Meet: Erin Martin, horticulturist, The Grounds of Alexandria cafe
Erin in the garden at The Grounds of Alexandria. Photo - Linda Ross
Erin can be found among the raised garden beds, most days, at The Grounds of Alexandria, corner of Huntley and Bourke streets, Alexandria, Sydney. It's not only the best place to grab a coffee, or sweet pastries, or lunch; you can walk around a productive, super-charming, snack track!
It’s unusual to find a horticulturist employed by a café. How did you get into this?
I became a jeweller after I left school, but the demands of such microscopic work was having a terrible effect on my eyes. When my girlfriend decided to study horticulture, I thought that sounded like a good idea and did the same. I started my company, A Greener Pathway in 2011. I design, install and maintain sustainable gardens and vegetable patches all over Sydney.
The restaurant here is clearly bustling and this is only a young garden. Are you keeping up with demand?
I had a few months before the restaurant opened to get this garden up and running. The demands of the kitchen are high, but with this and my other off-site nursery in the Hunter Valley, we are managing to keep up.
Did the kitchen have specific instructions on what you should grow?
The chef wants as many heirloom varieties as possible - flavour is the key. I have been buying seeds from Diggers and germinating everything myself. I learn something new every day with these heirloom plants. There were some initial teething problems when fruit came in three weeks after my expectations. Now that I understand the fruiting cycle a bit better I’ve factored it into the staggered planting routine.
Borage flowers cut from the garden atop a confit of ocean trout. Photo - Jacqui Lewis
Do you have a favourite crop?
I have found the most rewarding are the shallots, rocket and Beams Yellow Pear tomato – that’s three favourites, sorry! The edible flowers – borage and marigolds – are starting to make an appearance on the dishes on the menu and they look great. It’s all so satisfying, seeing everything being used.
You are the sole carer of the garden, but who does the harvesting?
I’ve had to train the chef and the sous chef how to cut properly. And on some things we’ve had to compromise. They want to take whole of the shallot, but I want some for my root cuttings. The kitchenhand regularly waters the hanging baskets and also collects the ripe fruit and veg.
I also need to work out a way of stopping the customers from helping themselves to the harvest! I had a bountiful crop of ripe strawberries on opening weekend, which were gone by Monday!
Do you follow organic practices in the garden?
I passionately believe that there are too many pesticides in use and available to people who don’t fully understand the power of them. Most pest and disease problems can be eradicated using organic methods. The wet summer just passed left me with a slug and snail infestation that has seen me put 15 beer traps in the garden beds. If I can work out how to get a blue tongue lizard into the garden I’ll try that. I’m also a big fan of worm farms. I use the aerated juice to condition the soil, and I have two compost bins on rotation.