Category Archives: Growing food

Backyard permaculture – pre-design thinking

Now that I’m half way through my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) theory, I’m about to take a really good crack at some intentional design in terms of applying permaculture principles in an average sized garden.

Below,  is the layout of the productive backyard that we now have after five-six years of ad-hoc design with permaculture principles in mind, but without really any formal or deep understanding.

[click image to enlarge]

2017

My final PDC design project has therefore rather humble aims:

Moving this young backyard farm into maturity by giving it a vision and including:

  • removing the last of the invasive lower lawn for veg beds
  • creating more vertical veg growing space,
  • connecting it to the front yard which is now an emerging food forest too
  • solutions for unused wasted sides of the house
  • developing a natural play area for the kids

Bringing it all together as a whole,  is where hopefully having some idea of permaculture design principles will help so that I can see the space and the little areas of potential.

How we got to this stage

I wanted to capture where we are now, and how this young productive garden emerged, before I start my final design project for my PDC and for anyone else working on their PDC with a small space.

Six years ago we moved away from our 20 acre rural block, our dream hobby farm – into a house on about 890 square metres. We were in our 30s so not really traditional ‘downsizers’, but the property was situated precariously on a ridge top, had limited access and in summer we had a close call with bushfire without any access to water.

Leaving our farm was the hardest thing I ever did.

We left space, epic views, secret valleys, winter rivers, echidnas and wedge tailed eagles, space for orchards you could walk through and just everything I had dreamed of. We went to a normal street, into a normal house into a normal space that meant no more cows, goats or roosters or wild places.

I still have days when my heart pines to be back there, listening to the wind blowing through sheoaks.

But, as it tuned out, we were able to slowly create a more sustainable future. A slow retrofit is still in progress, starting with insulation and adding internal doors for example.

We now have less reliance on cars, can walk into the Main Street of our small town rather than having to drive everywhere,  could afford to upgrade solar hot water and power, have massively reduced electricity consumption and no electricity bills – even our house sewage septic system is recycled for viticulture irrigation. Instead of feeding cows and maintaining fences I food gardened.

We moved into bareness in the backyard – just rectangles of invasive lawn, 3 spindly young fruit trees and no soil. I was eight months pregnant and managed to throw a few veg seedlings in to settle in.

 

when we moved in
Soiless and souless

 

We both work professional jobs and have young children and yes, I have to be honest, ALL my free time over the last six years is mostly immersed in food gardening. Or reading about others about food gardening, or talking to others about food garden or thinking about food gardening.

My daughter described me as “mad about permaculture” on a poster describing their mums at school. Maybe I am mad putting all this heart in.

On days I was too exhausted with my baby son, I would be up early to watch episodes of Costa’s Garden Oddyssey I found on DVDs and it became a morning ritual with a baby and four year old.  I had a moment of understanding that this was going to take time and to start with the soil – to build soil – and be patient.

In 2012, I started lasagne gardening/sheet mulching this place to build soil . I borrowed books on permaculture from the library and dreamed of the backyard forest that this garden could be. It was imaginary.

There was no design, no vision, just a hazy idea of what could be daydreamed, the design emerged in the edges of everything else. It felt right to design informally in this way with dreams by the fireside, experiments and failures.

Bit by built we built structures, and after 4 years finally culminated in adding chickens . When they arrived I felt the backyard farm had become!

So, undertaking this PDC has given me an unexpected concern. I’m feeling doubtful about whether I’m suited to designing gardens properly on paper -with any precision. It feels…unlike me to garden on paper.  I’m trying though. I measured out my space last week to roughly get the plan I put together to scale. Sort of.

But I wonder if others feel this way. To be truthful, drawing it out first feels like it kills the wonder a bit for me.

But…what I want to encourage is simple. Start where you are. Right now. In whatever way it feels right to begin.

Don’t wait until you have “the dream acreage” don’t feel that you have to have big space to apply permaculture design. Learn now from the tiniest space.

In 1999, my first veg garden in my 20s was a front garden patch of about 15m2 in England. We won a prize because it was seen as a novelty to grow veg amongst cottage garden flowers – but it was all the space we had. The design – intercropping – emerged from the limits. Limitation can be the spark.

Any space can be enough room to grow.

Make boundaries into horizons.

Inspiration hanging in my garden                              c/o Costa Georgiadis & Earth Garden magazine

Any space can be everything you need, if you can begin with valuing the potential of what you do have.  If you still need more trees, visit them. Or if you need wilderness (which yes,  I really do miss in my deepest soul) go forth and camp there, or join in an effort to plant trees there.  If you dream of more growing space, volunteeer in your local school or community garden.

And then come home to grow where you live.

And live where you grow.

And take your growing, where ever you go.

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garden1

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Upfront-worthy veg

We’re the hippies of the hood perhaps, with our mostly native rambling front garden but I decided to forge on a bit further and gently introduce some vegetables as it’s a great growing site. It’s a first for me in an Australian garden growing vegetables in the front (did it in the UK as we had a very small space).

With wallaby and kangaroo grass seeding, flax lilly’s dainty clusters of nodding blue and yellow flowers, red and yellow kangaroo paw in flower and the sweet scent of native frangipani trees it’s a hot colour riot of sight and smell right now. A bee haven.  Mingling scents of native frangipani, rosemary, lavender and lemon basil too. So why not even more diversity with some produce in the mix!

Hot spires of kangaroo paw – they love chicken manure

The first adventures into mixing some veg into the front (we don’t have street verges alas!) was sacrificing a bed that had mainly herbs. We inherited heavy clay soil in this front garden, so I took a patient year of soil prepping including worm castings, mushroom compost, direct deep composting of kitchen scraps first, before attempting any removal or planting. Removing the large woody herbs wasn’t too laborious once the soil had improved (previoulsy impossible baked into hard clay!) and the tomato seedlings have loved their freedom!

There will be more front veg planting to come, longer term plans for strawbale or timbercrete to replace wooden retaining walls – so much to do – and I’m converting a lawn at the back first – so my guess is this is it for a while in the front.  But by tackling one small thing at a time – like a yield of heirloom tomatoes, which have always been challenging in my backyard raised beds, you find that you can slow down enough to think about design more, rather than just rushing in to plant and change everything all at once. It gives you time to observe.

Front veg bed of heirloom tomatoes, lemon grass, lemon basil, zuchinni

Yellow kangaroo paw on a backdrop of lavender.
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Dianella (flax lilly) and native grasses under the native frangipani tree

Why failing to grow is a yield too

Back in Autumn 2015, I tried growing burgundy Okra from seed and a late winter planting. Fail. Not just me either, I shared some seedlings and no one had any luck. 

I tried again in Spring, again sharing the few that had germinated through the local community produce share. I’m hopeful of finding out whether others had luck, because… one of mine made it!!!

As long as I can keep the chickens out of this bed, I think this little okra will be ok.

  
Growing is about failing, and failing is learning, because failing puts the details in your face, and asks you scrutinise the situation right there in front of you.  ‘Why didn’t this work?’ 

Moving on from failure, also requires you to stand back and look at the bigger picture, looking for a pattern, a clue to the myriad of complex interactions that take place just to make one tiny thing happen. ‘What am I missing?’

You learn something about the universe in these observations, something a bit hard to explain, but this recent article about The physics of life in Nature magazine by Gabriel Popkin stirs up what I feel.

So get out there, get your hands dirty and fail, because when one seed grows you will treasure and value it more than anything you own. 

Branch by branch: backyard chickens

I can hear it. That sound, of happiness and curiosity that I’ve missed so much. Those dark intelligent eyes and witty ways. Absent from my daily life for five years.

Three chickens joined the garden yesterday, and my heart is brim full. Still cautious and alert in their new surroundings, so only a quick photograph snapped of Chickpea:

chickpea

This morning was the first morning they were there when I went out into the garden (usually around 5:30am).  Part of my routine  in the veg garden was attending to them and it’s hard to describe the feeling of happiness. It just seems to be part of sunrise, part of life, part of the rhythm of morning, to be greeted by chickens.  It feels like an age old tradition, marking the dawn and dusk.

From memories of their presence in past times on the farm, to travel memories;  disembarking an overnight train from the hot hustle-bustle of Mumbai, up towards the cool mountains and on first stepping off the long haul journey of the night,  emerging out of the hot train to the cool sound of happy chickens on the train platform. They are just a delightful presence. Eggs are a bonus, I’m in it for their personalities. 🙂

I love how chickens so aptly, make you feel like a stupid human too. Chickpea has already proven that she is the clever one. Escape from the pen is a simple task by leaping up onto the roof. They will soon free range with supervision, but in these first few days making sure they know the coop is their base is important.  So this morning was quickly rigging up some rooftop discouragement and coaxing her back into the pen with a freshly-picked strawberry. She will already come close if she sees me with a strawberry. Today I sacrificed a lot of strawberries for new friendships.

There are three ladies, all big and beautiful Australorps. Chickpea is black, Betty is a blue and Penelope is a splash. They came from a local family-run farm property five minutes away and you could tell the owner loves and cares for her chickens. Although alert to their surroundings, they are surprisingly calm.

They will be such an important step in the garden in terms of contributing to the slow progress of permaculture design. It’s actually working now, I can feel it, but I can always see ways of using the space better and learning something new about what I’ve observed. Creating some vertical growing spaces are in my thoughts as well as planting crops near the new coop.

Oh, and every new coop needs a name, so that was made very early this morning.

the bothy

I am just finally able to feel it – it’s a backyard farm. Things grow here.

Small and slow: garden to farm

Having been here at our house for around five years, after downsizing from a large property, it has felt at times like a slow journey to transform  a garden devoid of anything but a few fruit trees into a backyard farm. Looking back at what I began back then, learning about building soil in the Winter of 2012, it seems a long time ago.

From building soil, raised beds, setting up worm farms, a small compost bin, planting fruit and nut trees, getting into a rhythm of learning about growing my own seedlings and establishing some zones in the garden, and reading a lot about permaculture and how to transfer that thinking in a practical way, into a small space. It’s been a constant and ongoing thing. It’s not there yet, but that’s the whole point. It never will be. Constantly evolving and growing.

I now grow so many  heirlooms seedlings,  (mostly Diggers varieties) with such success that I regularly have heirloom seedlings to share regularly though the local community share table, and I’ve started a small monthly seedling and produce share at my work too.

And now, a major milestone is on the horizon. Chickens will be joining us in our backyard very soon!  At this point, the backyard farms begins to be feel like one.  Just the thought of having chickens again makes me feel wonderfully excited.

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The back corner of the garden, deliberately wild is a favourite haunt of resident blue-tongue lizards

I think there will be differences in keeping chickens in a backyard (no wedge-tailed eagles or foxes trying to raid the coop). I expect to have to unlearn some of things I think I understand about keeping chickens. So despite keeping chickens on the farm, I’m not approaching this venture like I know what I’m doing. I’m on the wait-list at my local library for the book Backyard Poultry Naturally by Alanna Moore which has some great reviews. There is always room for re-learning what you think you know.

With less space, more care and planning is required to give chickens what they need for happiness. This is why the long wait to bring them in.  I’ve allowed the garden to mature into shady pockets, the soil to build and deepen, trees to grow and for intentional little wild zones to develop,  just right for curious and clever chickens to explore when they free range.

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Under the plum tree, might seem overgrown, but this will cause a lot of delight for chickens when they arrive.

In the past few years brown snakes have been nesting on the vacant block next door (none sighted this year so far), so keeping our back garden rodent free is a priority.   This is why I invested in a grain feeder . On the farm, we weren’t so careful about the odd grain scatter, snakes were a daily encounter by the dams etc, but it feels important with children around, and a smaller enclosed space, to not invite snakes to a dinner party by encouraging mice. So, a bit of an investment to begin with seemed like a sensible idea.

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So now, the tomatoes have the first blush of summer, the trees are laden with plums, daily small harvests of zuchinni, speckled bean pods hang on the vine, oranges and mandarins are green with future promise, corn nods its head in the breeze, strawberries burst into sweetness… and as soon as we have the coop set up and ready..the patter and scratch of chicken feet and their gentle happy ways will add to the cycle.

It does take time, all of this, but for me, growing is part of being connected to not just food production, but the small and beautiful details of life.

Patterns.
These heirlooms
Infinite in diversity
Harvest picked by hand
Yield.

Strawberries in the summer time

It was 39 weeks ago was when I held these sweet warm garden-grown strawberries in my hands.

The first strawberry has braved its happy blossom open to the sun in expectation of bee visitors, and plum trees are warming their buds, preparing to unfurl their blooms into a blue sky. The night are still snappishly cold and crisp, perfect for star-gazing when the cloud stays away and the sun is sometimes warm enough to make you want to curl up on a rock, lizard-like.

It’s just a wonder at this transition time – a real wonder – where if you stop to notice it,  you can actually feel the wheel of the season turning, the subtle change of the length of shadows which we try to mark and measure with our ticking clocks. But, we feel it.

I have that irresistible Spring restlessness – to plant vegetable seeds –  like a lamb chasing its own feet around the fields –  it feels like a compulsion – plant, plant, plant, sow, sow, sow, hastening the weekend, fingers into soil.

 

 

Forking carrots

This may look like a simple bunch of carrots. But these wonderous pointy specimens are an artifact. An artifact of my learning.

Every forking time I grew carrots, they were completely forked. In two countries, in different soils. Absolutely forking forked. Looking like some sort of twisted mandrake root destined to be thrown screaming into a medieval apothecary’s cauldron while he chants ancient incantations into his decantations . (ok, may have taken that analogy a little too far).

So I gave up, on carrots. But then had so much other vegetable success. It didn’t make sense. I just clearly had not met their basic needs.

But I really love carrots. My children really love carrots. The perfect carrots in large bunches that I bought weekly at the farmers market, mocked me with their tasty and straight perfection.

I started to talk to carrots, think like a carrot. Become the carrot.

No, what I did was read and read. About carrots. I filtered the information. Collated the experiments of the fruitful forkless. Watched videos of people growing carrots in PVC pipes.

And I took all this, and finally, from out of the deep earth,  via seed cast from my hands emerged, to my almost tearful delight (I think a bit of the smoke from the apothecary’s cauldron got in my eye)  these incredible specimens were harvested in the cold winter twilight, kissed with steamed and scoffed for dinner tonight.

As so many others have also commented that they too are having to deal with forking carrots, here’s how it worked for me.

Seed

The best carrot seeds you can find (I used heirloom varieties)

Soil and…pots

If you have soil issues (mine is shallow and rock hard) and even if you have rich lovely soil in raised beds like I now do, still consider deep pots.  You really want deep deep soil that a long point thing can grow through without resistance. So, you are seeking sand-like consistency with NO bits of stones or compacted soil. Almost sifted.  I filled my pots mostly with sand, mixed with a little bit of potting mix, fine seedling mix and some worm castings because I had some. Forked carrots are usually meeting some sort of obstacle. Just like brilliantly bendy cucumbers that grow around corners.

Sow

Sow according to the packet directions but really carefully in pots not to crowd,  as you have a small surface area . In pots, if you are growing long large carrots, you will definitely need to remove some of the carrots that start to grow too close together. However, baby carrots are wonderful, so if you wait long enough, you can take a first harvest of your biggest carrots, as baby carrots to eat, and leave the rest with space to grow into bigger carrots. This is where I am now, my first harvest from the pot.

Neglect

Keep the seeds lightly watered for the first few days, but try to time for periodic rain (this has been the case in autumnal Adelaide) or aim to mimic periodic rain if you feel you have to water. Have the pots somewhere where the rain can fall, and hold back on the watering. Neglect them,  although you may worship their leafy growing tops. Urge them on to grow deeply to reach the water deeper below in the soil. Just completely neglect them, in a caring way.

That’s all I did. It worked…this time. It won’t be the last time.

And a postnote. Forked carrots still taste forking good! We should all be eating ugly vegetables, because they are food, and I would happily eat a plate of oddly shaped vegetables, but if you want to gift or serve your carrots to others, the long carrot comes in handy.