Meet the Grower: Kate Neale

The adorable she shed featured in so many of @mylittlesheshed‘s photos is what first caught my eye. Growing up, I had a playhouse equipped with a wooden “stove” in my backyard that my dad built for me and my big sister. I wanted to know more. When Kate posted that she completed her PhD, I reached out. A huge reason I started this series was to show that anyone can garden. Here is Kate, showing you how to garden while raising two munchkins, working and earning her PhD.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I live on the Far North Coast of New South Wales (which is in Australia). It’s a sub-tropical growing zone, so we tend to get extended growing seasons and usually only a couple of frosts a year. We are also lucky enough to get pretty constant rain (which isn’t always the case in Australia). Coupled with warmish weather, it makes for pretty great growing conditions.

We live on a suburban-sized block (those paddocks you see in the background of some of my pics aren’t ours – but I love looking at them). My she shed patch is only a part of my garden. We still have the obligatory lawn (yawn!) and a few citrus trees that I’m struggling to get to produce much fruit (I think they are too young still), as well as low maintenance, mostly native garden beds. My dream is to extend the veg patch to take up most of the backyard lawn, but to be honest I think it’s too ambitious given all else on in my life. It’s a long term plan at this stage!

I work at the local university where I research childhood studies, children’s consumer culture and ethics on a broader scale. I absolutely love my job, but it’s pretty much sitting  at a desk 80% of the time so I long to come home each day and escape down to my shed to tinker and potter and check out what’s growing in the garden. When I was completing my PhD at the end of 2015, it was a bit of a savior from way too many hours on the computer trying to get it finished!

I’ve been in Sydney all this week. So happy to get home to this view, see what’s been happening down here and generally get some dirt under my nails. I’m sorry I’ve missed so much of what you’ve been up to, or even said hi and checked out my new friends! ?? but I’ve got all weekend to catch up and I can’t wait! Happy Friday friends!!! I hope you are well ????☀️✨#garden #organic #organicgardening #horticulture #nature #backyardgardening #allotment #growyourownfood #pesticidefree #seedsnow #growsomethinggreen #my_garden #lobotany #vegetables #permaculture #theseedcollection #organicgardensaustralia #richgro #hoselinkaustralia #organicgardening #lovelygardenguide #organicgardenermag #slowlivingmag #instagarden #happygardeninglife #epicgardening #urbangardenersrepublic #pipmag

A photo posted by my little she shed (@mylittlesheshed) on

2. First off, congrats on getting your PhD! That is an amazing accomplishment. What did you study?

Ah, thank you! My PhD is in Childhood Studies. More specifically, I looked at the ways in which children come to understand ethical consumption (both at school and in other ways) and what opportunities within the family context they get to practice ethical consumption. Children’s power as consumers works in many ways. Not only are they consumers in today’s marketplace themselves, but they also influence many household consumption decisions. Children are also consumers of tomorrow, so it is important to understand how they form opinions about consumption and become socialised as consumers, in order to better understand the types of consumer they might be tomorrow.

My research found that ethical consumption offers the children a means by which they can (and DO) participate in broader societal issues such as environmental, social and economic impacts of consumption. This is an exciting contribution to understanding the ways children can (and DO) participate as members in society, who otherwise do not have the power to vote or necessarily participate in political activism.

I could literally go on forever about this, sorry…I would really love to see my thesis converted into an accessible book for children so they can access my research and learn more about how they can become ethical consumers without the jargon!

3. I recently learned that PhD means Doctor of Philosophy (I never knew : | ) and that philosophy comes from the Ancient Greek word philosophia, which translated means “love of wisdom”. Where did your love of gardening come from?

I think I’ve always had a love of learning, and so it probably just naturally flows into whatever I’m doing. But to be honest, I was just intrigued by the idea of growing my own veggies, so I thought I’d give it a go. I started small with just pots on my verandah, but it soon started to grow with more and more pots until my husband got fed up with them all and said I should do a proper patch in the backyard. Like the pots, I started small (2 sqm), but as I got more confident, I wanted to grow more, and when I sort of proved to myself it wasn’t a passing fad, the patch got bigger (I think I’m currently about 11-12sqm). All up, I suppose I’ve been gardening for 5 years now, and the patch you see on Instagram is probably the fifth iteration. I felt like I finally graduated to a permanent patch and could justify a bit of investment in it. However, at first, I only gardened in spring and summer, and I took a summer off when my second child was born. So really, I consider myself a novice still. I love it though, it is forgiving and I plant things that are usually pretty easy to grow.

4. The pictures of your purple broccoli are stunning! I love the red cabbage as well. How do you select the varieties you grow each season?

Well, I actually get lots of inspiration from Instagram! I love seeing what everyone else is growing and it has definitely inspired me to try new things – like the purple broccoli! Actually at the same time I saw purple peas too, so I trotted off to the garden shop looking for all things purple. I thought a purple garden would look cool.

It’s exciting to grow new things because I think it’s fun to see how they grow and develop from flower to fruit – things you don’t see when you just buy your veg from a shop! And then each season I grow it, I tend to get better and have a bit more success.

5.Tell us anything and everything about the she shed. We want to hear it all. Did you build it yourself? Is it a potting shed? A playhouse? Both?

We did build it ourselves, in a very organic way by first sourcing the vintage reclaimed windows and doors and then working out the dimensions from there. We’ve been doing various buildings and extensions around the house, so inevitably we had bits of timber and building supplies that we tried to use first. Finding the perfect spot in the garden also took time as I wanted to make sure the accompanying garden would receive the most sun and not get overshadowed by the shed. Once the frame for the shed was up, I started planning the garden beds and potting areas around it. My original plans for these things didn’t always eventuate, but the fluidity of the process was so enjoyable and in many ways makes it all a bit more haphazard and whimsical, which is exactly want I wanted.

The shed is only 2m x 3m in size, but to be honest, it’s perfect. One side is for the girl’s play kitchen (the engine room for their affectionately named Rocky Rose Café) and the other side houses a surplus bookcase that used to be in the house, which I have filled with gardening books, trinkets, indoor plants, and gardening equipment. There is also a chair and cushion in there, which provides me with a comfy spot to sit and look through my books or plan my planting. I have a passionfruit vine that has made its way through the floorboards and crept up the walls and over the bookcase. It’s so beautiful and adds another touch of whimsy to the room. My husband and the girls also buy me little signs or trinkets to decorate the shed too, which I love. It’s, all in all, much more girly and shabby chic than my usual style which tends to be more minimalist and model. It’s fun to play with that more feminine side of my personality. I hope it will change and evolve with the seasons and eventually grow into its own, and I often daydream about it brimming with memories and treasures from the girl’s childhoods and our adventures in the garden. I can’t wait for that!

On a really practical level, it’s also a safe place out of the sun for my 2 year-old to play and potter while I’m in the garden. I know where she is and love hearing her sing or talk to herself or her dolls that she’s usually wrangled for a tea party. My 9 year-old often decorates it with fresh cut flowers from the garden. It’s such a happy place for all of us. And although it is named a She Shed, I should point out men are most welcome in the space too – so long as you are happy to sip on an imaginary milkshake or order something from the Rocky Rose Café menu of fake food. Haha.

6. Getting your PhD alone is no easy task. You are also raising some adorable “cafe owners” (little girls) and growing a good amount of food. What advice do you have for the super-busy folks who want to maintain a garden despite being away from home all day?

It will take a few weekends to get it all up and running, but then after that I think it’s just about regular maintenance. I don’t think there are many better ways to start or end a busy day then pottering about your garden.

In the mornings particularly, it tends to be still and quiet and I tend to just enjoy the fresh air. It puts me in a great frame of mind for the day. And then conversely in the afternoon, I sneak down to the garden and give it a water and pick anything I want to use for dinner. I think about the day, what still sits on my work to-do list, what I’ll attack tomorrow and by the time I head back to the house, I’ve left that all behind and I can focus on family time. My girls also love the garden, so they potter about with me, and it doubles as great family time.

During an average week, I probably only spend 20 minutes a day in my garden. On the weekends, I like to spend at least an hour a day – usually at either end of the day (If we don’t have plans for the day, I’ll steal more time happily, and the girls hang in the garden with me, so I don’t feel guilty about that).

It just seems to fit into my routine. Oh no, I sound like those people who seem to always find time to go for a run or get to the gym, don’t I? I read their stories and think, “How do you just fit that all in?” Haha, well, clearly I’m not trying to fit in an exercise regime amongst my busy week (although I probably should!).

My advice is, if you think you are time poor, but you want a garden, just start with a few pots of tomatoes, or herbs or lettuce etc – easy to grow, reasonably low maintenance and fool proof veg. You’ll soon know if you have the time and enthusiasm to keep it up or upsize to a bigger garden, and it’s not a major upfront investment either. I’m a big fan of raised beds, too, because you tend to buy better quality soil and compost than what is probably in your ground, and you won’t have too many problems with weeds or grass overtaking your patch, which will make maintenance easier.

7. It’s so wonderful that you are donating to your local soup kitchen. It looks like you have partnered with local garden shops as well. How did this partnership come about?

I literally had a glut of cabbage, and one day on Instagram I took a pic with the caption, “I’ve finally found the perfect solution to my glut of cabbage!” Then, I said I was thinking of building a standalone patch with the idea to donate everything that came out of that.

I figured it would be a great, easy way to give, considering I’m gardening anyway, so what’s another patch to water. And then, Birdies Garden Products and Rich Gro both commented on my photo saying they would like to contribute by donating goods. I was gobsmacked by their generosity, and before I knew it, I had deliveries of an awesome garden bed and lots of garden soil and supplies to get me on my way. Now we donate a big basket of food every week to the local soup kitchen. I’m really grateful for their belief in my idea. I really want to get the message out that we need to support companies that support their local community, and I think these companies are doing just that. It’s my only shameless product plug on my account, but I truly think they deserve it!

Another basket of nutritious, organic and homegrown produce off to the local soup kitchen. My dad who volunteers there says everyone is keen to eat as many veg as possible as it’s usually the hardest to source, store and prepare on the streets (which makes so much sense but I hadn’t thought of that). Also he was saying, people want to eat all the fresh stuff as they know it’s good for them and their health is a huge priority (imagine being sick on top of all the other struggles insecure housing brings). SO knowing not only are they getting their greens, but it’s organic and super fresh is a bonus I guess. So happy to be able to give such a small amount to help a few that need it. . .. These harvests are proudly sponsored through donations of gardening supplies by @birdiesgardenproducts and @richgrogarden . PLEASE SUPPORT COMPANIES THAT SUPPORT THEIR COMMUNITY ?✨??☀️??❤️☀ #feedthehomeless #donate #soupkitchen #garden #organic #organicgardening #horticulture #nature #backyardgardening #allotment #growyourownfood #pesticidefree #seedsnow #growsomethinggreen #my_garden #lobotany #vegetables #permaculture #theseedcollection #organicgardensaustralia #richgro #organicgardening #lovelygardenguide #organicgardenermag #slowlivingmag #instagarden #happygardeninglife #epicgardening #urbangardenersrepublic #pipmag

A photo posted by my little she shed (@mylittlesheshed) on

8. What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in a similar donation process? Where should they start?

Well, if you have any excess produce or any room to grow a little extra, I’m sure your local soup kitchen would welcome it with open arms. It literally was as simple as me calling them to see if they could use any home grown produce and they said, “YES!!” I was a bit sporadic about my contributions at first but they didn’t mind. Apparently, they happily plan meals around what they have to work with. Now that I’m a bit more organised and have a dedicated patch, I’m growing things I specifically know they like and use. Tomatoes, beetroot, cucumber and lettuce are their breakfast burger staples, along with silverbeet for their frittatas and anything else I can give them (usually a mixed bouquet of herbs and cabbages and cauliflowers, which I’ve had a glut of!).

Yesterday’s late afternoon harvest will soon be this morning’s breakfast for the homeless. I was worried I didn’t have enough to contribute, but apparently every little bit helps (and gets used!) Thanks for being the delivery guy dad. And more importantly cooking breakfast every Wednesday for those in need! ??#garden #organic #organicgardening #horticulture #mygarden #backyardgardening #allotment #growyourownfood #pesticidefree #seedsnow #growsomethinggreen #my_garden #lobotany #vegetables #permaculture #theseedcollection #organicgardensaustralia #richgro #hoselinkaustralia #organicgardening #lovelygardenguide #organicgardenermag #slowlivingmag #instagarden #happygardeninglife #epicgardening #urbangardenersrepublic #pipmag

A photo posted by my little she shed (@mylittlesheshed) on

9. What do you know now that you wish you knew before you started gardening?

Hahaha – when the packet says zucchinis need a metre between them – they’re not kidding!

Also to put your patch where it gets the most sun (and not just where you think it will look best). My first couple of iterations of my garden got too much shade, and I can’t believe the difference in my harvests when I finally got it right!

But other than that – that gardening nourishes the soul as much as it does the body. I’m infinitely a calmer and more grateful person now that I’m a gardener, and I appreciate the seasons and the passing of time more, too. It seems to help put things in perspective. I think there is a lot to be said for grounding yourself simply by getting your hands in the dirt. After all, they say gardening is therapy and you get tomatoes!

10. The narrative on your picture of harvesting strawberries with your little helpers cracked me up. Do you have any tips for gardening with youngsters?

Just have fun. Honestly, if you are uptight about it, they won’t enjoy it and then won’t want to be there with you. I used to joke that I planted things in fours… one for the chook, one for the kid, one for me and one for the dinner table. I swear only 25% of my produce makes it inside. I don’t think snow peas and strawberries have ever made it to the house. But it tastes best in the garden, and it piques their interest in the whole process when they get to taste the royalties of being a gardener. One mum at day care once asked how I got my daughter to eat her greens, and I wanted to reply, “She has seen a little seed sprout into a seedling, grow up to the sky and form beautiful flowers which then turned into peas that she eventually picked. How couldn’t she want to know what that tasted like?” But I didn’t, I just said, “Oh, she loves her greens I guess!”

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows though. I do roll my eyes every time my 2 year-old picks a green tomato. There’s been many a “Nooooooooooooooo!” heard from my garden when she has picked a nearly ripe tomato too soon!  But it’s all a part of how they learn. On more than one occasion I’ve sacrificed a few seedlings and given her a spare pot to sow her own. It usually entertains her for a while and distracts her so I can get on with my planting. The other day she was inspecting her veggie patch at her day care and said to another child, “Not pick yet. Pea not big enough.” I was pretty amazed, but also really proud. It will be very interesting to see if she becomes a gardener when she is older, or even maintains the interest in it as she grows. But for now, we are just enjoying the fresh air, strawberries and bit of time together.

11. Piggybacking off the last question, can you give us your best tip for growing strawberries? What would someone who has never grown them before need to know?

Well, I’m not an expert. I have ten plants, so that probably helps with the quantity I’m able to harvest (about a punnet every day or so in summer), but my main advice is to use a mulch to stop the slugs getting to them. They seem to dislike crawling over sugar cane mulch, and it also prevents the strawberries from touching the soil, which also helps prevent the fruit from rotting.

I also water pretty abundantly. Once the fruit starts to form, water is key to decent sized strawberries. But, I also don’t like to over water because I think the smaller have more flavour, too! Regular harvests also encourage more and more flowers, and therefore more fruit, over a longer season. The two year-old definitely comes in handy there as it’s always her first stop in the garden!

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Kate, and congratulations again on your PhD!

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