Revolutionising urban gardening, one tiny plot at a time

One man, with his revolutionary gardening initiatives, is changing the face of urban edible growing in Melbourne.

Mat Pember’s Little Veggie Patch Co (LVPC) started out small in 2008. First he was installing edible garden beds for hopeless city gardeners, then came the nursery, then the Pop Up Patch. Fast forward a few years and there’s a string of booksresources, a YouTube channel and big plans to continue revolutionising sustainable urban gardening in teeny tiny spaces around the city. Here’s Mat’s take on how he got here and where things are headed:

A Day in the Life of Mat Pember

Tell us about how Little Veggie Patch Co got started?

I was working a full-time landscaping job at the time and began living with a love struck French man, Sylvain, who grew food on an organic farm back in Europe. As we consoled each other over the luckless nature of our love lives, we began talking a lot about growing food. It was something I had done as a small child – with my Nonno and Nonna – but hadn’t got back to for nearly a lifetime. But it struck a chord again and I was resolute that this is what I wanted to do.

LVPC began in 2008 as a landscaping business that installed large edible gardens in people’s homes. Growing food for other people was very much a niche at the time, but one that was expanding alongside the slow food movement. People were starting to pay more attention to where their food came from and recognising that vegetables just weren’t tasting as they should.

Has the company’s growth and success been a nice surprise?

When we started out, the business was about as niche as a business could be. Fast forward to today and growing food seems to be something that most people give a go. Of course it’s always a nice surprise to have success, but given the rise of the celebrity chef it makes sense that taking it further back – and into the garden – is the next logical step. In a matter of years don’t be surprised if your TV screens are filled with poorly groomed, salt of the earth edible gardeners, holding carrot lotteries on a Saturday night.

Have you always had a keen interest in gardening, or is this a bit of a tangent?

My background in the gardening industry began in 2008 when I started LVPC. After finishing University, I took off to Spain and lived in Barcelona for a number of years. This is where I learnt a lot; not only how to eat dinner exceptionally late, but the appreciation for good food and good living. I think those days were formative, because in essence LVPC is a lifestyle business that revolves around a love for food.

Little Veggie Patch Co

We want to know more about your pop up patch – how did the idea come about?

We previously held a lunch activation in Fed Square that involved harvesting a freshly cut lunch from some veggie patches we’d planted out. Given that the lunch was free, it was a raging success. Following that event we were asked to run some permanent gardens on this car park rooftop. The idea was to use a small parcel of the space and run a plot for each of the cafes, bars and restaurants in the precinct.

As soon as we saw the space we knew there was much greater potential. Running a inner city nursery, we’d learnt that people and businesses in the city were some of the most interested in growing food, but lacked the necessary space. Here was an opportunity to test the idea by providing plots and all the tools necessary to garden in the city. A few months later we’d set up over 100 plots ready to grow food.

Are people in Melbourne increasingly using small spaces to grow their own vegetables? Tell us about some changes in trends you’ve seen since you started …

The most common question we get asked is: “what plants can I grow indoors?” and this is representative of where we’re heading. Soon we’ll move away from traditional soil and sun planting and start heading to more progressive means. Hydroponics, aquaponics, wicking beds; these are all things that will become more common place … as soon as someone (other than a dope grower) can explain the functionality in layman’s terms.

Best Kept Secrets

I khoollect a few …  

  • Bolts, drill bits and staples in the side doors of my ute
  • Shorts that are too small for me and that I’ll never wear
  • Mail that sits unopened in my bag
  • I used to collect stamps as a kid and was pretty obsessed by it – from probably only a short time, but it felt like years. The Espana stamps were the prized pieces in my collection and perhaps this is what lead me to living there in my early 20’s.

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection?

It was a coffee cup that I ‘borrowed’ from an ex girlfriend’s parent’s house. However, the handle broke recently and now the cup (and handle) sit lonely, idle and unused in the cupboard. I think we both realise that there is a discussion that needs to be had, but neither of us know how to start it…

Your five favourite vegetables and the best uses for them in the kitchen?

  1. Tomato: salad, with fresh basil leaves, garlic, chilli and a balsamic reduction.
  2. Garlic: just to look at them hanging in the kitchen
  3. Lettuce: there’s something very satisfying about grazing in your garden like a roaming herbivore.
  4. Chilli: make a simple pickle, put them in good quality olive oil and eat them with everything – from my Sunday pasta ragu, to breakfast toast.
  5. Zucchini: fritters of course.

Little Veggie Patch Co

Best thing you’ve ever eaten?

Anything raw and fresh. And I’m really thinking about seafood and meat here, but this also includes vegetables. I think raw food is an aphrodisiac, there’s something about it – whether it’s the texture, taste or that bit of je ne sais quoi.

Who’s your #khoollectcrush?

My Dad. He’s the Australian boy from Kalgoorlie (a desert gold mining town in Western Australia) who married an Italian woman and now leads all the traditions. He speaks horrible Italian, makes his own wine, passata, cured meats, chutneys, pickles, absolutely everything. His dad was an accountant and I recently discovered he had kept journals of every single expense in his life. Whether it be a car or a loaf of bread. It’s incredible, and mostly because I seem to have taken none of that influence! But, my dad tracks all the procedures and factors in making all the produce: temperature, quantity, yield, colour of underpants. I love it.

Urban Favourites

Where do you call home?

Northcote, Melbourne.

What do you love most about it?

Melbourne is a comfortable, friendly city, and I believe that Northcote is the most comfortable and friendly suburb in our city. If you’ve every struggled to make friends this could be the place for you.

Your favourite place for coffee?

Home. And usually when the kids are not around. I have a great manual pull machine that I got as a gift. It goes on holiday with us. Seriously.

Favourite place to go out for breakfast?

My local down the road – Red Door Cafe. I installed a couple of veggie patches out front for them and enjoy talking loudly about the ‘locally foraged, heirloom produce’ that goes into all the dishes. It’s good for business.

Where to go for fresh produce?

My home veggie patch and Pop Up Patch.

Veggie Patch Co

Picking up gardening supplies?

Our nursery. Nothing beats getting stuff at wholesale prices and then claiming the expense back from the tax man.

Best gardens or parks to visit in the city?

The Royal Botanical Gardens are a favourite. There’s a cacti garden that I love to visit, probably because it’s as different as can be to the edible gardens I’m used to. Cacti reminds me of sea shells, except they’re a bit harder to pick up and put in your pocket.

Favourite place to check out plants and flowers?

Our Pop Up Patch garden in the city. It’s fun to see what makes our member’s tick, and this can be seen in the plants they grow.

Ideal lazy Sunday?

The ideal lazy Sunday starts in the kitchen preparing pasta sauce. I slow cook some lamb shanks and pork belly in our home made passata (it’s fair to say this is a meal that you could only eat once a week). Around 2-3pm, and after a few glasses of my Dad’s red later, it’s ready.

If you didn’t live there, then where?

Ljubljana, Slovenia. I went travelling through this city while I was living in Spain and I decided with my friend, Charlie, that this would be the place to bunker up over a long winter and write a novel. I more recently visited with my partner and kids. It’s still the same friendly place I remember.

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Read Mat Pember’s tips for growing produce at home.

Mat had input into Khoollect’s Melbourne local’s guide.

Visit The Little Veggie Patch Co website.

Find them on InstagramFacebook and YouTube.

Photos by Phoebe Powell