Zero waste gardening: turning lawn into food, starting with compost

This year, I’m turning my attention to transforming my garden from lawn into (a version of a) food forest. Think fruit trees, veggies, herbs and edible natives. If you’re new here, you might not know that I moved house last October: away from my previous place with its shared community garden, to a new space… and my very own backyard.

(And front yard. And verge. So much potential.)

Any old posts you’ve read will be about that previous place. Now, I’m starting again from scratch. Almost literally, as the new garden is about a blank a canvas as you can get.

Well, if that blank canvas was covered in lawn, perhaps.

There’s a few reasons why I want to spend more time in the garden this year. Yes, gardening is fun, and yes, there is nothing tastier than food you grow yourself. But it’s more than that.

You might have heard people talking about ‘resilience’ in the face of the growing climate crisis: growing food is something that we can do to be more resilient.

Even if it’s a few pot plants on a window sill.

Knowing how to grow food is a useful skill to have, and being able to share with your community is a great way to strengthen it. That’s resilience.

Then there’s the fact that the all of the screen time and the news can be overwhelming. I felt it more and more last year, and I need to find more space to truly switch off. Gardens can be that space.

As for writing about it… Well, I think there is always opportunity to talk about gardening from a zero waste perspective: avoiding plastic packaged products and synthetic chemicals, making do, re-using and repurposing, and the best one of all: sharing.

Plus there is rarely (never?) a single right way to do something. I want to share what I do and why, and generate discussion and no doubt more good ideas!

And as I have a blank canvas, I thought it would be a good opportunity to document my progress over the year. Maybe there will be some examples of ‘setting goals and smashing them’ or more likely it will be about troubleshooting and dealing with things when they don’t go to plan. Ahem. (Which option has your vote?)

Here are the ‘before’ pictures (back yard, and front yard):

And… here’s the plan. By December, I’m hoping going to have most of the lawn removed, some fruit trees in, a native verge and vegetables planted. That’s in twelve month’s time. I think that’s doable ;)

(Don’t worry, I’m not suddenly turning this into a gardening blog! I’m going to post an update once a month throughout the year, talking through the choices I’ve made and showing you – I hope! – some progress. There’s plenty of other things on waste, reducing plastic and sustainability that I still want to talk about. It won’t be all plants!)

Creating an edible garden from scratch:

Month 1: starting with the soil

Soil might sound incredibly boring, but that is where I’m beginning. Not with plants, not even with plans, but with soil.

Of course, what I really want to do is go to a garden centre and buy ALL the plants (because that is the fun part of gardening). But without knowing where they are going to go, and without good soil to plant them in, any plants I plant aren’t going to thrive.

I live in Perth, Western Australia. It’s basically a city built on a giant sandpit. The grey gutless sands of the Swan coastal plain (as they are less-than fondly called) are officially among the worst in the world. Possibly even the worst.

They are also extremely old, meaning they are nutrient poor.

This is what lurks just beneath the lawn:

I learnt to garden in the UK. There, you could pop anything in the ground at the right time of year and it would take off. Sadly, do the same in this soil, and your plants get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether. (Well, except the local native plants of course – but I want to grow edible Western vegetables like broccoli for the mostpart.)

If I lived somewhere else, soil might not be my priority. Here in Perth, it has to be.

(Thinking about my long term goal of creating an edible garden, it’s not that soil comes ahead of planning, but soil and compost take time to create. Starting to think about soil now means that there’s composting happening whilst the planning of where the compost – and the plants – will go begins.)

First task, set up the compost bins and fill them up.

The very first thing I did when I moved was dig in the compost bin. Before I’d unpacked much more than the kettle. There was no way any of my food scraps were going in the landfill bin!

(If you’d like tips on getting started, I’ve previously written about how to set up a successful compost bin).

The thing about creating good soil is that you need a lot of compost.

How to create better compost, quickly:

Just putting the food scraps of two people in this bin would take forever to fill. And so, I gathered other ‘waste’ from different places to fill my compost bin.

  • I collected some bags of spent coffee grounds from a local cafe (most cafes do this – either proactively by putting ‘free’ compost by the door, or if you ask);
  • I was connected (via a request that came to a local community garden) with a guy making homebrew who has a 20 litre bucket full of spent grain every few weeks;
  • I’ve been given bags of shredded paper from an office (shredded paper gums up the recycling and isn’t meant to go in our kerbside recycling bins);
  • A friend with chickens has filled up some buckets with chicken manure and straw;
  • I persuaded by next-door neighbour’s lawnmower man to leave the grass clippings on my lawn for me to compost;
  • I rescued some tree prunings awaiting the verge green waste collection and shredded them (I invested in a second-hand shredder, so much fun);
  • I spotted another neighbour raking leaves to throw in the bin and gave him a bucket to fill for my compost;
  • I’ve updated my address on sharewaste.com to receive food scraps from neighbours – no takers yet but I’m sure they will come.

One bin quickly filled up, and I’ve now set up four bins. Two at the back, and two at the front. The two at the front are accessible for the neighbours to pop in their excess waste.

(FYI – I got all my compost bins second-hand, and three of them were free. Two were gifts, one was a score from my local Buy Nothing group and one I purchased via Gumtree.)

What’s so great about compost?

Ah, I’m glad you asked!

Good soil is a mix of organic matter, water, minerals, sand, clay, insects and microorganisms all supporting one another and helping plants to grow. Too much clay and the soil gets waterlogged; too much sand and the water drains away too quickly.

My soil is almost entirely sand. There’s next-to-no clay, and very little organic matter. Adding compost increases the organic matter, improves the soil structure and holds water in the soil, allowing nutrients to dissolve. It creates an environment for insects and microorganisms to thrive, and plants to grow.

If you think about nature, trees and bushes and plants are dropping leaves and small branches all the time. These leaves sit above the roots and break down (compost) in situ. They protect the soil from the sun, and trap moisture when rain falls. Animals come to eat berries and add manure to the tree roots. That’s composting, the way nature does it.

And if you think of most urban gardens, there are very few trees. If any leaves drop, they are usually raked up and not allowed to return to the soil. Lawn might look green – although it takes a lot of water and nutrients to keep it that way – but underneath, there’s not much going on.

Compost bins are replicating and speeding up what happens in nature, and providing that same resource to be added to the soil. With compost that we create ourselves, we get to choose where it goes and how we use it.

Compost does add nutrients to the soil, but it tends not to be nutrient-rich (most bags of compost will have slow-release fertilizer added for this reason). You only get out what you put in – so if your compost is made up of shredded paper, dry leaves and grass clippings, it will be teaming with life (microbes and insects) but won’t be high in nutrients.

This is fine when you’re growing flowers, or plants that don’t need a lot of nutrients, but isn’t so great for ‘hungry’ plants like vegetables – especially if you’d like a good crop.

If you’re composting food scraps, coffee grounds and adding seaweed and manure, it’s going to be better – but with the hungriest crops there may still be a need to add more nutrients (especially in nutrient-poor soils like mine).

For now, I’m not worried about the specifics of the soil. I haven’t planned exactly what I’m planting where, so my compost is for the basics: adding carbon, retaining water, and supporting life.

Up next: planning out the garden (and designing for the climate).

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have compost bins, and how do you use your compost? Do you utilize any interesting ‘waste’ when filling up your bins? Do you live in Perth and struggle with overcoming the sandpit? Anything you’d like to know more about? Please share in the comments below!

Zero waste gardening: turning lawn into food, starting with compost, from Treading My Own Path | Less waste, less stuff, sustainable living. Grow food not lawns, edible gardens, how to compost, composting tips, how to create good soil, reducing food waste, how to grow vegetables, soil science, what does compost do, urban permaculture, permaculture gardening, green living, climate action, growing food. More at https://treadingmyownpath.com
23 replies
  1. desdevoogd
    desdevoogd says:

    So exciting! I’m about to do the same thing, on the other side of the world. First thing I did on our new property was setting up a compost heap . Glad I’m not the only one.

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      You’ve got to start with compost! (Even though, you really want to start with plants!) I did buy a few seedlings – I’ve got some pots and a small raised garden bed which I brought with me, so I wanted to put a few things in for summer – but without compost or good (any?!) soil it is a challenge to grow things. I’m looking forward to the first rains – hopefully I will have done the work and I can go crazy planting all the things!

      Reply
  2. Ali
    Ali says:

    Grass still pulls carbon into the soil. So while you still have your grass, grow it as long as possible before mowing it – deeper stonger root systems store more carbon and more grass to compost. Get chickens if you are allowed them in your suburb best compost makers ever. Read The soil will save us – How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet by Kirsten Ohlsen. A very hope filled book with exampled of how people are re-mediating soil and drawing down carbon

    Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Ali, I have a manual push mower (second-hand purchase) for the grass so I can’t allow it to get too long – that thing is hard work! But I didn’t feel right using petrol to keep it short, and I wouldn’t have anywhere to store a mower anyway. Whilst I’ve got the lawn, I’m doing my best to keep it alive, that’s all I can do! I’m hoping most of it will be gone in the next few months…

      Thanks for the tip. I’ve heard of this but not read it, I’ll see if the library has it! Sounds excellent!

      Reply
    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Yep, that is definitely something we do at the community orchard – and it will be in my garden once there is actually something to chop and drop! At the community orchard I planted Acacia acuminata, fast-growing (like, crazy fast, and nitrogen fixing as a bonus) for exactly that reason. Undecided what to do here yet!

      Reply
  3. Alyson
    Alyson says:

    Hi Lindsay. If you (or anyone else) want to build up topsoil you should watch the YouTube video ‘No-Till on the Plains 2019 Christine Jones Community Tipping Point’. It will absolutely blow you away!

    Reply
  4. Anita
    Anita says:

    Great news! Gardening certainly does tie in with the Zero Waste idea.

    I love your ideas about sourcing material for your compost.
    You have probably also heard of Lasagna gardening. If you can source some cardboards (bike shop…) and some horse manure you can directly start with preparing a garden bed.

    Good luck! You will have great results in the end. Gardening in my zone (Southern Germany) is much harder (shorter growing seasons, less sun intensity) but I can eat from the garden almost daily: now in our Winter some frozen veggies, some herbs, a preserve (jam), honey from our bees or eggs from our chickens – and my garden seems smaller than yours.

    If you haven’t done yet, check out “Humans who grow food” (FB) from your local area for more inspirations.

    Reply
  5. Ken
    Ken says:

    I have 5 compost bins in my garden. I use also a ‘German mound’ approach also. With larger twigs and plant materials I spread in on the soil and cover with soil or compost and after a few months the larger bits are composted. Are you planning to start a grass pile? Just have the grass downwards and a really good soil will appear as if by magic.

    Reply
  6. Richard Dobson
    Richard Dobson says:

    I’m keen on more people composting their organic matter – or passing it on to be composted. I love the idea of leaving bins outside for neighbours to put their organic matter in (it currently all goes to landfill). I live in Peru, so I would have to chain and lock them to the fence, to stop them being stolen, and even then that might not be fail-safe :-(

    Reply
  7. Virginia K
    Virginia K says:

    I wish you all the best with this new endeavor. We have four compost bins, a heavy clay soil and even after 16 years it is still challenging to grow anything in. We have decided to cut back on growing our own vegetables because the bugs get far too much. Fruit fly is a bane for tomatoes and we have tried every sort imaginable but the little what its still decide to try them out. The heat has caused the vegetables to bolt as well as the herbs. In the winter (here in Sydney its not that cold) we will do the beans and peas again and maybe spinach but nothing else. Instead we are converting our patch to lots more native bushes for the insects and birds. We are surrounded by neighbours who do not grow anything at all and all of them have cut down every tree and bush that was in their garden, I could weep buckets. At least your new neighbours seem onboard which is so wonderful. .

    Reply
  8. Melanie Hawkes
    Melanie Hawkes says:

    Love the idea and looking forward to your updates. I saw the film The Biggest Little Farm on Christmas Eve and what they achieved blew me away. I highly recommend it. Even though you won’t be farming on their scale, still could learn a lot from it! Especially about soil!

    Reply
  9. Susie - secondhandsusie.blogspot.com
    Susie - secondhandsusie.blogspot.com says:

    Ooo what a great space, front and back gardens!! I put raised beds in my front garden, and got rid of the lawn in the back garden by layering carboard, leaves, compost and bark chippings over it – it’s made really nice compost!

    I’m envious of your 4 compost bins, I’m sure you’ll have lots of compost in no time!

    If you’re looking for inspiration, I really like Morag Gamble’s youtube videos of setting up a no dig garden :)

    Reply
  10. Meriam
    Meriam says:

    How exciting! I’m renting in the Perth area and I have no idea what to grow in this sandy soil at all. I’m looking forward to your garden updates for some inspiration.

    Reply
  11. Ann
    Ann says:

    We’re also in Perth & had two dug in compost bins at our old house that literally produced what felt like nothing….switched to two big tumbling bins at the new house and bingo – lots of compost being produced with virtually the same amount of inputs! Plus as a snake catcher I’ve moved more than my fair share of slitheries out of dug in compost bins for people as they are warm and if not used constantly attract mice – so figure the tumbling ones are safer as no mice or snakes!

    Reply
  12. julia
    julia says:

    We moved four months ago and I am also just starting out as a gardener, though I’ve been composting food scraps for years. I have started with seeds from the Cairns Library’s seed library and local Seed Savers groups. These are free food seeds but they come in little plastic ziplock bags, which I suppose I can return when I have my own seeds to donate back. I am concerned about buying seedlings in plastic pots/trays because I’m told that nurseries do not take back the plastic pots. However, I have returned plastic pots to stallholders at the market where I bought herbs in the past.

    I read that it’s best to start with salad greens because they are easy. So far I am growing rocket and parsley successfully and have a bean plant growing well. I planted the seeds in empty Who Gives A Crap toilet rolls to help me keep track of them. Position in the garden seems to be key.

    Reply
  13. Sandra Heliz
    Sandra Heliz says:

    Dear Lindsay, congratulations on your new home! And the garden, a wonderful improvement!
    I would like to contribute with some comments on the elimination of grass as a previous step for food production. As I also decided, finally! this year, to do so, I did my research and found … No Dig Gardening.
    In short: never root up, don’t break the ground or dig. Just chop and drop. Add a layer of cardboard first (not mandatory but good), then a very thick layer of mulch, then a compost layer and then just and let it stand. And, season after season, more and more mulching, forever. The plants are prepared in sowing trays or pots and at their time, planted by gently opening spaces in the mulch and adding a little more of it on top to protect the compost. This results in constantly amended and undisturbed soils , rich in microorganisms never attacked or exposed, less evaporation and erosion.
    AND LESS WORK TIME AND EFFORT.
    I’m on that road right now. Much nicer than the traditional method!
    Tip: Charles Dowding’s website and his YouTube channel. https://charlesdowding.co.uk/
    Greetings from Argentina!

    Reply

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