Early in the morning, when chickens are hustling to get out of their coop and pelicans start clacking on a billabong, Matt and Lentil Purbrick of Grown & Gathered get up to start their day. On a three-acre patch in the middle of Tahbilk Estate Winery, Matt and Lentil grow organic food and flowers on land that’s been in his family since the 1920s. His parents still live on the estate, as does his grandmother, whose house was built in 1939 for Matt’s great-grandfather’s mother, Dorothy. A few years ago, Matt came back from 18 months of traveling and, needing to get away from life behind an office desk, decided to try his hand at farming. “I quickly figured out that I really loved growing things,” he says, “and then I learnt a bit about it from some old growers in the area. They began to teach me what to plant and how to grow, and I eventually started doing it myself.”
Meanwhile, Lentil was working as a speech therapist, dreaming of growing flowers. By the time the pair met, Matt had started his vegetable garden and was traveling back and forth between Melbourne and the farm. Before long, Lentil jumped onboard, and the pair settled down in one of the six houses dotted about the estate.
The house that Lentil and Matt now live in was built in 1939 as well, and is nestled against the billabong. Originally, it was home to Dorothy’s gardener. “He was the guy who milked her cows and tended her garden, and I guess what we’re doing now is not so different,” says Matt. Over the years, the cottage has been lived in by a random collection of vineyard managers and workers, and by 2013 was pretty rundown. “There was talk of having it demolished,” he says. “We were living in another of the estate’s houses at the time and had been thinking of moving to somewhere like Castlemaine. But when the opportunity came up to renovate the cottage, it just felt like it was meant to be.”
Transforming the house was a big task. “When we got to it, it was really dark and old,” says Lentil. “There was blue Laminex all over the bathroom and two layers of equally terrible lino in the kitchen. It was definitely stuck back in a very weird decade.” The history of the house attracted them, but not as much as the allure of renovation. With the help of many friends, they ripped up the Laminex and lino, knocked down walls, and ultimately transformed the entire house. Impressively, they did it all with the use of recycled materials. “Apart from the screws and nails,” says Matt, “everything in the house is reused, rebuilt, reloved.”
The cottage is now an open, airy space, with tall white walls and low-lying furniture. Big French doors open onto the deck from the couple’s bedroom, and the lino’s been replaced with recycled timber floorboards. When the pair were deciding how to fill the house, they agreed to pick only things they both love. “We figured that if we did that, it would all just fit together,” Lentil explains.
The attitude is reflected in everything from the art on the walls to the smaller items, such as the jars of flowers scattered around the place. There’s also a bit of a family theme. All the art was produced by Matt’s mum, and many of the smaller items of furniture were designed and built by Matt himself. “The basis of it all is about living simply and minimizing waste,” Lentil says. “So whether we’re making decisions about the design of our house or our garden, we always just ask, ‘Is it simple, is it sustainable?’” The ethos shows up in the home’s small details, like the recycled timber bed Matt built for the master bedroom and the old wooden crates used as bedside tables.
The inside of the house flows naturally to the outside garden, where the pair grow more than 500 varieties of fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers for Melbourne restaurants, florists, and, more recently, online consumers. They’re one of only a handful of people in the world growing cut flowers sustainably.
The couple also produce a combination of familiar vegetables, such as cabbage and carrots, as well as varieties rarely seen in Australia. By using heirloom seeds and abandoning pesticides, Matt and Lentil are reintroducing the natural variation that has largely been lost in our society in recent years. “We try to emulate a forest floor,” he says. “That means we have a lot of little birds flying around the place and a huge variety of insects, so the patch stays healthier.”
Visually, their garden is a sprawl of leafy veggies and flowers, and includes some unusually welcome weeds. “Having all this land gives us a lot of room to experiment,” says Lentil, “and edible weeds have really taken off!” Some of the more unusual stuff in their garden is really popular with consumers, including ice plant, a type of succulent. The pair decided to plant some seeds after hearing about the plant from chefs who’d been foraging for it around the coast. “At first, nothing came up and we thought we’d failed, but then we discovered it in the gardens weeks later,” says Matt. “We tasted it and it was salty and great, as if we were at the beach.”
The pair spend most of their time in the bigger garden, but they also maintain a smaller veggie patch on the acre that holds their house. “We really love being in a position where we can always just walk outside and get something to eat,” says Matt. “We often have interns staying with us in another little shack on the other side of the property. And when we stop work for the afternoon, we use our garden veggies to cook a big lunch.” It’s important to Lentil and Matt that they’re as self-sufficient as possible, and their pantry – which both refer to as a “room” – is a sign that they’re doing well. “We make and keep all of our preserves and pickles there, and it’s always full of food,” says Lentil.
As well as growing produce in their gardens, the pair work with nature as much as possible. “One of the things we’ve learnt from living here is that there’s so much to forage off the land,” Lentil says. “And living beside the billabong, we get to do things like going out on canoes to try to pick water lilies.” The space is full of possibility, and they’re really making the most of everything their land provides. “It’s all about the relationships for us,” says Matt. “From the farmers who have been here all their lives and taught us how to grow and forage to all the friends and family who helped us to rebuild the house. It’s those people who have given it a real energy.”