Big hopes for small spaces

November 23, 2011

As I’m away at Varuna, the Writers’  House this week I thought I’d invite a guest post for this blog, something I’ve not done before. So a warm welcome and my huge thanks to Naomi Parry, aka @drnaomi, one of my lovely Twitter friends, for her review of  The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to Grow Food in Small Spaces.  I’ve had my eye on this one, along with Indira Naidoo’s The Edible Balcony, because I have always sighed at gardening books which promise much but assume everyone has an acre or two in which to work, as opposed to the reality most of us face. If you’re like me, you have a small city courtyard (or balcony) but are still keen to grow food. Our tiny courtyard is presently growing around 40 tomatoes in a pot, and around a dozen baby zucchinis in another, along with lettuces, silverbeet, herbs and eggplants scattered around the garden beds, and another couple of pots with an olive and a small fig tree. It is very possible to grow good food in tiny spots, but there is so little information around – so I for one am very pleased publishers are starting to recognise this gap.

Take it away Miz Naomi…

Guest post: Book review by Naomi Parry

The Little Vegie Patch Co: How to grow food in small spaces

I find this book irresistible. To start with, there are two cute young guys on the cover … but seriously, this is a practical book that shows us how to grow food in urban environments. It’s informed by the passion and experience of the authors, men of Italian descent who were inspired by their grandparents’ productive backyards to make a business creating raised garden beds for horticultural newbies. One of them has a background in advertising and it shows – this book is one snazzy package. But it is built on a sound understanding of the way growing at least a little of our own food connects us to the earth and improves our lives. Capomolla and Pember’s stories of childhood gardens, food and family members would keep anyone reading, from the planting chart in the front to the vegetable pictures in the back, and along the way they slip in a range of thoughtful observations about food production and the way supermarket culture erodes our understanding of the land that would please the most earnest advocate for slow food and urban gardening.

The Little Vegie Patch is generously illustrated and so gorgeously designed that it looks like a luxe cookbook, which only serves to make the serious message it carries all the more palatable. Yet it’s not solemn; there’s more than a touch of Andy Griffiths in the sections on manure and compost, and it’s quite clear that, for these guys, gardens are a place to drink beer and cider. I love its self-deprecating tone. Capomolla and Pember acknowledge silverbeet is easy to grow, yet you may still feel it is crap; they ask why the first people to eat chillies ever decided to eat them again and warn “the carrots you grow will look nothing like the long, fat, waxed things you buy from the supermarket. They will be bent, hooked, curved and stumpy.” And Pember, a naughty uncle, advises that children are most easily engaged in activities that waste water, so teach the kids to shoot pests off plants with water pistols.

Although it looks good and is a compelling read, The Little Vegie Patch is far from lightweight. It has useful and clear information on climate zones, sunshine needs, planting guides and soil structure, with growing guides for a decent – though not comprehensive – range of vegetables (missing are the lovely bitter greens so beloved of Italians, or much about herbs, and I would question why you’d bother growing a big hungry plant like sweetcorn or a sprawling bastard like pumpkin if you only had a tiny yard). But you can find information on veges in a host of other books.

This book comes into its own with its explanations of making raised beds, along with the mechanism for installing irrigation and the best timbers to use. Exact measurements and numbers of tricky things like hose elbows are provided, taking the stress out of trips to the hardware store. If you are interested in the finer points of no dig gardens, composting, worm farms, growing from seed (in ingenious loo roll planters!) and seed saving, Capomolla and Pember offer plenty of information, all with the sensible suggestion to start off growing the things you most want to eat.

There’s only one disappointing element, which is that although the blurb on the back of the book suggests it will help you grow food in pots on the balcony, it turns out that the “small spaces” mentioned in the sub-title are really just raised beds and a few accoutrements for the larger garden, such as potato stacks. I wonder why on earth publishers don’t think it’s important to go for truth in subtitling, but that’s not a reason to dislike this book. If you have enough space in your courtyard or backyard for a raised bed, or an apple crate, you’ll be very happy with this. It will never edge out St Peter Cundall, but I am sure he won’t mind sharing a shelf with these blokes.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Title: The Little Vegie Patch Co
Author: Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember
Category: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Pan McMillan
ISBN: 9781742610184
Publication Date: 1 September 2011

About the reviewer: Naomi Parry is a historian who specialised in child welfare and Aboriginal history for her PhD thesis. She has reviewed books for a range of journals and works as an academic. She lives in the Blue Mountains with her young son, an old cat and some middle-aged chooks and is a veteran grower of herbs and vegetables in urban and suburban environments. She also blogs about food and gardens (sometimes, as Dr Sister Outlaw) at www.progressivedinnerparty.net.


  1. Call me easily swayed but found this guest post so persuasive, I bought the company – uh, I mean – the book.

    I have admiring the success of Charlotte’s courtyard vegie growing via Twitter and now Naomi’s excellent review has given me the last little push to give this a go myself. Thank you both!

    PS. The lovely bookshop where I bought my copy, Gleebooks at Dulwich Hill, currently have this book at $39.95, 5 buck off the RRP. Tell Morgan & Liesel that I sent you (they will have no idea who I am).

  2. My balcony is TINY so I tried Indira Naidoo’s The Edible Balcony. It is also half gardening half gorgeous cookbook but it had enough information to give me the confidence to give it a go without overwhelming me with too much information. I am now two weeks into my garden and I admit to being sadly obsessed…it is actually really exciting! FYI, Big W stocks these Jamie Durie vertical planters which are inexpensive and hang off the balcony railing perfectly, my strawberries and lettuce are already thriving!

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