Indira Naidoo and her edible balcony

23 Aug 2015

Author: Imogen Brennan

Photography: Indira Naidoo/Alan Benson

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When journalist Indira Naidoo planted tomato seeds on her balcony almost a decade ago, little did she know that gardening would become a life-changing passion, leading her to write two books and travel the world inspiring city dwellers to get involved in urban sustainability.
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When you stand on Indira Naidoo’s small inner-Sydney balcony, you can see out across the glistening harbour, all the way to the Sydney Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and far beyond. But what’s more impressive than the view is the scent coming from the mini jungle of plants surrounding you.

On this tiny balcony, 13 levels above the ground, in one of Australia’s most densely populated suburbs, Naidoo can produce more than 70 kilograms of fresh produce each year. That’s how much the garden grew in its first year. 

Naidoo had never gardened in her adult life. She was a self-confessed ‘city girl’ who had little time to cook her own food, let alone grow it.  Then one weekend in Sydney, a farmer at a market gave her a cherry tomato to taste – and it changed her life.  

“I remember biting into it and realising it was the juiciest, sweetest tomato I had ever had,” Naidoo says.

“I went back to him and asked how I could get more tomatoes like that. He said ‘Obviously, you can keep buying my tomatoes, or you can take a bag of mine, save the seeds and plant them’.”

Naidoo was sceptical, but keen to experiment. Nine years later, that tomato plant is still producing a bountiful crop.

Once Naidoo started planting vegetables on her balcony she was inspired to cook and share her food. 

“I planted potatoes in my first year that were ready for our Christmas lunch. We had them with duck fat and rosemary. I got 12 kilograms of potatoes altogether,” Naidoo says.

Naidoo now affectionately calls her garden “The Edible Balcony”. She wrote a bestselling book named after it and travels around the world educating people about how to grow their own kitchen gardens.

PLANTING THE SEED

Naidoo had an intrepid childhood. Her South African-Indian parents moved the family from Zimbabwe to England then settled in Tasmania in the 1970s.

After moving to South Australia to complete a journalism and international relations degree, Naidoo was selected as a cadet with the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC).

After a long career at the ABC, where she worked as a presenter and reporter on news and current affairs programs, Naidoo moved to Australia’s multicultural broadcaster SBS.

When Naidoo chose to take a break from her journalism career in 2008 she was drawn to Geneva, where she started working as a sustainability consultant at the United Nations International Trade Centre, which specialises in helping developing nations. This was when she became acutely aware of the effects climate change was having around the world. 

“We worked with a number of countries. In the South Pacific, where islands were losing fish stocks due to overfishing, we helped them build fish farms on land and develop other ways to make the islands food-secure,” says Naidoo.

“I could see the results of changing weather patterns on food production and it terrified me,” Naidoo says.

In 2009, she was one of about 200 people selected and trained to become a climate change educator with the former United States Vice President Al Gore. During this time, Naidoo realised the strength of using gardening as a tool to engage communities.

“The thing that I find powerful about gardening is that everyone can do it, across all age groups and political backgrounds,” says Naidoo.

“Once you start gardening, you begin asking yourself questions about sustainability. You think about the weather and environment on a deeper level.” 

RECONNECTING WITH NATURE

Until she started her organic garden, Naidoo, like many city dwellers around the world, had been disconnected from the food she ate and unaware of sustainable practices.

“I didn’t know who grew the vegetables that I’d bought, or where they had come from and what they had been sprayed with,” Naidoo says.

“But when you become a grower, you become more attuned to knowing what’s in season, despite many fruit and veggies being available all year around.”

Now Naidoo cooks only with produce that is in season and tries to eat mainly organically grown food from markets or her own edible balcony.

CITY FARMS AND ROOFTOP GARDENS

In 2011, Naidoo became involved in Sydney’s Wayside Chapel – an inner-city centre that provides support to the homeless.

When the Wayside Chapel was refurbished six years ago, the architect designed a 200-square-metre space for a rooftop garden, and Naidoo was asked to design and plant the garden.

Today, about 90 different herbs and vegetables are grown in pots and raised garden beds throughout the year. The produce is used in the centre’s café and teaching kitchen. Kitchen scraps are fed back into the compost system, and used in the soil to enhance its vitality.

Nearby, celebrated restaurant Billy Kwong also uses honey from the garden’s beehives in its menu. 

Naidoo’s involvement in the Wayside Chapel inspired her to write a second book in 2015, called The Edible City. 

GREEN SKIES

Naidoo’s child-like delight for creating green spaces within high-density cities is infectious. She has travelled to Washington and New York to talk about her experience in urban agriculture, and she is due to speak at upcoming writing festivals in Ubud and Jaipur. 

When Naidoo started working in this space, her concept was marginal. Now, she says, the awareness of sustainability and urban agriculture is definitely growing.

“In New York, for example, there’s now an application for nine new green roofs on buildings every week,” Naidoo says.

“They have five of the world’s largest rooftop farms. One that I take tours to is called Brooklyn Grange Farm. It’s two and a half acres in size, on top of a building and they employ seven full-time farmers.”

There are similar rooftop farms in Berlin, Montreal, Detroit and Seattle. 

Naidoo likes to imagine that one day, the empty rooftops of apartment blocks around the world will be transformed into edible gardens to feed tenants and provide animals and insects with green habitats. Cities will be designed to include community gardens and allotments as the norm, rather than as a novelty.

She believes every person needs a garden, or a window of plants, if that’s all you can manage. 

“What I say to people is that there is so much joy in the process of growing food, reconnecting with nature and eating the food that you’ve grown. It’s about love, it’s about joy. And it’s a lot of fun.”

Start planting your seeds!