Meet Mat Pember of The Little Veggie Patch, an innovative company that uses upcycled apple crates for growing food in small spaces.

How did the Little Veggie Patch Co come into being? I had no interest in an office job; I really enjoyed working outdoors in landscaping; and I also wanted work for myself. I started talking with a French friend who had worked on an organic vegetable farm on the outskirts of Paris about helping people grow food, because it felt like a real movement was happening. I grew up in an Italian-Australian family and the Italian side was definitely the stronger. I spent my younger years in my nonna’s and mother’s veggie patch in Fremantle: my earliest memories were the smell of the tomato plants and the feel of the hot sand under my feet in the veggie patch. So the idea of growing food was something I always loved.
This was late 2007, around the time the slow food movement was really gathering momentum and people were becoming increasingly concerned about where their food came from. It also coincided with the GFC, when people were starting to rationalise how to spend their money. And so the Little Veggie Patch Co (LVPC) was born, and from that point I started installing raised garden beds in cypress pine or red gum for friends or friends of friends – and this grew through word of mouth.
Coincidentally, I had done some landscaping at Stephanie Alexander’s garden. One day I got chatting with her and told her about starting up LVPC. It was around the same time she was writing her book, The Kitchen Garden Companion,where she talks about creating infrastructure to grow food, including building raised garden beds from apple crates. Then, in the next sentence, she adds, “Some enterprising businesses such as Little Veggie Patch Co will do this for you.” This really legitimised our business and I started getting calls about whether we could supply recycled apple crates.
I hooked up with my business partner at the time, Fabian Caponolla. He’d been to school with the Montagues – the biggest apple orchardists in the country – and we obtained a supply of decommissioned apple crates and started installing them, figuring we’d do a few, and then move on to retail or undertake bigger landscaping projects and custom builds. Today, the apple crates probably account for one-third of the business: we install thousands every year.

Tell us about the Pop Up Patch. We subsequently opened an edible-garden nursery, and four years ago established our Pop Up Patch (PUP) membership garden at Melbourne’s Federation Square, which grew to become 140 veggie plots on a carpark rooftop. This has been a great conduit for people in the city to meet and interact with others who are interested in growing food and cooking. It’s also been nominated for the City of Melbourne Awards for Contribution to a Community for the last two years, and has provided commercial opportunities around holding events, such as restaurant popups, weddings, and corporate launches. There’s so much interest in food and the idea of growing food and providing locally sourced organic produce makes it a really marketable space.

Have you considered extending LVPC into other cities? Our seeds and books sell really well in other states. In terms of the crates, factors such as security and distance between cities, cost to transport them, and the unreliability of freight companies all conspire against getting them interstate.

Your plans for the future? Fabian left the business in 2014, and since then, it’s been just me in an ownership capacity. However, we’ve always had about five or 10 people working for the business – more in the springtime and fewer, obviously, in the winter. We’re reassessing our physical spaces, such as the nursery. We’ve built a really good online presence, and this shows a lot more potential for the future. We want to have our books printed internationally, as the movement to growing your own food in cities and small spaces is spreading across the world. Our most recent book – our fifth – was published through Hardie Grant. They have international arms in the UK and the US, so you naturally get published in those countries, which is great. And it’s been picked up in France and Germany. Our biggest plan is to scale our education, try to crack the code to make our next book really relevant internationally. Other than that, just finding a balance of life. I want to live in Cygnet, south of Hobart, for six months of the year, or work remotely from there for a few weeks at a time. It’s becoming more and more possible. That’s the most exciting part. I have two little kids who are getting bigger, so they’re becoming more manageable, as well.

Why is growing at least some of your own food so important? There’s nothing quite like growing and picking your own food to ground you, and I think the more we become engrossed in technology, the more we need this grounding. Moving further into the future, we can anticipate more apartments and less space. Pots of herbs can be grown indoors in a little hydroponic system, or under an LED grow light. It might sound a little scary and unnatural, but there are probably so many better ways to grow food than what we’ve traditionally done. It’s exciting to see how we’ll evolve our styles of growing food and how we’ll be able to grow it in smaller and smaller spaces, perhaps even doing away with traditional farming styles, which aren’t the most efficient and could be better.