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Indira Naidoo shares balcony gardening tips

The author and TV journalist, who is presenting at Floriade, takes growing your own vegetables and herbs to new heights.

About a decade ago, Indira Naidoo was a city girl and admits she was "as far removed from nature as any human being on the planet could be".

The media personality and foodie didn't know where her food came from before it got to the supermarket shelf, and she cared even less.

Naidoo reached an epiphany one day while shopping at farmers markets in Sydney. A stallholder offered her a cherry tomato, which she absentmindedly accepted and ate. The flavour of that one cherry tomato, which the stallholder had grown himself, started a food-gardening obsession.

Showing that limited space is no issue, Naidoo transformed her tiny thirteenth floor balcony in Sydney to an urban oasis, bursting with fresh fruit, herbs and vegetables. She now enjoys cooking with fresh produce snipped straight from her own garden, and says her creation only takes about 10 minutes a day to maintain.

Naidoo doesn't buy into the idea that some people don't have a "green thumb", and thinks that we all have the ability lurking inside us somewhere. Growing up, she said she was a reluctant gardener, with very little interest in spending time in the garden.

"My parents were gardeners – there was always a vegie patch somewhere in our back garden but we were just very reluctant as children. When mum would say, 'can you go down and pick some lettuce for the salad?' we'd go, 'oh yeah, ok mum,' but it was never something we were engaged with or seemed to enjoy," she said,


Her family now can't really believe that almost out of nowhere, a passion for gardening came about.

"It obviously was always there bubbling away at the surface. I just basically had a few things that have happened that have made me go, 'oh' – the aha moment I guess – that this was actually combining a lot of my passions that I wasn't aware of before."

For others still waiting for that moment to arrive, Naidoo says people just need to give it a go.

"We're all scared we're going to stuff up, and people believe things like 'I can't grow anything' – all those sorts of things we say to ourselves which I said to myself as well. I think it's just more of a case of give it a go and start small and you'd be surprised," she says.

"You've got to remember 100 years ago we all grew and cooked our own food – it wasn't a special skill that only horticulturists and the Don Burkes and the Jamie Duries did for us – we all did it ourselves. So it couldn't have been that difficult."

Naidoo says there's only one thing you need to be able to grow a garden – and it has nothing to do with space. Instead, it's all about the sunlight.

"Most vegetables and herbs need six to eight hours of direct sunlight for you to get really lush, productive results, and you get that from north facing light. But obviously you can still grow things if your light varies and it's coming from the west or even the south, but you have to change what you grow," she says.

So whether it's a full balcony, or even a tiny window-sill, Naidoo says wherever the sun hits is where your best growing spot is.

For people who have limited or no experience with gardening, she suggests starting very small.

"I always recommend that people start with a few small containers of herbs – that's' a really good way to get a sense of how often you need to water it and what bugs are going to attack it and how much care it requires," she says.

"Especially the woody herbs – almost nothing can go wrong with oregano and thyme, rosemary, sage – they're quite hardy. So I recommend start with those and just see how you go and again even just with the window sill, you can get started, you don't really need as much space at all."

Next, progress to softer herbs like parsley and basil.

"When you think, 'hey, this is pretty easy - I'm not killing much', move onto lettuces, green spinach, silver beet, and those sorts of things. I always have these growing on my balcony, I use them so much in my cooking."

Next up, tomatoes are a great first vegetable to try out.

"I find that they're a quite an easy variety, particularly the small ones like cherry and grape – they don't tend to have big problems, they grow well and they bush in small pots or baskets," she says.

"Then start doing the root ones which I find lots of fun – so the carrots, potatoes and things like that. It's quite a thrill when you pull out a potato from a pot on the balcony and go 'wow, that's amazing'.

As the author of best-seller The Edible Garden, Naidoo is now on a crusade to get others on board. And with more people embracing inner city, apartment living, it seems there are a lot of us who could take a leaf out of her book.

Naidoo will be at Floriade's Inspiration Hub on September 14, sharing her secrets for transforming small spaces into food producing hubs.

"Whether you have a balcony or a window sill, or a little terrace or maybe just a couple of pots hanging off your fence, I'll be showing people some tips and sort of the new products on the market as well, and kind of giving them advice about what kind of conditions you need to maximise productivity," she says.

"I'll also be giving them some ideas about what they can cook using some of the things that they've grown as well."

And even now, she says she's still impressed when her produce growns.

"Even if you only get to cherry tomatoes – it's such a thrill when you see that cherry tomato come through and you go, 'oh my God, I grew that myself.'"

Indira Naidoo is presenting at the Floriade Inspiration Hub, Sunday, September 14, at 10.30am, 11.30am and 1.30pm.

Transforming your balcony garden

Got your gardening gloves at the ready? Here are some tips from Indira Naidoo for setting up your balcony garden:

Start small: "It's about taking it in stages and doing it in manageable lots, and not overwhelming yourself."

Give your plants the right light: You need six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day so make sure pots are positioned accordingly. You may also need to raise plants to maximise the sunlight.

Keep it light: Don't forget balconies have weight restrictions. "I always recommend for people to chat to their body corporate or strata committee if they're not sure how much weight their balcony can take. I use fibre glass pots, because they're really strong but they're very light, so they're perfect for balconies."

Get your drainage right: "What the plants need is free draining bottoms to them so when the plants are watered, the water needs to actually be able to come out and not clog their roots at the bottom. What I would do is put some sort of pebbles at the bottom of your blocks and then put your soil, and that helps the water sort of percolate through and drip through the pebbles and it's not going to mess up your balcony."

Feed your garden: On top of watering, you also need to give your plants the nutrients they need. "Get a really good quality organic potting mix and a really good manure like a good chicken manure or cow manure or good compost. Vegetables and herbs are really hungry feeders, so you really need to give them as much fertiliser and good quality soil when they first start off."