Sometimes things viewed in wonder through the eyes of a child stay nestled in our hearts well into adulthood. Mat Pember’s hours spent exploring the sights and smells of his nonna’s veggie garden imprinted themselves on his consciousness so profoundly that they would eventually inspire his career. In 2007, he founded Melbourne’s The Little Veggie Patch Co, a business that specialises in the design, installation and maintenance of chemical-free vegetable gardens for urban dwellers. Ensuring that their services aren’t just limited to Melbournites, Mat (pictured left) and business partner Fabian Capomolla have recently released The Little Veggie Patch Co book, spreading their gardening wisdom across Australia.
I was pretty sports mad … as a kid, so I think my childhood dream was to be a sportstar. Anything where I could chase after a ball of any shape I would have been happy to do as a profession. But as I got older and saw how professional sport can be really quite tough, my dream evolved into wanting to just work for myself and be my own boss.
My Italian grandmother … was a huge influence on me. All my memories of her are in the garden or cooking. She’s from a very poor background in Italy and she’s uneducated and can’t read or write. But the one thing she can really relate to and knows a lot about is growing food; it’s really quite natural for her. When I was a kid and growing up, that was something that we just did so much of because she had a huge veggie patch and would grow things like tomatoes in summer and broad beans in winter. I was intrigued with growing and killing things, and all the sounds and scents. It really was my favourite place to be as a kid.
I actually studied commerce and forest science … but, ironically, I dropped forest science after the first semester because I found out I had to go on site for six months. I had a new girlfriend and I didn’t really want to leave her. So I prioritised!
I went to live in Spain … for six months after I finished university. I got there on my 20th birthday. When I came home, I got a part-time job landscaping with the guy who was doing my parents’ house. For the next four years, I would live in Spain for nine or ten months of the year and then come back and work in landscaping as a part-time job.
We were running illegal hostels … in Barcelona, subletting houses to backpackers, and I had a great time doing that for a number of years. When I left in 2003, I had wanted to go back and legitimise the business, but it was quite tough because it was all a little bit on the sly – and if you got caught, you’d be in a lot of trouble!
What really stopped me … from going back to Spain in the end was that I was enjoying the landscaping too much. I got to a point in my late twenties where I no longer wanted to be working for someone else, so that’s when I started doing The Little Veggie Patch Co, around the end of 2007.
Fabian and I were set up … by my sister. She worked in marketing and advertising at Sensis. That was during the GFC when there wasn’t a lot of job security and Fabian had been the last person to come into that team. He’d been doing a blog in his spare time called The Backyard Farmer, which was really just giving people tips on how to grow food. I’d been doing the practical installation side, so my sister set up a discussion and we met for a couple of coffees. He then took the giant leap and decided to do it as a living. I think that was when everything became what it is today, when we started working together midway through 2009.
There’s quite an emerging food culture … and it’s hitting the mainstream now with shows like MasterChef. It’s all about using fresh ingredients and doing it yourself. I think the new demographic of people who are getting into gardening have never grown anything before. Now, all of a sudden, the first thing that they want to grow is a pot of herbs or something they’ve seen on TV or read about in a magazine or online. Most of them are beginners and know nothing about growing anything, so there’s a real education in what we do because they’re starting from nothing.
Attitudes have changed … since we first began The Little Veggie Patch Co. We were in a real niche when we started out and we really serviced just one or two types of people – fairly affluent young families who had the money and the resources. These days, it can really be anyone and we get emails and calls from people all around Australia. A lot of people are in the inner city, so we’re doing things on balconies and rooftops, whereas it used to be big raised garden beds and archways – things like that.
We’ve started up a gardening club … where people can rent plots in a carpark on top of Federation Square and get taught along the way. It’s going to be really interesting learning to work within a space that’s quite exposed in the middle of a concrete jungle. We’re also growing food for all the Federation Square food tenants.
Our book … is intended to put the onus back on our clients to some degree. We always get so many questions from people about taking care of their gardens for themselves. And because we’re based solely in Melbourne and are always getting emails from places like Sydney and Brisbane, the best way for us to pass the knowledge along was through a book. We also wanted to make sure we did it in a way that we were speaking to normal people and not to experienced gardeners.
My favourite meal to make from the contents of my garden … is a ratatouille, because it’s the autumn pick – you get all these things like eggplants, onions, spring onions that are bulbing, capsicum and tomatoes. It probably reminds me more of the season than the food itself. Also, being a tomato lover, having freshly picked tomatoes and basil with olive oil, freshly cooked pasta and a bit of pancetta is always a favourite.
Fabian and I don’t pay ourselves very much … but it’s not a difficult thing for us because we love what we do. The whole road has been a really fun one to walk so far and it’s been quite an easy process to date.
I’m so proud of … all of the opportunities we’ve been given just by working hard and being ourselves. It’s kind of relaying your personality in your business and I think that’s what appeals to people and why opportunities keep coming up. Also, it’s great to be able to make your parents proud of you when they’ve always pressured you to do something else, but you’ve persevered.
My dream for the future … is to own a farm in Tasmania and live there for six months of the year. I’ve got this idyllic lifestyle that’s very much intertwined with the work that I do, so it’s actually very achievable, which is really exciting. Tassie is where all the produce comes from – it’s where the food starts. There’s that whole food community, which is nicely spaced out so that you’ve got room to breathe.
If I had one piece of advice for young people … it would be to not jump into university straight after school. Take a year or two off to go travelling and then decide what you want to do with your life. If you have to get up early in the morning, you may as well be doing something that you really love.