Jane Tonks grew up watching her grandparents lovingly tend to their backyard vegetable gardens. Now her own suburban backyard is a grower's dream.
The apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.
"I was always fascinated with my Pop's gardens and I was always impressed when my Nan used produce from the backyard in our meals," Tonks tells Weekender from her home in Waratah.
"My parents grew flowers but not vegetables, so my interest in vegetable gardening came from my grandparents. They grew tomatoes, beans, pretty much everything, and rarely had to buy from the shops."
She started growing her own produce "about 11 years ago" when she moved from a flat in Charlestown into her grandparents' house. There, she inherited existing avocado, mango and lemon trees and restored the old vegetable garden beds to their former glory.
The lemon tree continues to produce a large quantity of fruit.
She made sure to do her research, reading about crops and seasons, soil improvement and fertilisers in books and online.
"I also learned via trial and error, especially with positions, for example, plants preferring full sun or part sun," Tonks says.
"I have received valuable advice from other experienced gardeners over the years and a couple of years ago I completed a Certificate 2 in Horticulture which greatly improved my knowledge and skills in relation to soil requirements, pruning, plant health and garden planning."
She started out with herbs such as mint, parsley and rosemary, and created a successful herb garden under the avocado tree.
"Tomatoes and silverbeet were the first vegetables I planted in the rejuvenated garden beds and it was largely successful. Over time, I started trying different crops but I still haven't had much success with corn and artichokes."
When we spoke, her gardens were "at capacity" with potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, spring onions, turnips, kale, broad beans, carrots, peas, snow peas, garlic, radish, lettuce, silverbeet, passionfruit, parsley, mint, coriander, dill, sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme.
Some of the plants were more advanced than others and coming to their end (turnips, peas) while others had been recently planted (leeks, spring onions, lettuce).
Her lime tree is doing well and she has curry leaves, blueberries, chillies, bay leaves and strawberries flourishing in pots.
And then there's the greenhouse, where she grows tomatoes, eggplants, beans, basil, spring onions and beetroot seedlings for spring and summer planting. Tonks plans to add corn, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini and watermelon soon.
Not bad for an unassuming backyard in Waratah.
"About four years ago a friend gave me a pile of vegetable seed packets so I bought a small greenhouse and some seed-raising potting mix," Tonks says.
"I had a go at growing my plants from seed and I quickly became hooked. When growing from seed, you have access to so many different crops and varieties of popular vegetables not usually available as ready-to-plant seedlings.
"I enjoy watching the plants grow, looking after them, having control over how they grow and then using the fresh, chemical-free produce with zero food kilometres. I like the convenience of being able to go outside to pick something I need and constructing meals around what is growing in my gardens.
"I am excited about providing a bee-friendly backyard to help the pollinators and spotting several different species of native bees. Another benefit is being able to share the excess produce with friends and neighbours."
Tonks is completing a graduate certificate in communication and likes to study in her backyard. She enjoys photographing her gardens and has a knack for finding the beauty in the ordinary.
"I am easily distracted by the activity in my yard, as native birds noisily land in the trees and bees, dragonflies and butterflies busily feed on the flowers."
She says she has noticed an increase in the popularity of gardening since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.
"More of my friends on social media are posting photos of their homegrown produce than before, and during the first lockdown I found it virtually impossible to buy vegetable (and even some flower) seeds from online suppliers and in stores."
ANDREA Gaynor, Associate Professor of History at The University of Western Australia, said in an article in The Conversation in May that the COVID-19 pandemic "produced a run on the things people need to produce their own food at home", including vegetable seedlings, seeds and chickens.
"This turn to self-provisioning was prompted in part by the high price rises for produce - including $10 cauliflowers and broccoli for $13 a kilo - and empty veggie shelves in some supermarkets," she continued.
"As well as hitting the garden centres people looked online for information on growing food. Google searches for 'how to grow vegetables' hit an all-time worldwide high in April."
Self-sufficiency, it seems, is one of the more intelligent and practical responses to the global pandemic. When contacted by Weekender, Prof Gaynor said her feeling was that people were continuing to grow their own produce, even after lockdown.
MARK Papworth is another keen gardener. He bought a house in Rutherford five years ago but could never find the time to plant any crops in his backyard.
That all changed when COVID forced him to spend more time at home.
"I've always been a gardener, I've always been interested, so when COVID came along and there wasn't much else to do I thought I'd do a bit around the yard," he says.
"This is my first growing season and my garden beds are only a few months old but I've got tomatoes, eggplants, capsicum, kale, strawberries, beetroots, lettuce. It's going gangbusters.
"I've become self-sufficient with tomatoes this season - I'll have them right through summer and some into next autumn. It's just handy to grow something that you normally have in the fridge, you know?"
Papworth's two-year-old son Zane is already following in his footsteps.
"I prefer my son to be outside, getting into the dirt," he says.
"I've got a green thumb and I want to pass it down to him. It's nice to come outside with him and grab a strawberry off the bush instead of going to the fridge."
Papworth resists using chemicals and says "it's a bit of a mission" when it comes to pesky slugs. But it's all part of the fun.
"I would encourage anyone to give it a go. I only have two patches and they're 1.2 by 3.6 metres but I use the old one-foot-square method, where you know how many plants you can fit in one square.
"With strawberries you can fit four plants, tomatoes you can fit one.
"I work at a horse stud so I have access to horse manure and have been sharing that around at my son's daycare and with a few other people around the neighbourhood. I want everyone to try growing."
Papworth says he has found online support through Facebook group Lake Mac Grows. There, he can ask questions and share photos and ideas with like-minded backyard growers.
The Lake Mac Grows group was first established by Lake Macquarie City Council four years ago. Council sustainability engagement officer Lucy Kelliher says the group is all about educating and supporting the community in building the skills to be able to grow their own fruit, vegetables and other produce from home.
"Group members are encouraged to share their advice, experiences, queries and ideas about their own home-growing journey," she says.
In addition to the Facebook group, the council also runs monthly Lake Mac Grows workshops where an expert on a certain growing topic - composting, seed saving, permaculture or native bee keeping - shares advice with the community.
"Unfortunately we had to cancel these face-to-face workshops due to COVID restrictions, but we instead created mini workshop videos on these topics, which we share on the Lake Mac Grows group page," Kelliher says.
"We also run monthly Lake Mac Grows Crop Swap events, where community members come together on the last Friday of every month at the Landcare Resource Centre to share their produce."
She says there has been a definite spike in the Lake Mac Grows group's popularity since COVID hit, with group numbers increasing by more than 40 per cent (or 800 people) since March.
"We've also seen the discussion and conversations within the group page really skyrocket, with comment numbers up by over 100 per cent during this period, so there is clearly a big increase in engagement within the group."
Kelliher says the renewed interest in growing one's own produce can be attributed to a number of factors.
"After the uncertainty that the pandemic brought (as well as the panic-buying in the supermarkets), I think a lot of people started to really think about their food sources, and wanted to have more control over their food supply," she says.
"Growing your own produce at home empowers people and communities to become more self-sufficient and self-resilient. People have also had a lot more time at home.
"Another big reason I believe the group has been so popular is that it has created this really beautiful community of people all wanting to help each other on their home-growing journeys. I think people have been craving that sense of community during a time where it's easy to feel isolated."