Outdoor Prop Studio
Updated: Oct 20
Creating an easy-maintenance garden to source produce for any media, craft or cooking project comes with benefits, and here are some of them.
Every gardener finds good intentions for growing organic food and plants. To me, it started as a hobby but became more than that. I use my garden as part of my home studio and sometimes call it the "garden studio" or "prop garden". Working from home as a freelance graphic designer meant many hours sitting at the computer. I needed something to balance things up, and the backyard was calling me. We live in Tumbarumba, a wine and agricultural region by the Snowy Mountains. I was inspired and fascinated by the range of food that can thrive in this terroir and could not help but capture the beauty of it and grow my own. I found great interest in developing and writing recipes and learning culinary photography, which became a new skill and passion. Since then, I have worked on commissions locally and published my work in my Snowy Foodie blog, leading to some food photography awards and being professionally published in gardening magazines. This gave me more good reasons to keep growing my prop garden, and I am now "slow-cooking" my first cookbook, using my garden to source many seasonal ingredients and perishable props for my recipe content. It took me years of self-study to reach my goals, but there is always more to learn, which is another reason why I really dig this. If you are keen on growing produce to source fresh "prop" subjects for food and still-life photography, painting or drawing models, crafting, cooking or only the pleasure of immortalising your harvest on Instagram, you will surely enjoy this article. Keeping connected with nature while working on its creativity is beneficial. I am sharing some tips on preparing a useful and low-maintenance prop garden but lesson 1: remember your mistakes and experiences!
Playing with produce • Photography © Matt Beaver/Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
STARTING YOUR GARDEN
Springtime is the time to get started or improve things. Generally, you will need various culinary herbs, perennials, edible crops and colourful beneficial ornamentals. You want to avoid high-maintenance or invasive plants that do not produce anything. I have many of them that I struggle to clear; to some, I just had to give up. Our yard was fully established for years before we moved in, with old-school ornamentals and many eclectic trees and bushes around the house. We added raised beds for veggies in the back as there are too many roots in the ground. Shade is fine for leafy greens, berries and other crops, but I removed some of the front lawn for planting full sun-loving ones. In summer, purple king bean climbing on my little corn block, and a tipi of scarlet runner beans surrounded with sunflowers and tomatoes. I mostly maintained the whole yard's original charm but could remove some repetitive edging plants to add fruit trees and native bushes. Restoring an old garden has proven challenging, but if you start from "scratch", you'll be free to design your prop garden as you like. If space is an issue, you can look at growing vertically or in pots. Diversity is the key to having a range of props all year long. Not only is this where you will source your ingredients and subjects, but your garden can also be used as your shoot location for some storytelling context.
Gardens all around the house • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio/Matt Beaver 2021
As an enthusiast or professional creative, projects can take over your (free or working) time and gardening on top of this will certainly keep you very busy. You can always support local growers and community gardeners by shopping in co-ops and local food markets. But if you are reading this, you are more likely to have some interest in gardening. With time, things get easier, and many low-maintenance and high-yield plants will be perfect for you. You will find some ideas in my top suggestions at the end of this article. Connect with neighbour gardeners; most enjoy swapping seeds, plants and good advice. Diversity and companion planting will not only have a great visual impact on your garden, but they will also help to save you trouble with pests and diseases. Finding good books and magazines about organic gardening and permaculture is easy and a good way to learn. Getting some little helpers like chickens (if you can) is also a plus as they can provide fertiliser, pest control and soil breaking. They are funny pets that you’ll enjoy getting photos of, and on top of that, they will give you fresh eggs, a must-have ingredient for your cooking project. Being in the garden to work, forage, dig, plant, water or breathe is therapeutic and a good way to take a break from sitting at the computer desk. Using the space for incubating ideas, sketching and stretching your body while looking at things is so good. Time is never wasted in the garden.
Life in the backyard • Photography © Matt Beaver/Bottle and Brush Studio 2021
MAKING THINGS EASY Keeping a natural vibe is also a good way not to overwhelm yourself. That does not mean letting things go out of control, but not fussing too much about perfection allows nature to do its thing for you. Remove debris, hand weed, and mulch well to keep the soil moist and avoid pests and diseases. You can prune as you go when you need a top sprig, a bloom or a branch. As for watering, early morning is a great way to start the day, and weeding after rain will be easier (and save you from a visit to the physio). I like letting beneficial plants like borage, calendulas, parsley, and coriander go to seed and free some voluntary babies to thrive in pavement cracks, or anywhere they choose to be. They often win over unwanted weeds. Their edible flowers can be used to top salads, savoury dishes, desserts and drinks. Some useful aromatic plants like mint and bay are best to grow in a pot, but most culinary herbs can thrive anywhere. I like them close to the patio, which makes them “at hand” when I need them for cooking or a shoot. Not only do herbs will the flavours of a dish, but they are so easy to grow, and are always used to garnish plates, which makes them essential in the perennial patches and pots.
Let culinary herbs rule • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2019-21
THE BENEFITS OF HOMEGROWN FOOD
Growing food from seeds allows you to choose unusual varieties of fruit and veggies with different colours from the ones at the grocery shop. When harvesting for a shot composition, you can use its flowers, vines, leaves and stems, revealing the season's real nature and freshness. Will they look perfect like in your dreams when growing organic? Not necessarily, but without any trace of chemicals, your produce will look healthy anyway and much better for your health and environment. With digital photography, you can make final adjustments and remove any blemish spots if you want to. Some years, you’ll get a perfect crop harvest, and some years, you’ll not. Another good thing about having a variety of culinary plants is that no matter what you get in your harvest, you'll always have the plant leaves that can trick your produce composition. Growing food can be time-consuming, but with discipline, willingness and flexibility to work with the weather, you can introduce it to your routine. Don't struggle to grow more than you can use. Also, if you do not have enough space, find options around you. Visiting farms, going to “pick your own fruit” orchards, and joining a community garden is the best way to fill your mind (and basket) with beautiful and delicious produce. Some growers will happily give you produce by knowing they will be featured in your photography. And who knows, you might get a gig after they see the final artwork!
Homegrown produce photography • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2020-22
• Culinary herbs for the flavour and finishing visual impact. They are mostly low maintenance, drought tolerant and make beautiful flowers attracting bees. Ensure you have chives, parsley, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, sage, and oregano.
• Berry bushes suitable for your climate will fruit every year and, with time, give you a big yield. Berries are at best when freshly picked. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries are classic and try currant, gooseberries and elderberries. Use strawberries as ground cover and enjoy them all summer.
• Trees can be planted in a large backyard, but some will do very well in a pot when space is an issue. Bay and citrus are always used in cooking and are great props. You can find great use in all fruit trees, but some, like stone fruits, require more attention and protection. If your projects have cultural storytelling, find exotic trees that relate to use as decorative elements.
• Vines. Grapes (table and wine) and hops are useful in fine food and beverage photography. Use the fruits, leaves and vines and keep the branches to make wreaths or dynamic backdrops when pruning the grapevines in late winter.
• Flowers are the best indicator for the season if you add a floral bouquet to a table. Spring bulbs, perennial flower bushes and drought/frost tolerant natives do not require much attention once established. Some flowers are great for drying; some are edible and make a stunning-looking salad or cake topping.
• Garlic, Elephant Garlic, leek & spring onions. In Australia, you can have different alliums in the yard all year long. If you grow your own garlic, save some cloves to seed for another crop, as you’ll never want to buy imported garlic again. Elephant garlic (which is a leek) is ornamental and delicious with its big ball flowers and giant mild-tasting cloves.
• Coriander & dill are my favourite annual herbs; they make delicious fresh herbs before going to beautiful flowers and great pickling seeds. You buy a pack of seeds only once, as you can collect them and save some for cooking and sowing.
• Beans are awesome, and many varieties of snap beans can be used as shellies and shelled beans. Runner beans are the magic ones that grow tall and look amazing on a tipi. In cool climate zones, they can be perennials (and this is not a myth, as I have one!).
• Summer and winter squashes require space, but so worth it. If you cannot do pumpkin, you must at least grow a zucchini plant that will feed you all summer and make you go creative in the kitchen, as this vegetable is more than versatile.
• Tomatoes. There is rarely a veggie garden without tomatoes. Although high maintenance, they can be very productive, especially the cherry varieties. Try different sizes, shapes and colours.
• Potatoes. Growing your own is great as you can choose a greater range of varieties to your needs and colours!
• All leafy greens are easy to grow and useful for salads, sides, pesto, etc. Silverbeet, perpetual spinach, roquette and kale can be grown year-round in most Australian climates. Pick leaves when you need them for your recipes and photos.
Styling food for photography • Photography © Matt Beaver 2021
Coming up: DIY food photography studio and prop styling at a low budget.