Melbourne organic garden teacher Natasha Grogan of The Sage Garden.  Photo – Brooke Holm

Kids Camilla and Finn planting and harvesting from their vegie patch! Photo - Brooke Holm

Camilla and Finn harvesting beetroots and lettuces. Photo - Brooke Holm

Finn waters his newly planted seedlings.  Photo - Brooke Holm

Natasha teaching Finn and little Max how to plant their seedlings!   Photo - Brooke Holm

OK today’s is a rather picture-heavy post, but we just have so many cute shots from this shoot, and I’ve never once heard anybody complain about too many pictures so I’m rolling with it!

Natasha Grogan is one of those incredible creative people who just OOZES passion and enthusiasm for her job – it’s infectious.  With a long held love of organic gardening, and qualifications in primary school and Steiner school teaching, it’s not surprising that Natasha’s career path has led her to launching The Sage Garden – her own organic garden teaching business!  She’s brilliant with kids, she’s hilariously funny, and she always has a twinkle in her eye when talking about the pleasures of growing and eating home grown veg.

Natasha’s path to launching her own business came about after four and a half years working in The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program at various Melbourne schools.  In this role Natasha implemented and maintained productive primary school vegie gardens, teaching kids the magic of growing their own food.

In 2010, she came up with the idea for her own business, and started visting families at home and setting them up with their own productive gardens.  In 2011 things got a little busy – Natasha got married and had a baby girl – but she doesn’t sit still for long!  Within months she was back in the garden, implementing her kindergarten and schools ‘incursion’ program, and taking on more and more private clients.

Natasha is particularly pumped this year because 2013 is really the first year that The Sage Garden will be her sole focus. ‘I am looking forward to meeting new children and families and getting them excited and passionate about growing and eating their own food – I feel like this year is full of possibilities’ she says!  Hmmm… yes, something tells me it’s going to be a very busy year in the garden for Tash, and her little green-thumbed protégés!

Big thanks to Tash for sharing her story with us today, and to the gorgeous kids who joined us on this shoot – Camilla, Finn and Max!

For another little insight into Natasha’s business you can check out the sweet little video below, which Natasha launched just yesterday!  Be sure to keep your eye on The Sage Garden’s Facebook page too, for regular tips and tricks to keep your garden healthy and happy year round.

 The Sage Garden first ever video!  Natasha plants seedlings with a bunch of cute little people.
Tell us a little bit about your background – what did you study, did you always have a keen interest in gardening and what led you down this path?

After year 12 I was planning to study Early Childhood Development, but I decided to move to London and work as a nanny instead. I nannied for a family who only ate organic food and I started to read up on the topic. I became very passionate about the philosophy, in particular what we were doing to our soil by using fertilizers, pesticides etc. This was a big shift in the way I saw the world. I wasn’t a gardener at this point. In fact I hadn’t planted or harvested anything in my life!

During this period I met an American organic farmer (in an organic wine tent at Glastonbury music festival – it was the ‘90s!) and I travelled to the States to check out some organic farms. It was here that I realised I wanted to combine my love of working with children and my new found love of organic gardening.

I returned to Melbourne with the idea of becoming an Organic Gardening Teacher, a job title that did not exist at the time. I decided to study Steiner education where I could begin my teaching degree as well as learn about biodynamic farming. After two years training, and working under the Steiner school’s garden teacher for my teaching rounds, I went on to complete my Bachelor of Education via correspondence through UNE.

Once I was a qualified teacher, I realised that although I loved organic gardening and growing food, I didn’t have a huge amount of experience actually gardening. I went on to get my Diploma of Horticulture at Swinburne TAFE. Throughout this period I continued to nanny, encouraging families to grow their own food. I also volunteered at the Collingwood Children’s Farm so that I could surround myself with like minded people and of course I started growing my own food.

How did you first get involved with the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program?

When I finally emerged from my six years of study, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program was well underway and I was very keen to be a part of it. As fate would have it I landed the first job I applied for at Weeden Heights Primary school, just across the road from the school I went to as a child.  Then, in June 2009 I started at a second school, North Melbourne Primary School, as their garden specialist. After four and a half years of being a garden specialist for the SAKGP I finished up in December 2012 to focus solely on The Sage Garden.

What did you learn from your experience under the helm of one of Australia’s culinary greats and what eventually motivated you to take the next step and launch The Sage Garden?

I guess, when I look back, the motivation to launch The Sage Garden came from that first trip to America back in 1999, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it actually became a reality. During this time I was increasingly having conversations with the parents of the kids at my school and they would often say, “Oh, I’d love to get you into our garden. I just don’t know what I’m doing”. I was also noticing that the children’s relationship with nature and their own physical bodies was changing. I would often overhear them talking about their weekends spent watching TV or playing on computers. I knew it was time for me to reach more families and more communities so as to get more people excited about growing their own food and being active together.

In 2010, I came up with the premise for the business and started the home visits. In 2011, I got married, pregnant and had a baby girl, Gretchen Peta. During that time we started kindergarten incursions in conjunction with the home visits and my excitement and passion for teaching children about organic gardening only grew, and I realised there were many ways I could reach Melbourne families.

From my experiences working as a part of the SAKGP I learned that there are thousands of people ready to embrace the kitchen garden lifestyle. They simply need the education and encouragement to get started. I had the opportunity to meet Stephanie Alexander on a few occasions (We were once interviewed, in my North Melbourne Primary school garden, by Tony Shaw!). Stephanie is very driven, and passionate about the program. It is due to her love of fresh produce and delicious food that the program is such a huge success. For me the most rewarding experience of being a part of the program was consolidating the connection between the garden and the kitchen: the simple relationship of growing each season and eating seasonal produce.

Natasha and Max pick the basil.  Photo - Brooke Holm
For those of us who are new to the kitchen garden concept, can you elaborate and tell us what prospective clients can expect from The Sage Garden service?

There are two facets of The Sage Garden: home based visits and incursions.

In our home-based visits I visit homes and teach children to grow their own fruit, herbs and vegetables and to learn about their garden environment. I provide activities to suit all ages so that the entire family can be part of the learning and growing process. Children spend time creating growing calendars, building garden structures and, of course, planting and mulching their own garden beds. I return for a follow-up session one month later to spend time with the kids and to see how their garden is progressing. These visits can be tailored for each family and The Sage Garden can set families up to run a successful kitchen garden on their own, or we can return as often as required to continue the education.

Incursions are one hour gardens sessions delivered in child care centres, kindergartens and primary schools. These sessions aim again at teaching children to grow their own fruit, herbs and vegetables and to learn about their garden environment. These sessions are tailored to specific age groups – the younger children can expect to learn garden songs and rhymes, as well as planting their own edible seed to take home, along with growing instructions and a growing calendar. Older children can expect to plant their own edible seeds, as well as learn about activities such as pH testing, transpiration, evaporation and botanical drawings.

It is my hope that in whatever form The Sage Garden comes to you, I am able to pass on the love and excitement of growing food.

Camilla fills in her garden calendar – note, the very accurately illustrated ‘Mulch’ bottom right!  Love it. Photo - Brooke Holm

Camilla and Finn getting stuck into it!  Photo - Brooke Holm
For those keen to take the kitchen garden approach home, what are your recommendations for five fail-proof, low maintenance and delicious things to plant?

This question makes me laugh a bit! I wish the concept of ‘fail-proof’ existed in gardening but Mother Nature doesn’t like to make life that easy (and what fun would that be?). Anyway, here are some little chestnuts that I hope will make life easier:

1. Always mulch. Your mulch should be 5cm thick and not pushed up against your plants.
2. Plant carrots, beetroot, lettuce, coriander and dill by seed. You will save money and have a better success rate.
3. Always have rainbow silverbeet in your garden, it is hardy, beautiful and grows all year round.
4.  Always grow herbs, they are relatively easy to grow and will save you lots of money!
5. Always buy good quality organic potting mix. To find the good stuff, look out for five ticks on the side of the label.

Can you give us an insight into the inner workings of The Sage Garden? What does a normal day at work involve for you?

My days are always a mixed bag. Now that it is school holidays I have been developing the incursion lesson plans and making contact with child care centres, kindergartens and primary schools. We have been working on our first video clip, which launches today on our website! This has been a huge creative and collaborative effort, I have been lucky enough to have some great friends and family pitch in to make it work.

I also write a garden column for the North West Melbourne News and I can often be found plugging away at that. Every Saturday morning I like to post an easy to follow garden tip on The Sage Garden Facebook page and on our Twitter account.

Lately I have also been taking on some different projects such as transforming a company’s front garden into an edible garden, and converting a private ornamental garden in Hawthorn into an herb garden. I have also started talking with The Big Feed/Children’s Food Education Foundation to see if we can collaborate on a few ideas this year.

Garden details. Max (2 yrs) wasn’t supposed to be in the shoot but muscled his way in at every opportunity…. so cute!  Photo - Brooke Holm
Can you name for us 5 resources across any media that you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop?

If I am on the computer I will always go to Gardening Australia for inspiration and advice. I check out the Facebook page Grow Food, Not Lawns, they always have great ideas from around the world. I have also recently joined Instagram and am a little bit obsessed, which is funny because I’m not a huge fan of looking at people’s holiday photos but I love seeing a huge range of creative images. I watch River Cottage on television and I’m a sucker for any home/garden magazine, I will always prefer books and magazines over the computer. Mostly I turn to music and nature for creative inspiration.

Which other creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

I feel like I am spoilt for choice when it comes to creative people in my life. Lots of my friends are musicians, artists and writers. I look to them for motivation and inspiration.
From a gardening point of view you can’t go past Peter Cundal, I met him once and was like a teenage girl meeting One Direction! I also love Costa Georgiadis and Hugh Fearnley from River Cottage.

What would be your dream creative project?

My dream is for The Sage Garden to have its own piece of land outside Melbourne – a place for people to get back to nature, where I could run education sessions catering for a range of age groups, demographics and abilities. I would have vegetable gardens, orchards, a huge hothouse, compost bays, and a chicken run (with Silkies, I’ve always wanted Silkies!).

I always dreamed there would be a recording studio on the land where bands could come for inspiration and to record. But that’s for me more than anything else – you’ve got to have good music!

What are you looking forward to?

I am really excited about this being the first year The Sage Garden has been my sole focus. I am looking forward to meeting new children and families and getting them excited and passionate about growing and eating their own food. I feel like this year is full of possibilities, with new and exciting ways to educate communities to grow organic food.

Max harvests a lettuce!  Photo - Brooke Holm

Harvest basket filled with beetroot, lettuce and basil.  Photo - Brooke Holm

MELBOURNE QUESTIONS

Your favourite local neighbourhood and why?

I have moved five times in five years so I feel a part of lots of Melbourne neighbourhoods. I can always be found around Collingwood where my husband manages The Tote Hotel, but I do love the leafy streets of Kew where we currently live.

Where do you shop in Melbourne for the tools of your trade?

Camberwell market, local nurseries, The Diggers Club website, Fultons, and Bunnings.

Where/what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

For breakfast or lunch always Fandango in North Melbourne. Yummy food, great coffee, lovely people. For dinner Pei Modern in Collins Place Melbourne. They have a sorrel sorbet that blows my mind.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

My husband, daughter and I are often packing ourselves up for an inspiration drive. We head out of the city, usually finding ourselves at places like Heide, Woodend, Healesville or the Collingwood Children’s Farm.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

It’s not much of a secret but I love heading to Fairfield Boathouse for lunch and a hit of nature. It is so beautiful there.

Camilla and Finn place broken eggshells around their seedlings to ward off slugs and snails. (See, even I learnt a thing or two during this photo shoot!).  Photo - Brooke Holm