Your own farmers market at home
Trevor Cochrane in the garden. Picture: Robert Duncan/The West Australian

Farmers' markets are, without doubt, the hottest trend around and their popularity is driven by the promise of organic produce fresh from the farm.

While supermarkets promote freshness, the fact that they centrally manage fresh produce out of east coast warehouses means that those fresh strawberries that came from Wanneroo probably visited Sydney or Melbourne before they made it to your fridge. Crazy, I know, but that's the world we live in.

I recently returned from a few weeks' work in the northern hemisphere and my greatest discovery was in the last place I'd expected to find it: New York.

Union Square, near Soho and China Town, is home to the most remarkable farmers' market I've even seen, because it is more farmer-oriented than I have ever experienced.

For a start, all exhibitors are primary producers; in most instances they harvested before they made their way to the city from upstate New York where their produce is grown.

The gruff, haggard, grumpy apple farmer Joe gave me a bit of a shock when I asked innocently whether his apples were, in fact, organic.

"Not likely" set me back a bit and when I asked why, he explained that in the US certified organic meant the produce could be sprayed with as many as 47 different synthetic compounds.

Joe's apples grew in soil that had never experienced a pesticide treatment and his trees were treated with companion-planted natural pest-control measures.

He proudly stated his crop was completely natural and it got me thinking about what we consume back home in Perth.

I suppose the reality is the only way to be sure of what you're consuming and what went into it is by growing it yourself at home.

You do not need a lot of space and you can enjoy success growing everything from nutritious berries to highly productive, intensive-vegetable gardens.

All the following plants are easy to grow and will deliver amazing flavours fresh to your table. They have relatively few pests of any consequence and, in many cases, none at all in winter.

My favourite winter herbs and essential additives to your garden are:
Rosemary:
Try the weeping form in a hanging basket for something really different. Rosemary is good for the brain, so used with potatoes and roast lamb or even in herbal tea, it is not only refreshing but also is good for you.

Thyme:
Use as a ground cover or in a rockery for great visual effect. Thyme can be used in big sprig handfuls instead of stripping leaves, and used as a bed to meat dishes.

Common mint:
Try growing a living wall of mint. A living wall panel against a fence or wall in a shaded position will be quickly smothered by this fragrant herb. Use mint fresh and don't be scared to add a sprig to a jug of cold water or into salads. The aromatic oils in mint trigger saliva flow, helping improve digestion.

Curry leaf tree:
This is a ripper small tree, ideal for a pot or garden bed. The leaf should be harvested regularly. Use with chicken or fish for best effect and always crush the leaves and place between the meat and hot plate for maximum flavour infusion.

Bay leaf:
Treat this one as a topiary feature plant in a pot and dazzle your friends. Great with casseroles and most meat dishes. Add a whole leaf for each person to be served for best flavouring results.

Lemon thyme:
This a very attractive, compact plant, ideal for a terracotta pot in a sunny spot outside or on a window sill. Lemon thyme is particularly good with fish.

Horseradish:
This plant is a weed but, my goodness, what a sensational-tasting weed. To achieve the best results, plant it in deeply cultivated soil. Harvest regularly and take the roots, scrubbing them clean before turning them into a puree. This can be frozen for use later with meats as a sauce (mixed with sour cream) or keep roots whole and roast them with vegetables and meat for amazing aroma and flavour results.

Italian parsley:
This is, without doubt, the easiest herb to grow. You can also buy it in punnets and treat it as a border feature plant for garden beds. Use parsley fresh with every dish cooked or raw as a garnish, either whole or finely chopped for maximum health and flavour benefits.

Oregano:
Makes a great hanging basket plant or cascading feature off raised garden beds. Brilliant when used fresh, add the leaves finely chopped to casseroles, soups and meat dishes for best results.

Tea bush:
A little different, but this close relative of the camellia will grow well here. Picking fresh new-growth shoots and throwing them into a cup and pouring hot water over produces the most delicious tea you will ever drink.

My top 10 essential vegies for winter are:
Brussels sprouts:
Plant them this week to get a crop this season. These are best eaten freshly grown from the garden, and don't overcook them. Steaming with soy or oyster sauce produces mouth-watering flavours.

Potatoes:
Try royal blue, kipfler and Dutch cream if you can get them. Potatoes sliced and cooked on the barbecue that have come fresh from the garden brown with a crispier edge and better flavour.

Silverbeet and rainbow chard:
These are actually the same thing and their health benefits are unbelievable. If you're not sure how to consume them, try them Asian-style wok-fried with strips of beef in a ginger, garlic and oyster sauce, or try the creamy option and prepare them much the same as you'd do a cauliflower sauce.

Kale:
It may not have the most appealing texture but it is the highest source of antioxidants of any plant. Treat the leaves much like silverbeet in hot meals or use the new growth with a vinaigrette dressing and pine nuts in a salad.

Beans:
These are essential to our diet and there are some amazing varieties that are ideal to grow this time of the year. Butter beans, blue beans and dwarf green beans are all simple to grow now and will produce a harvest so big you will be flat out thinking about how to consume the next batch. Try a bean salad where you use fresh beans and an olive oil, red wine vinegar and salt dressing. Mixing different varieties looks great and tastes better.

Watercress:
It may not be something you have considered but as a delicious spicy flavoursome additive to freshen any meal this plant cannot be beaten. Now is the time to plant it and, because it loves water, placing it in a sealed container and letting it run and cascade over the side is the best way to go. It's a challenge keeping up with production, so be prepared to harvest every second day. Adding fresh leaves to salads gives a peppery zing to every mouthful, stimulating tastebuds and saliva, improving the taste and eating experience.

Spinach:
Everyone with a sand patch can grow this vegie now. Planting seed is simple and highly effective. You should harvest your spinach young to allow for a continuous supply for weeks at a time. Spinach is amazingly good for you, and four to six small plants per person a day steamed in the morning is believed to boost your immunity to virus and improve your general health.

Parsnip, turnip and beetroot:
These are all essential root vegetables to grow now. They are so easy to grow it will astound you, and planting and mixing seed of these different varieties will deliver great crops. Best steamed or roasted, they are great when mixed with some fresh oregano, thyme and rosemary finely chopped and added as a seasoning.

Red leaf mustard:
This has a bit of a spicy, peppery taste and if you love winter salads, it is great to grow at home. It looks amazing and its flavour is almost overwhelming at times. It's also one of the best plants you can eat because it is rich in antioxidants and exceptionally good for your stomach. Use it as a salad and it's best to start choosing fresh leaves from a young stage. As the plant gets older it will become stronger in flavour so small portions in salads are best.

Carrots:
For me, carrots are an essential winter crop. Grow yours in a sandy loam soil and harvest young for best results. Steamed baby carrots with butter and lemon balm taste incredibly good.

The West Australian

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