For our opening interview, Garden Growers Australia caught up with former news anchor and reporter turned gardener, author, and community activist – Indira Naidoo. Since her news broadcasting days, Indira has gone on to run global food campaigns with the UN Food Agency, publish two best-selling books, run urban gardening classes, and is a volunteer ambassador for the Wayside Chapel (a church-run centre for the homeless and disadvantaged in Kings Cross), among others things.
In her first book ‘The Edible Balcony’, Indira documents the transformation of her 13th floor inner-city balcony in to a thriving kitchen garden, and provides tips on how to grow fresh food in small spaces. And in Indira’s most recent book ‘The Edible City’ Indira uncovers the ‘quiet revolution’ of innovative communal gardeners around Australian cities, and shares practical tips about gardening, worm-farming, composting, bee keeping, plus a number of delicious recipes.
Thanks for joining us Indira. Tell me about your journey from news anchor / reporter to inner-city gardener and best-selling author?
“So, I left broadcasting about 20 years ago, it probably doesn’t seem that long ago, but it’s been a very long journey. I was getting more involved and looking more at what was causing the conflicts that I was covering in the news. What I felt we weren’t doing properly in general mainstream news reporting was showing that conflicts were being caused more and more by shortages of food and water. In the news we were reporting famine, drought, and ethnic conflicts, but really – I thought it was the shortage of food and water, and climate change that was exacerbating it and causing more conflicts. That’s what I really wanted to explore. Which is what set me off on the journey of doing a bit of travel, spending time in farms in Northern Africa, Asia, America, and Australia, and looking at how we were producing our foods, the challenges it was putting on our environmental systems, the quality and nutrition of the foods we were producing, and the cost of it. That lead me to work for CHOICE (the consumer advocacy group in Australia). I ran some national food campaigns then joined the UN Food Agency in Geneva and ran some global food campaigns from there. Then I came back to Australia and got a climate change trainee-ship with Al Gore (the former US Vice President) and that’s when I realised that climate change was going to determine everything that we do, which is what has happened now… and that was 10 years ago. When I came back to Potts Point, where I live in Sydney, I realised that I was part of the problem because my food came from all over the world. I didn’t know who had grown it or what was in it. So, that was when I started thinking ‘could I grow some of my own food?’ not all of it but some of it? I’d never been a gardener, I thought it was difficult, I didn’t have enough time, I didn’t have enough space. That’s when I planted my first balcony garden about 9 years ago. Then I wrote a few books, and that’s where we are today.”
What advice would you give to gardening enthusiasts starting their own balcony garden / small-space garden?
“First thing I would say is, assess how much space you have, how much time you have, and how much light is really important as different plants need different light. Most people go wrong by putting their plants in the wrong location. Obviously, I’d say get a copy of my book ‘The Edible Balcony’ [chuckles] or go to the Gardening Australia website. You can get some basics on what soil you need to plant in, how often you need to water your plants, as those things are really critical. And, start small with some herbs, and then maybe some lettuce or tomatoes, and then move on from that as you get more comfortable and sufficient.”
What did you learn during your time as volunteer ambassador for the Wayside Chapel Communal Garden? And what did you take away from the experience?
“Well, I think the thing that really affected me was that it was in my suburb – only 3 streets away from where I live. I really had no idea how serious the homeless problem was in the city until I spent some time there. I was initially involved getting their rooftop garden up and growing, and through that I met a number of homeless visitors who helped run our garden and realised that in a country as wealthy as Australia, we don’t need to have anyone homeless at all. ‘What were we doing? what was going wrong with our system?’ That was when I started to get more interested in the issue of homelessness, what were the drivers, and how I could do work to raise awareness about it. So, for the last 6-7 years, I’ve been an ambassador there, I help run garden glasses, raise money, talk at corporate events, and this year hosted and produced a series about homelessness (Filthy Rich and Homeless) for SBS Television which was terrific. Everyone responded well to it, it rated very well, and we’ve got a new series we’re filming at the moment that goes to air in 2018. I think it’s made people more aware of how serious the issue is and how easily it could be addressed if we were all more understanding and committed to it.”
In your book ‘The Edible City’, you mention that there’s ‘a quiet revolution rolling through our cities’ of gardeners making use of urban spaces. What are some of the most interesting and innovative gardens / gardening ideas you have encountered in Australia and abroad?
“Well, interestingly, Australia is lagging from the rest of the world in a way. A lot of cities are building farms, like two and a half-acre farms on top of buildings in the heart of the city. There are 5 or 6 of them in New York City which is really inspiring. The Brooklyn Grange farm has chickens and beehives, they employ full-time urban farmers, there are office workers underneath the building. You can see the Empire State building and Chrysler Building from the roof so you are absolutely in the heart of New York City. It’s also happening in Montreal, Milan, and parts of Asia. In Hong Kong and Singapore there are really large-scale urban farms. We don’t have anything like that in Australia yet, but in my book, I feature some really inspiring gardens where people are putting rooftop gardens on their houses, factories and office blocks. They’re picking up old tennis courts in schools, and kids now have lovely fresh food which their learning to grow and it’s improving their connection with nutrition and cooking skills. There’s a beautiful asylum seeker / refugee garden in Melbourne I found really inspiring. It’s helping people who, again, have come from conflict zones and are really traumatized by what they’ve seen. It’s helping them to grow food from their cultures and their countries and helping them grow a community. They don’t often speak the same language, but they can communicate with each other through the garden. I’ve seen so many communities now understanding that we’ve got so many wasted spaces in the city. Rather than concrete or tarmac we can dig it up and grow some fresh, nutritious local food. They’ve all been extremely inspiring. I’ve been invited to speak at a conference in Sweden this year to talk about some of the gardens I’ve come across in Australia and what effects and benefits they’re having on the community, so that’s going to be really exciting too.”
You also noted in ‘The Edible City’ that ‘most of us don’t realise it but we’re hungry to belong; to give; to contribute to something that matters’. What does this mean to you? And how do you think gardening can help us with this?
“The Sensis shows that we’re living in more and more single house dwellings, we don’t have partners, we don’t have families or children, and we’re living far away from our families, so people are isolated – the elderly particularly. A survey that came out last week was really sad that only 40% of residents in nursing homes get visits from family and friends. So, what I found is that gardens are a wonderful way for people to feel a sense of connection and belonging to their friends and people in their community. It can really help with mental health, physical activity, and just a general sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. It takes your mind off the stresses of everyday grinds like being in the office, commuting on trains or in traffic, and other things that get us down. So, gardens can just be a very simple way for us to relax, enjoy and just benefit from sharing an activity with other people which is what we all used to do, and we do less of now in the cities.”
And lastly, your books have been widely successful in Australia, what are you currently working on? And what can we expect to see / or hear from you next?
“This year I’ve been a guest presenter on Gardening Australia on ABC Television – Australia’s leading garden show for around 30 years. I’ve been their urban small-space specialist, showing viewers how they can convert tiny urban spaces in to beautiful gardens (edible or ornamental) that are really beautiful and relaxing so that’s been a lot of fun. I filmed the homeless series Filthy Rich & Homeless that went to air on SBS in June 2017, and we’re now in pre-production for the second series which will be filmed in Sydney in March. I will continue to work with communities explaining to them how to set up their own gardens. My company works closely with engineers and horticulturists, and we go in to communities, give them advice and help them build their own gardens. The book work, talks, workshops. I also spend a lot of time with corporates, helping them connect to the Wayside Chapel and some other disadvantaged communities that I’d like them to put some financial support in to. So that’ll keep me busy for the next year or two.”
If you would like to learn more about Indira’s work, books, and latest activities you can follow her via the below links.