have been more in the mini-harvest, but I kept eating them raw as I picked them. Raw vegetables, straight from the plants, absolutely delicious.
For someone who thought, as a kid, that fresh food was a Chiko Roll that had only spent two days in the local takeaway's warming trays, the supply of greens, herbs, tomatoes and carrots spilling out of tubs and pots on the balcony has been a revelation, blasted through with unexpected nostalgia.
It's stunning just how much food you can grow, in six to ten weeks, on a small balcony and still have room for tables and chairs. As I mulch and dig and plant and pluck, the question keeps returning, why didn't I do this sooner? Because the local veggie shop was always so cheap, it was always easier and quicker to duck in, load up on their produce and head home. Not anymore.
Growing enough carrots, tomatoes, basil, french beans, snow peas, chives, mint, broccoli to reduce veggie shop visits from three times a week to once every two weeks has been remarkably easy. More easy than the gardening shows on TV ever made it seem. Downstairs, a couple of mushroom boxes are turning out more fungus than this household can eat.
The entire venture, so far, has cost about $110, for plants, pots, tubs, fertiliser, soil, seeds. About the same as easily can be spent in one night at the movies, followed by a few hours at the pub. Based on the prices of organic veggies at Coles and Woolworth's, the balcony garden has already turned out about $400 worth of eatables. With Coles charging about $4 for a handful of 'fresh' basil, the basil plants are probably worth $200 alone.
I find myself trying to find things that need to be done in this mini-food garden, but the maintenance is minimal. For the volume of food the tubs and pots turn out, I don't feel like I'm putting in enough time. How can it be this easy? How can it possibly be this satisfying? It just is. Incredibly so.
I hadn't thought of my long dead grandfather in ages until a few days ago, when I was stringing bean vines and delicately replanting half-grown carrots into looser, sandier soil so they wouldn't be so squat and stunted. I realised I was now doing what he used to do, what so many of his generation did, what he tried to get me to do, too, when I was a kid. What I refused. Back then.
I remembered his house near Moorebank, the whole backyard filled with pumpkin patches and bee hives and chicken coups and vegetable gardens that fed him and god knows how many of his poor neighbours. I saw him on that ultra-vivid mind movie screen, plucking fresh beans and holding them out, towering over me, demanding I try them, me refusing. Eat a raw bean? Is he crazy?
He tried to get the grandchildren interested in the veggie garden, but we couldn't have cared less. Gardening? Yeah, right! That's what the shops were for. He saw entire Sydney suburbs feeding themselves from their backyards through the Great Depression and he wanted his grandchildren to understand.
Now I get it, now I understand. He was right.
"This is real food," he used to say, brushing dirt off unearthed potatoes, "not that old garbage in the supermarkets. This will make you strong. This is life."