This article is from the second issue of CommBank's magazine, Brighter.
Ben Shaw’s appreciation of abundant backyards and the joys of growing food didn’t come out of the blue. “My parents are avid gardeners and growing up we had a veggie garden,” says Ben. “Mum was a really good cook and back in the ’80s, before it was trendy, they ran a little restaurant from the house, using homegrown produce.” Over the years he “lost connection with gardening” until he and his wife bought their first home in Geelong, Victoria, in 2008. “It had a simple backyard with a Hills hoist and a path leading to the back of the garden,” he says. “We were lucky it was north facing but apart from grass and a couple of fruit trees it was a blank canvas and I felt the urge to get chickens and turn it into a productive space.”
Sowing the seeds
Ben set to it; weeding, preparing the soil, getting chooks and gradually planting but he admits the early days were more trial and error than triumph. “I spent the first few years blundering my way through the garden, planting leafy greens, broad beans... robust vegetables,” he says. “I was aware of its limitations but going through this process was valuable. It’s good to just get your hands in the soil and learn from your mistakes.”
As things fell into place, a desire to better understand plant needs led him to a permaculture course, where he learnt how to build a garden based on natural ecosystems. “Permaculture means clever design in everything we do and considering the consequences of our actions. Whether that’s growing your own food, composting scraps in a worm farm so they don’t go into landfill, buying food from local producers, insulating your home or conserving energy, it’s all part of the design system.”
He also started to consider “diversity and attracting beneficial insects, lizards and birds. All the different elements that keep things in balance. I wanted to grow a variety of healthy, nutritious foods for my family and friends and show other people that they could grow food in a sustainable way, too.” His passion even kickstarted a new career, which includes running permaculture classes in his garden and consulting with families and businesses that want to create their own gardens inspired by natural ecosystems.
The no-dig garden
One of the things I teach is a no-dig method, which you can do in any garden bed, raised or otherwise. The beauty of it is that you can use resources that are around you. To start, build on the structure of the soil you have. No-dig gardening is like creating a lasagne: layer carbon materials (things like autumn leaves, wood chips and coffee grounds from your local café), then nitrogen-rich ones (grass clippings, plant cuttings and kitchen scraps) and finish with a layer of compost before planting. There are lots of different recipes for it, depending on how creative you want to be in sourcing materials.
A healthy harvest
Reaping the rewards of Ben’s new know-how, his Geelong garden flourished, bearing fruit from plum, nectarine, citrus and fig trees and providing platefuls of veggies, from eggplants and capsicums to corn and pumpkins. “The nutritional benefits of eating from your garden are well documented but I do it for a lot of reasons: financial and environmental on top of health and wellbeing. When our first daughter was born in 2013, I began to see the importance of eating healthy food for our family but also from a community point of view. We know there are a lot of health issues out there and I don’t think we look enough into food as one of the solutions.”
Having put all of this effort into growing food, Ben says they’re now more interested in eating seasonally and cooking. “The taste of good food from the garden inspires people. Friends say things like, ‘I didn’t know potatoes could taste like this.’ Right now I have eggplants in the garden so tonight I’ll look at recipes and perhaps see that I need parsley, which I also grow. You can’t compare the freshness with parsley that’s grown in another state, travelled by truck and sat in a fridge for three weeks. Not to mention the food miles.”
Working in the industry has also expanded his knowledge, he says, “and led us to support local farmers who produce food we don’t have. It makes a big difference to the way you eat.”
Even the chores bring changes to the enjoyment of daily life: “We take scraps out to the chooks and engage with the garden every day and our kids benefit from being in the natural, nurturing environment of an edible garden,” says Ben. “Kids find it so fascinating and it’s amazing if you take the time to sit with them and see what they see: all the little beetles and worms we just walk past.”
Early in 2020, Ben and his family took a year off to tour Australia but their travels were cut short by COVID. Having rented out their house, they couldn’t move back so tested the waters in nearby Ocean Grove. They loved the beachside community so much that they decided to move and start their gardening adventure all over again. “Our new backyard is coming along,” says Ben. “But we also got together with seven other families to set up a market garden on a local farm. We have working bees and cooking and preserving days. It’s great fun.” With new projects in the pipeline and more workshops planned to spread the word, Ben has his hands full... and in the dirt. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
What to plant
Given the diverse climate of Australia, knowing what and when to plant is specific to your location and not just a matter of Googling “what to grow in winter”. For plants and veggies that grow well in your area and when to plant them, I always suggest checking out gardening clubs and communities, such as The Diggers Club (diggers.com.au).
Ben’s tips for getting started
Do some research first
“Use your library or resources like Milkwood (milkwood.net), which has fantastic online gardening courses. For me, there’s also a degree of just having a crack – you’ve got to get your hands in the soil at some point and you learn from your mistakes. But do it smartly. Don’t just go: ‘Right, there’s a space in the ground, let’s start a garden bed.’ Think, ‘Does this area get enough sun? How am I going to get water to it?’ You’ll have more success with a more thoughtful approach.”
“Herbs grow easily in pots, as do lime and lemon trees, so they’re great for renters, small spaces and balconies. Or, grow something, like passionfruit, vertically on a fence (also beneficial for screening and shade).”
A little more space
“Move up to growing leafy greens, lettuces, carrots and beetroot in a garden bed. You don’t need a lot of space for veggies like kale and silverbeet.”
Lots of space
“Try fruit trees and berries... and you might even look at rotating crops. Veggies like pumpkin need considerably more space.”
See Ben’s website for more inspiration: benshawpermaculture.com.au
Story by Sue Wheeler. Photography by Marnie Hawson.
Read more articles from Brighter magazine.