Jonathan Banks has been growing fruit and vegetables organically at Pialligo since the 1980s. Many Canberrans will be familiar with the apples that he produces as they are sold at farm gate stall during apple season each year. His garden is home to a variety of plants – many that we may think of as weeds. By creating and allowing a natural eco system to form, it’s part of the way he believes garden ‘pests’ can be managed. He never knows what he’ll be exhibiting at the show – it’s usually a last-minute decision.
Read more about Jonathan’s approach to gardening. (The excerpts below are from an interview recorded with Jonathan in February 2012.)
Listen to Jonathan’s approach to gardening
People are growing food again. There’s a lot of interest in community gardens and things like that, which went through a tough patch not that long ago. People are back to being concerned about it again. There are people concerned with sustainability, there are people concerned with pollution and where actually food comes from. I think there is beginning to be an awareness. It’s always been there, but you do get the feeling that it’s happening again, that there are enough people there who are beginning to care.
The approach to gardening is very individual and in my particular gardening it’s chaotic. It has a lot of different things growing all together. Some people call it companion planting, but that’s actually not the philosophical background of it. I’ve had people come along and say, "Oh, I see you do permaculture here", and you say, "Do we?" I like to grow in amongst the trees, which turns out to be permaculture in the broad sense. It’s nice to grow without chemicals, and this particular orchard is organic. It would be nice if it was bio-dynamic. That’s just a little more difficult. It’ll get there one day, maybe.
I look at it as proper gardening as opposed to commercial agriculture. You know what your pests are, you know how to manipulate the process so that you minimise your pests. It’s becoming fashionable and mainstream again. People are planting African marigold for their nematode control, for instance. But here, because we’ve got all the different things growing together, none of the pests get out of hand. We have peaks – fruit bats are our latest one, and what do you do about them? We’ll find a method. And the cockatoos, they were the previous pest and are the most destructive. But we have got through managing codling moth, managing scab, managing Queensland fruit fly and all the other things. Back when we sprayed, there were a whole lot of pests that we had real problems with.
If you have single crops, then one moment you have nothing and the next moment it’s harvest time. You’ve got a storage problem and a marketing problem, and all the rest of it. In the apple-growing industry, you’ve also got biennial bearing. If you don’t spray with hormones and that kind of thing, you end up with one year lots of apples and the next year no apples – the trees take a rest. It’s the way they deal with pests, their nutrient cycles and all sorts of things. So that’s a real problem. Excess means that you’ve got to store or preserve or market into a market that’s already full. In our case, we sometimes make vinegar so we’re pressing the apples. Other people make cider. So there are preserving processes that go back to antiquity.
It’s the atmosphere, it’s the local Show. It’s part of living here, it’s part of Australia, it’s got history, it’s got fun, it’s thronging with people – and I like exhibiting.
We enter two kinds of produce in ag shows (when we can get there), and that’s a real problem because it happens right at the moment when we’re trying to harvest. It’s good in a way. We enter apples, we enter fruit and we also enter jams, apples, quinces, pears and often vegetables. Vegetables include Russian garlic – we’ve taken the ribbon which is always nice.
Learning about gardening … you learn on the hoof as much as anything. You learn from your neighbours, you learn from your community. I’ve never done a formal course. I went to learn grafting from the Quarantine people back in the days when we had a Quarantine Station here for horticulture. There was an old man there who learned from his grandfather about grafting and he showed me. There’s that kind of learning.
There’s learning by making mistakes which you do and there’s learning by talking to people. I’ve got some nice old books, early 20th century books from New South Wales Department of Agriculture which are all pre-chemical agriculture and yet they’re still producing very nice crops and so they’re good. It’s a portfolio with lots of different ways. It’s a nice journey, too.
We don’t actually store apples but a lot of people do store apples and it’s a miracle. You can actually get what looks like a fresh apple 13 months after it was picked. Indeed, there are some new season apples out there in the market with a sign saying “New season apples” and they are indeed new season apples but they were picked over a year ago. It is a surprise, but if you’re a grower you can easily tell if that’s an apple fresh off the tree or whether it’s been in storage for a long time.
I think it’s massively important to grow your own food as a process. None of us actually grows our own food to the stage where we’re self sufficient. Growing your own starch is quite a fight in Canberra. You need acreage to grow your potatoes, your wheat or whatever it is. But growing some of your own food is very worthwhile because it focuses you – in fact, it grounds you. It does that thing of saying this is where it comes from and you know what’s happened to it. You’ve got two things there – an ability to have really nice food, seasonal, contact with the environment and also having some knowledge of what’s happening. A little bit of control of your own destiny.
The agricultural show is probably, in a sense, a relic. Fewer and fewer people actually produce food except in backyards. A lot of people want to grow their own food but it’s only a small part of the population.
As a kid I can remember the shows, because I used to go to them when my parents took me – basically dust and flies! A good agricultural show is always blazing hot. The wood chop is always nice. There are a few special things that stand out as part of a good show, apart from the grand parade.
A good show always seems to have an atmosphere about it. It has a beautiful atmosphere, everybody seems to be happy and it’s a lovely feeling of having produced things. This is the end product in a way, displaying what you’ve done.