MAT Pember feels perfectly qualified to lecture about the ease of growing food in small spaces. He and his partner and young daughter recently moved to a small house in Albert Park, downsizing their garden space from about 100 square metres to 20.
A co-founder of Melbourne's The Little Veggie Patch Co, which was recently commissioned to install a community garden on the roof of the Federation Square car park, Pember says city dwellers have no reason to avoid getting dirty.
''Our new backyard is four-by-five metres and we're squashed between some big buildings so there's lots of shade,'' Pember says. ''But you can do all sorts of things, such as creating vertical herb patches, making a window box or espaliering fruit trees so they only get as big as you need.''
Pember and business partner Fabian Capomolla have crunched all their advice about urban gardening into a second book, The Little Veggie Patch Co's Guide to Backyard Farming.
The book is divided into the 12 months of the year, with advice for each month on what to plant and harvest, how to do it, what to cook with the season's offerings and, last but not least, craft projects to get those garden spaces functional.
Pember, a one-time University of Melbourne commerce student who also lived as a ''slum-lord'' in Barcelona for four years (renting out houses to backpackers), says the hardest part when putting the new book together was distilling a love of good food and cooking into formal recipes. ''Coming from an Italian background you get good food thrown at you on a regular basis,'' he says. ''I've never been much good at following recipes but I take a lot more guidance now.''
Mastering a garden is a lifelong pursuit.
He says the recipes in the new book came out of his and Capomolla's experiments with garden produce, perfected with the help of some professional recipe writers.
And for those who are easily discouraged on the gardening front, Pember has this advice: ''You have to be patient. A lot of people install a vegetable garden and think it will just happen, that they'll never have to shop again.'' Mastering a garden, he says, is a lifelong pursuit. Brussels sprouts are his current nemesis.
Broad bean and buffalo mozzarella salad
1kg broad beans (about 400g podded beans)
Oil, for frying
1 tbsp capers, rinsed
2 buffalo mozzarella balls
Handful basil leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Crusty bread to serve
■Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Add the broad beans and cook for 1 minute. Drain and refresh under cold running water.
■Remove the pale-green skins from the beans (insert small knife or your thumbnail into skin to create a slit, then push bean halves from skins). Discard skins.
■Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemon and slice it thinly. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and cook the zest for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water.
■Heat small frying pan to medium-high, add a splash of oil and cook the capers until they are lightly golden. Set aside to cool.
■Tear the mozzarella into shreds and arrange on a serving platter. Top with the broad beans, lemon zest, capers, basil and anchovies.
■Season with salt and pepper. Add juice from lemon and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with crusty bread.
Serves 2 (or 4 as starter)
Talkin' bout the birds and the bees ...
''This is the month when everything changes. We have broken through to the other side and met the light at the end of the tunnel. Girls are wearing dresses, boys shorts, and as the earliest-blossoming fruit trees - plums and cherries - put on their show, the flashes of skin, colour and light are sending the bees and birds into a frenzy. It's feeding time and with it comes the resuscitation of wildlife and the announcement that spring proper is nearly upon us.''
What to plant
Asparagus, lemon, lime, olive, orange, passionfruit, rhubarb.
What to harvest
Broad beans, brussels sprouts, celery, leek, mushroom.
The Little Veggie Patch Co's Guide to Backyard Farming, Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember, Plum, $45.