How to get started growing vegetables…fast

At the start of the year, I started a project to transform my front-and-back lawn into a productive food garden. I got the compost cranking early on, and four chicken ladies moved in to help with pest control, weed suppression and providing manure (oh, and eggs). I’ve been slowly working on a garden plan, and my next steps were sorting out reticulation (to water the garden) and planting trees.

However, then life as we know it turned upside down, and priorities shifted.

In light of the continuing food shortages in the stores and impending isolation, not to mention that a lot of food sold here on the west coast is reliant on trucks arriving from the east coast (which feels fragile with all this uncertainty), I decided that growing vegetables was my new priority.

It seems that growing vegetables is everybody’s new priority, as veggie seedlings and packets of seeds have become the new toilet roll – selling out everywhere.

If you’ve decided you want to start growing food – whether you’re not sure where (or how) to start, or you just panic bought a heaps of seeds or seedlings and you’re not quite sure what to do with them, I thought I’d talk you through the process.

How to set up a vegetable garden…fast

One thing I want to be clear about is setting up a vegetable garden fast is not the cheapest way to do it. Fast will cost you more. As just one example, seedlings cost more than packets of seeds, and packets of seeds from a store cost more than swapping saved seeds with a neighbour.

As another example, making compost is cheaper than buying a bag from the store…. but if you don’t have a compost bin set up, you’re looking for at least 8 weeks before it’s ready. And that’s assuming you have enough stuff to fill it straightaway.

We are in unusual times, and what we might do in “normal” circumstances isn’t necessarily what we are doing now.

Fast costs more. But if your priority is securing a food supply for you, your family and your neighbours, or avoiding the stores as much as possible, the cost might be worth it.

Planting your veggie garden – containers or in-ground?

There are pros and cons to every option, and some plants will do better in one or the other.

In-ground beds

This is the cheapest option by far, and in-ground beds are less likely to dry out or become waterlogged than containers. Plus, worms and other good guys are free to come and go. In a hot, dry climate like Perth, these work well because they lose less water than growing plants in containers.

On the downside, they aren’t great if you have mobility issues, and your dog, other pets or young children may not understand the difference between lawn and vegetable beds.

With in-ground beds, you do need to know how good your soil is. When I lived in the UK and had an allotment, I could put anything into the ground, add nothing to the soil, and get a great crop. If I plant out seeds or seedlings straight into the ground in Perth, they’d shrivel and die (or at least, not get very big). There are various amendments I’d need to add to my beds – compost, clay (I live on a sandpit), rock minerals, and potentially other things too.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, and you’re keen to get your veggie garden started fast, I’d suggest going with containers or raised beds and buying soil. If you have a little more time, I’d suggest finding some local gardeners to chat to (either garden groups on Facebook, or even the staff at the local garden centre) about what they’d recommend for where you live.

Raised garden beds

The cost of these can vary substantially. Brand new beds made from colourbond steel or wood, or made by a tradesperson are at the top end; second-hand beds can be sourced for less (they are usually easy to track down on online classified sites like Gumtree), and at the bottom end, people make their own with salvaged materials and offcuts.

One advantage of the metal ones is they are lightweight and easy to move – so if you find you’ve put them in the wrong spot, or decide down the track you no longer need them and want to sell them, this is fairly straightforward. Wooden beds are more difficult to move once in place, as are brick/slab beds.

In colder climates, raised garden beds can work well for crops that like warm summers (aubergines, tomatoes, peppers etc). In hot climates like Perth, they tend to dry out, particularly metal ones, that get hot (we’d be better with sunken beds, really) and aren’t ideal for the climate. They might be a good option if you struggle with bending and kneeling, or you suspect in-ground beds will be trampled by dogs and children.

Raised garden beds also need to be filled with soil: the bigger the bed, the more soil, which is another expense. There are ways to save on the cost of soil, if you go down this route:

  • Rather than buying bags of soil, find a local soil yard where you can buy bulk soil. you may be able to bring a trailer and load up, or you may be able to order a soil delivery. It is much more cost-effective than buying bags (plus, no waste).
  • Buy soil suitable for growing vegetables, and buy the best quality you can afford. When it comes to soil, you get what you pay for.
  • Vegetables only have roots that are 25-30cm deep, so only buy good soil that will fill your beds 25-30cm deep. If you have deeper beds, fill the base with something else. I’ve seen people use empty milk bottles (because they have square sides they work pretty well), or you could fill with street tree mulch. If you have to buy soil, buy the cheapest soil for the bottom, and put the good stuff on the last 20-30cm only.
  • If you live in Perth, you can find bulk soil at Green Life Soil Co or Carlisle soil yard. Search for ‘landscaping supplies’ or ‘soil yard’ to find options near you. You can order street tree mulch Australia-wide from mulchnet.com.

Containers

If you’re short on space or have a tight budget, containers are a good option. They can be anything from purpose-made plant pots to old wine barrels, to repurposed olive oil drums or plastic tubs. They need less soil than a garden bed.

However, some plants are challenging to grow in containers, and whatever you do plant will need more looking after – watering more often and feeding the soil.

If you’re planning to grow in containers, check how big the plants will get and ensure you’ve chosen a big enough container – or you won’t get a crop. Lettuce, radish and spring onions won’t take up much space; cauliflower, broccoli and courgette/zucchini get huge, and you’ll need a big pot for just one plant.

Grow food in the right location

Vegetables need a certain number of hours of sunlight to grow. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, capsicums, squash, courgettes and cucumbers need full sun and lots of it. Kale, lettuce and spinach will still grow well with less sun.

When planning on where to put your containers or beds, you need to choose a spot that’s best for them rather than best for you. Full sun is ideal in winter (when daylight hours are less), afternoon shade is good in summer. The sun is also a lot lower in the sky in winter, meaning shadows from buildings and trees are cast a lot lower.

In an ideal world, planning a garden, you’d map out the sun patterns for spring, summer, autumn and winter (so 4 times a year) in morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon. It’s easy to figure out where the sun is tracking in the sky, but how far the fence shadow or the neighbour’s tree reaches on the shortest day is harder to figure out. There are suntracking apps, but I prefer the slow approach. Usually.

Examples of shadow differences at the same time of day, three months apart (summer and autumn):

If you head outside today, in March, and make a note of where the shadows are, that’s a helpful start. Shadows will get shorter in summer and longer in winter. If you’re heading into winter and notice the shadows are already covering the site where you want to plant, it might not be ideal. If you’re heading into summer, there will be less shadow as the sun gets higher.

It’s an important consideration with in-ground beds, but matters less with containers, as you can move them. If you have the option, orient garden beds directly north (in the southern hemisphere) or directly south (in the northern hemisphere).

Choosing plants (seeds versus seedlings)

If you’re wanting to start a veggie garden quickly, you’ll want to choose plants that grow quickly and can be eaten quickly.

Vegetables that grow quickly and can be planted now (in spring in the northern hemisphere and autumn in the southern hemisphere) include:

  • Carrots
  • Salad leaves – so many different varieties to choose from
  • Greens – kale, Swiss chard, spinach
  • Lettuce (which are really salad leaves left to grow into full-size lettuce)
  • Beans (bush or dwarf beans grow faster than other types)
  • Spring onions
  • Beetroot
  • Radishes (one of the fastest growing vegetables)

Generally speaking, the fast-growing varieties I’ve mentioned above are easy to grow from seed, and much more affordable this way. It’s better to avoid root vegetables as seedlings as transplanting can damage the roots. Plus, one root vegetable seedling will give you one root vegetable (so one carrot seedling will give you one carrot, compared to something like a bean plant, where one plant will give many pods).

Seedlings are more established plants, so you’ve got a headstart on the growing process. You might like to buy lettuce or spring onion seedlings, or slower growing vegetables (pepper/capsicum seedlings will save you a few weeks of growing time). If there are multiple plants in each cell, you’ll need to thin them out or they will suffocate one another and not grow well.

If you can’t get seeds or seedlings at the garden centre, online gardening groups are a great place to swap seeds. Even if you can’t go out, members will often post seeds to you if you cover the postage (I’ve done this in the past).

You can even plant seeds you find in your pantry – such as coriander, mustard, amaranth or parsley seeds.

Whatever you choose, ensure you plant according to the instructions (and if there are no instructions on the packet, check online). Some plants – like broccoli or cauliflower – need a large space to grow, even though the seeds are tiny.

Start small, and learn as you go

You’ll learn much faster once you’ve started, so don’t try to read everything beforehand. Start, but start small.

The way I learned to garden was sticking some seeds and plants in my allotment, and seeing what happened. Then, as I noticed issues (seeds not germinating, or yellow leaves, or plants being munched by birds) I’d look up solutions. Some seeds can take weeks to germinate (others are fast, so you may have a dodgy packet of seeds), yellow leaves can indicate a nutrient is missing from the soil, or perhaps there is too much watering, and netting or cut up plastic bottles can protect seeds from birds (in the UK, birds would always eat my beans – but here in Perth the birds aren’t interested).

If you really don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do too much too soon. Plant a few things one week, and a few things the next, and so on. Better this than spending a fortune buying a raised garden bed and planting hundreds of dollars worth of plants, only to realise down the track you put the bed in completely the wrong spot, and discover all the plants you chose are frost-sensitive after they are wiped out overnight.

There is so much information out there. Books, YouTube videos, blog posts, social media pages and groups. Where possible, try to find information that’s local to where you live. The people growing food where you live will know what pests are common, which varieties grow best, the weather patterns, what to plant right now, what you might need to add to the soil… and where to find what you need.

Growing food is fun, a useful skill to have, and infinitely rewarding. It’s easy to forget the problems of the day when you’ve got your hands deep in soil. And there is nothing (nothing!) that tastes better than a homegrown carrot. Not even chocolate. Promise.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you starting to try growing food for the first time? Are you stuck or have any questions? Have you been growing food for a while and have any tips for newbie growers? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Why I’m Keeping Chickens (for Zero Waste)

I’ve loved the idea of having chickens since my days of renting an upstairs apartment. I was hopeful in my last place that it might be possible, but being a strata (7 units on a single block with 7 owners and opinions – plus tenants in the mix) there needed to be consensus, and alas – there was not.

Since I moved, chickens have been back on the plan, and three weeks ago, they moved in.

Now clearly I’m no chicken expert (!) – although side note, I did read a lot of books on the subject first, more on that in a second – but I thought it might be interesting for you if I explained why I’ve got chickens, how chickens fit with a zero waste lifestyle and what you might like to do if you’re thinking of getting chickens, too.

Why chickens?

Lots of reasons, actually! Chickens have a lot going for them.

Reducing food waste.

Chickens are great munchers of food scraps. They can’t eat everything – they won’t eat rotten or mouldy food (and it is dangerous to feed them this) – but they’ll eat cores and seeds and rinds and stems and bits that might otherwise head to the compost caddy.

Pest control.

Chickens are omnivores and will eat all kinds of insects: grasshoppers, cockroaches and caterpillars, for example. They will actually also kill and eat mice. Because I want to grow food in my back garden, chickens can help keep the bad insects under control.

They are also great for managing fruit fly, which live in the soil for part of their life cycle (the larva and pupa stages) and can wreck fruit crops. Not that I have any fruit trees producing fruit yet, but I will.

Lawn control.

Chickens eat grass. A flock of chickens can easily destroy a lawn – which in my case, is exactly what I want. Much better that it gets eaten than sent to landfill. As well as nibbling the tips they dig around and scratch it up (and poo on it) so it doesn’t stand a chance. Hurrah!

(The bit of lawn I do plan to keep is definite chicken no-go zone. For obvious reasons.)

Chicken manure.

All this eating has to end up somewhere! Chicken poop is high in nitrogen and good for the garden. It needs composting before adding to plants (it can burn young roots).

Chickens make great pets.

I love the idea of having chickens around, rustling around the garden and foraging for insects and eating my weeds. They are much more self-sufficient than dogs or cats.

Eggs.

I left this until last because although it might seem to be the most obvious, there are plenty of other reasons to keep chickens. I’m not particularly fussed about the egg part, as I don’t buy eggs as part of my grocery shop (I occasionally eat eggs from friends with chickens, and sometimes if I order breakfast out).

Most of the eggs I get I intend to give away to family and friends that might otherwise buy eggs. I’ve eaten some too. I’d rather use them than waste them, but I still don’t eat that many.

I know vegans who keep chickens and eat their eggs only (because they know how the chickens are fed and treated ). I also know vegans who keep chickens and leave the eggs for nature (chickens will actually eat their own eggs), but this works better if you’ve got more space. Broken stinky egg in the coop isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

Just to be clear, unless you have a rooster as part of the flock (which isn’t necessary and isn’t allowed in most urban areas), the eggs are infertile. A chicken’s shelled menstruation, as a vegan once told me. So eating eggs doesn’t kill unborn chicks.

Getting started: do some chicken research

Personally, I’m not into ‘winging it’ (no pun intended) when it comes to keeping live animals. I’d rather have a good grasp of the basics and have an idea at least of where to look and where to go if I run into problems. Of course we can’t learn everything beforehand, but having a basic understanding goes a long way.

Read chicken books

I literally borrowed every book in the library to do with keeping chickens (and one of keeping quail) as well as borrow another from a friend. There was lots of stuff in there that was irrelevant for me, such as raising chicks, showing chickens at competitions and – no thanks – how to eat your chicken (I don’t eat meat anyway, but eating your pets seems a little wrong).

But there was lots of useful tips too, and it was helpful (honestly!) to read conflicting opinions on things.

If you’d like to read up on keeping chickens, I found these three books to be the best:

Backyard chickens: how to keep happy hens, by Dave Ingham (Australia)

Chickens: the essential guide to choosing and keeping happy, healthy hens, by Suzie Baldwin (UK)

Keeping chickens: getting the best from your chickens, by Jeremy Hobson (UK)

(All were available at my library.)

Find people in your neighbourhood with chickens

I have lots of friends who keep chickens, so this was easy for me. One in particular (who has been keeping chickens for 5 years, and has a flock of 12) lives two streets away.

It’s handy to have people in your nieghbourhood to ask questions, and also to pop round and look at their setup (they can give you advice about predators, sourcing things like food and advising on good local vets in a way that a book never could).

If you’re not fortunate enough to already know someone with chickens (and even if you are), there are also online communities.

Join an online chicken community

There are heaps of forums dedicated to keeping chickens, and also plenty of Facebook groups so connect with people this way. (If you don’t have local friends with chickens yet, try connecting with local owners here.)

Forums and groups are a great way to ask questions and find knowledge; however it’s not always obvious which advice is right or who to trust. It also depends on the question and the consequence of wrong advice. Particularly with sick chickens, the advice of a vet will be better than trying a homemade remedy from somebody you don’t know whose chickens you’ve never seen.

Talks and workshops

It goes without saying: if you can get to a talk or workshop by a chicken owner, you’ll learn heaps. I went to one by a vet, and it was really helpful – there was a big focus on chicken welfare with lots I hadn’t considered before.

Getting ready for chickens: setting up home

There are a more things few things to consider before actually getting chickens and bringing them home. Including their home!

Rules and regulations

You’ll want to check with your local council whether chickens are allowed, how many you can keep and if there are any other restrictions (such as being a certain distance from the house, or away from fences).

The fences rule might seem arbitrary but actually, a lot of fences in Australia were sprayed with toxic chemicals such as Dieldrin right up to the 1970s. It’s worth getting eggs tested if you intend to eat them to check that your soil isn’t contaminated – whether with Dieldrin or something else. If it is, there are remedial measures (removing and replacing the soil, or building a concrete base for your coop).

Choosing a suitable home

It’s important to choose a home that’s suitable for the climate, and predator proof.

I’m in the fairly unusual situation of living in a suburb that doesn’t have foxes. Fox-proofing my chicken coop isn’t necessary, but for most people, it’s an absolute must. Some people may have to think about snake-proofing, too, and also birds of prey.

The only threat where I live is hawks, and they tend to only take chicks and maybe young ones, but not full-grown hens.

Ideally, chickens need shelter from the elements, a dark space to lay eggs, and somewhere secure and well ventilated to sleep. The need shade, access to dirt for dust bathing and also space in the sun.

I’ve read that chickens can manage on 1m2 per chicken. Manage maybe, but when you factor in all these things, plus the fact they will poop in this space too, more space is really better. Allowing them to graze somewhere else during the day makes for more sanitary conditions and happier chickens.

It’s possible to buy coops or make your own. I was very stressed about this, not having any skills to make my own but really wanting to find something second-hand over buying new. Even with plans, I think a DIY coop would take me months to build.

My prayers were answered when one of my readers (Alison) saw I was reading chicken books, and donated her second-hand but unused coop.

This is Alison’s Retirement Home for Second-Chance Chickens:

Another friend lent me some fencing so that I could create a run for during the day to extend the space. She also lent me a couple of feeders to use, and gave me some crumble (a type of chicken food) to get my flock started.

Honestly, I think she was impatient I was taking so long! I don’t like to rush these things…

Bringing chickens home

The books all write about going to reputable breeders, but I only want to rehome or rescue chickens (I don’t want to add more animals to the world). Factory farmed (battery) rescues aren’t recommended for newbies like me (both the books and an experienced friend told me this) and so I rehomed some chickens from a family who had a change in circumstance and could no longer keep them.

I took my friend with me when I got them (honestly, I’d never have caught them without her!) and she gave them the once over so that if there was anything that needed treating, we could deal with it. I wouldn’t know what to look for. One came with lice and mites, but we’re working on that and she has a clean area to dust bathe (which suffocates them).

I only planned on getting three, but there was a cute little teenager there who I couldn’t resist bringing with me…

She’s called Alison, and she is an araucana. The other three are all different breeds.

One is an ISA brown called Billina, who is the boss of the flock, mostly because she is the bravest. The others run for cover when I come, but not Billina. She trots up to see what’s on offer.

The black chicken is an Australian breed called an Australorp. She is huge with a black beady eye and she is called Dark Emu. Despite her size she is scared of everything. Half the time I think she has escaped because she blends in so well with the shadows.

The chicken with the collar is a welsummer called BossyBoots, mostly because she is bossy even though she is not the boss. She pecks at poor Alison (definite mean streak, this one). She is also extremely loud, announcing when she (or anyone) has laid an egg – and sometimes announcing even when there is no egg. People can hear her on the next street (I wish I was joking).

And that’s the flock! They’ve been here three weeks, and so far so good. It’s amazing to discover all their personalities and I’m very fond of them all already. Looking forward to more chicken adventures as the months unfold…

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have chickens? Tell me more! Are you thinking about getting them? Do you have any questions about keeping chickens, or any advice for newbie chicken keepers like me? Let’s get the conversation started: share your thoughts below!

Reducing Food Waste with Worm Farms: Trialing the Hungry Bin

Zero waste is all about circular living. It’s often talked about in terms of the circular economy (which is the ideal and the one we want to work towards) as opposed to the linear economy (which is the one we have now).

The idea is that materials and resources should cycle, being reused or repurposed or reshaped again and again.

Circular living supports local solutions, which means less packaging, distribution costs and transport emissions; and more connection and resilience within our local communities.

Anything we can do at home, or within our street, or within our suburb, the better.

With this in mind, let’s talk about food waste.

In Australia almost 40% of everything we throw in our landfill bins in food waste. Even more scary, I think, is that 25% of what the average household throws away is food that could have been eaten.

Even if we are super diligent, there’s always going to be food waste that can’t be eaten. Onion peels, lemon skins, cores, seeds, pips, stalks, outer leaves, and general bad bits.

If we want to reduce our environmental impact, processing our food scraps at home is a great solution.

I love it when a problem has multiple solutions, and food waste is exactly that. There’s so many ways we can deal with food scraps at home. No “one size fits all solution” – different methods that work for different locations, spaces and households.

There’s composting (yes, regardless whether or not you have space for your own compost bin), there’s bokashi, and there’s worm farms.

Worm farms were the first thing I tried when I went zero waste, and over the years I’ve successfully used a number of different worm farms: from polystyrene box worm farms that you can DIY yourself, and degassed fridge worm farms (which work like polystyrene box worm farms, but on a bigger scale) to the black plastic worm cafes that can be purchased from hardware stores (or even better, found on the verge).

Over the last three months I’ve been trialing a new design of worm farm: the Hungry Bin, and it’s my favourite so far.

I came across the Hungry Bin worm farm because of my friend Josie (who came across them first). She was so impressed with it as a way to effectively process food scraps for her family of five, that she decided to distribute the Hungry Bins here in Western Australia. She set up her business Pearthworms selling the worms farms last year (in 2017).

Pearthworms were kind enough to loan me a Hungry Bin worm farm to test drive. I’m always keen to learn more about ways for households to reduce their own waste, and love innovative products that make it easier. Wins all round!

Here’s the lowdown.

The Hungry Bin Worm Farm: Composting Food Scraps at Home

At first glance the Hungry Bin might look like a regular flip-top waste bin, but there’s actually a fair bit of thought and engineering that’s gone into the design. It is designed and made in New Zealand.

Firstly, it actually packs down pretty small. The bin is actually made of two parts that lock together, and one fits inside the other, making it a fairly small package. The bin itself is made from UV resistant plastic with recycled content, and is expected to last for 25 years. The packaging is minimal, with a cardboard outer, and none of the parts come packaged in additional plastic.

Once clipped together, the bin is filled with bedding, then food scraps and worms are added to the top. Worms remain near the top, gobbling up the food scraps and creating worm castings, a nutrient-rich medium. More food waste gets added on top, the worms move up to find them, and the castings naturally accumulate underneath.

The tapered design enhances the efficiency of the system. Composting worms are surface feeders, and food scraps are added at the top, so keeping the worms near the surface increases the efficiency. The top is the widest point of the whole bin, and the bin can hold 16,000 worms and process 2kg of food scraps per day.

Because the bin tapers, the worm castings naturally compress at the bottom. This encourages the worms to move to the surface and also ensures that when the bottom is removed, the entire contents don’t fall out.

The reason you’d want to remove the bottom is to get your hands on the worm castings. They can be used to grow seedlings, added to pots or to existing plants or dug into the garden. You simply unclip the tray, scoop out the worm castings and reattach.

The bin has a tray that sits underneath, that collects the worm juice. This can be used like a fertiliser.

I trialled mine indoors, but they are intended as much for outdoor use.

Pearthworms and the Hungry Bin

As I mentioned before, I’m a fan of local solutions. Pearthworms is a local, Perth-based business, and they intend to stay that way. They only supply Hungry Bins to people in Perth and Western Australia. With 1.3 million people living in Perth, and probably that same number of cafes and takeaway food outlets (okay, I’m kidding, but there’s a lot), there’s huge potential to make a massive difference without needing to look further afield.

Pearthworms are keen to focus not just on individual households, but also commercial venues: restaurants, cafes (the picture above is Josie with the two bins she has installed at Stackwood Cafe in Fremantle), businesses, community gardens – anywhere that is creating food waste.

Pearthworms also supply happy, healthy worms with the Hungry Bin (Eisenia fetida worms, and 2000 of them, to be exact). It’s easy to imagine these worms would just come in a plastic bag, but no – they come in a natural hessian pouch sewn from an old coffee sack.

Even better, once the worms are added to the Hungry Bin, the sack can be cut in half along the seam to make a cover that perfectly fits the inside of the Hungry Bin. (The cover is important as worms don’t like light.)

My experience with the Hungry Bin in the three months that I’ve had it has been great. It’s dealt with far more food scraps than my other worm farms can manage; it doesn’t smell; it’s so easy to use; it’s much less sensitive to extremes of temperature than other commercial worm farms; and once I get my first tray of castings, my garden is going to love me.

(Plus, this worm farm is going to churn out worm castings for 25 years. That’s an epic deal in the long run, if you think about how many trips to and from the hardware store that would be saving, buying plastic bags of seed raising mix and compost.)

It is a more expensive option (especially when compared to the DIY polystyrene box worm farm approach) but then again, DIY isn’t everyone’s thing. Different systems suit different households, different lifestyles, and different budgets.

The important thing is that we stop sending our food scraps to landfill. How we do it doesn’t really matter. There are plenty of solutions, we just need to find the one that works for us.

If you’d like to chat to Josie in person to find out more or see a Hungry Bin worm farm in action, Pearthworms currently have a stall every Saturday morning at the Subiaco Farmers Markets. Alternatively, their website is pearthworms.com.au.

How We Started an Urban Food Tree Project

Ever since we first moved to our suburb 18 months ago, I had my eye on the rather sad looking patch of land at the corner of the street.  Despite the weeds and bare nothingness (excluding the few surviving melaleuca trees around the edge), all I could see was the epic potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn this barren, weedy patch of land into a thriving community orchard?

My neighbours, and one in particular, shared my enthusiasm and vision. Almost as soon as we moved in, the conversation began. At the start of this year, the actual work began, to turn the conversation into reality.

The Initial Idea: Creating a Food Tree Project

Rather than planting an orchard where the goal is to maximise production, we wanted a balance. Growing fruit trees alongside natives and groundcovers creates a more aesthetically pleasing, biodiverse and dynamic ecosystem that will be more interesting to walk through, creates more learning opportunities and is more resilient to pests.

The name “Food Tree Project” rather than an “Urban Orchard” reflects that our goals were broader than simply planting fruit-bearing trees and producing food. The permaculture concept of “Food Forest” didn’t really fit either, because although I followed permaculture principles in the designing, there are too many human inputs to be a true permaculture food forest.

Food Tree Project felt best.

Our Vision:

Community: to provide a space for collaboration, learning, volunteering and sharing; to encourage residents to learn more about growing food and have access to locally grown fruit; and create an attractive and sheltered resting spot close to the train station.

Environment: to increase tree coverage, canopy cover and greenery; to improve the streetscape close to the train station; and to increase biodiversity and provide habitat for birds.

The Plan:

The plan was to plant around 40 fruit trees of varying species on the unused space on the corner of two streets in our suburb, with wide pathways between the trees to allow and encourage public access for community members to see the trees and learn about them.

We also planned to plant native species on the border to encourage biodiversity, and interplant nitrogen-fixing acacias and other ground covers to create a green space between the trees.

The property next to the block has a bore, we are extending the reticulation so that the site will have water access in summer (this is essential in Perth – no water means no trees).

Goals of the Food Tree Project:

There are a number of goals we hope to achieve with this project.

  • Create a welcoming and shady community space by planting trees, and to provide access for residents to locally grown fruit.
  • Provide learning opportunities for interested residents on growing their own food and looking after fruit trees, and to provide volunteering opportunities.
  • To provide a demonstration project and framework that other volunteer groups can take to their local council to plant more trees on underutilised spaces in their urban environment.

The First Step: Getting Council Approval

The scariest step is probably asking for permission. Have you ever heard the expression “ask for forgiveness, not permission?” If we asked the council for permission and they said no, it would be hard to go ahead and do it anyway.

Should we ask for permission, or just do it and hope they didn’t mind?

However, we want this project to be an example of what can be done, a demonstration project to encourage others to approach their councils to plant on underutilized spaces. That meant going through the official channels. So we put together our vision and arranged to meet a council member on the site to discuss our plans.

We met on the site and talked through our ideas. We asked what restrictions they had (for example, banned or unwanted species) and were willing to listen to any needs that they had. I’d recommend meeting in person rather than chatting via email. It’s so much easier to connect with someone when you are face-to-face.

We agreed to put together a plan of the site detailing the trees to formalise the project. I took a screenshot of the Google arial view of the block, then pasted that into Powerpoint. I drew lines over the roads, paths and boundaries, and put cloud shapes over the trees, then deleted the photograph to keep the outline.

The initial outline drawn using Google Arial View and Powerpoint…

…and one of the working drafts (of which there were several!)

On one hand, we were lucky that the council were so supportive. But on the other hand, it wasn’t really luck. My co-conspirator neighbour had been working with the council on a community sump revegetation project for a couple of years prior to this, and had been able to build the relationship with the people there. He had demonstrated his ability to listen, to work together with them to resolve disputes, and show responsibility.

Although it felt like we got approval very quickly, my neighbour joked that the work actually began in 2012. In truth, it probably did.

Step 2: Formalising The Project

As well as submitting a plan for the tree planting, we also had to submit a pest control plan detailing how we would manage the site and deal with pest issues. For this, I referred to the council website and Department of Agriculture website to find out current recommended procedures.

Initially, the plan was to lease the site from the council. This would have required insurance, which we were planning to get through the local community garden (of which both my neighbour and I are members). There would have been a small annual cost for this.

In the end, the plans changed and there is no lease: the land remains under responsibility of the council. Whilst this may seem less secure, there are advantages. The site actually had a road running through it prior to 1990 before the road layouts were changed, and there was road base right through the land. The council came with a bobcat to dig out the road base, which might not have happened had there been a lease in place.

Funding Opportunities

Needing funds to purchase the trees and the reticulation, we approached the local football team (the West Coast Eagles). They have just moved to our suburb and are constructing a new training ground and stadium, and in the process angered the community greatly by chopping down 100 mature native trees.

As they emphasize their commitment to community in their media releases we thought it might be a project they would like to support.

Initially they seemed keen to sponsor our trees, but over time it became apparent that they had ulterior motives. The council had stipulated that all trees removed whilst building the training grounds must be replaced and maintained, and the Eagles were hoping that they could fund our trees as a cost cutting measure. (Funding a few $30 fruit trees would have saved them the cost of sourcing, planting and maintaining mature native trees.)

Without going into details, the Eagles were not transparent with us about this. When we realised (several months later) that, rather than supporting our project because they saw the value in investing in community, they were trying to get out of their responsibilities (clearly a small citrus tree is no replacement for a large gum tree), we decided not to pursue this further.

All the messing around meant time was ticking. It was now the start of winter and we urgently needed to plant the trees if they were to survive the summer.

Preparing the Site, Tree Purchasing and Getting the Community On Board

In short, we didn’t receive funding, and decided we would have to buy the trees, reticulation and soil amendments ourselves. We’d decided that the upcoming weekend would be perfect tree planting weather, and we began sourcing trees. My neighbour purchased seven citrus trees and I purchased another six trees, and we began setting the foundations for the project.

We planted the first few trees ourselves to get an idea of time and how best to do it all.

Next we put it out on the Buy Nothing Group that we were beginning a Food Tree Project in the area, and would anyone like to come and help us weed and plant?

And something wonderful happened.

People said yes, but many also asked us if they could donate a tree, or provide funding to purchase a tree. We hadn’t asked for money, but it was so humbling (and immensely appreciated) that our neighbours wanted to contribute financially.

One tree is not expensive (the costs varied from $20 to $70 depending on the species) but 40 trees adds up. Not to mention the reticulation costs, which my neighbour funded himself. When there’s a whole community on board, that changes things considerably. After our initial tree purchases, the others were paid for by the community.

It also showed us that people valued what we were doing, and wanted to be a part of it. (Thanks to Jayne, Deb, Miranda, Kath, Marisa, Lindi, Kate, Lana and Toni for your contributions.)

Just as importantly, people came to our busy bees. We weeded the rest of the site, dug holes, spread clay and compost and planted trees. Then we installed reticulation, and mulched the entire site. What could have taken us months was finished in a three weekends.

We now have most of the trees planted.

(If you’d like to know more about the project, I recorded a 20 minute video with some details of how we got the project going, and also a walk through of the site and the different trees that we have planted. You’ll find it on my Patreon page.)

What’s Next for the Urban Food Tree Project

Our biggest job is to ensure that the trees survive their first year in the hot Perth summer. With the reticulation in place, this shouldn’t be a big job, but it is a job nonetheless.

One thing we are doing now is establishing a community composting bank. We’ve put two huge compost bins on the site and plan to add to this as we find more suitable bins on Gumtree. If we can get all of our neighbours dropping good scraps off, we will have a rich supply of compost to feed the trees with. Plus it is another way to involve our neighbours with the project.

When autumn comes round I’m keen to work on the shrub layer and groundcover. Having sunk a lot into the project this year, we didn’t have the funds or the time to do this before now, and summer is not the time to start. We are keen to plant herbs and natives, and as the canopy layer grows these plants will have more chance of success.

At the moment the site looks a little barren, but by next year it should be completely transformed.

Now I’d love to hear from you! There’s so much more I could share about the project, so do you have any questions? Is there anything you’d like me to explain in more detail? Do you have any tips or suggestions for me, or experience with projects of your own? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below :)

10+ Practical Ideas for Eco-Friendly Plant Pots

I started my plastic-free life back in 2012 and my gardening life long before that. When it comes to plastic-free gardening, though, I’m still a relative newbie. I lived in an upstairs apartment for my first few zero waste years, so there was no garden to practice with.

I’ve been living in our new place, complete with garden, for over a year now, and there’s been plenty of opportunity to learn. I’ve come to realise that whilst plastic-free might be the goal, there is so much “waste” plastic that can be reused in the garden, that I’m more focused on zero waste (and reusing) than plastic-free.

I’d rather use what exists than purchase new “zero waste” items.

I thought I’d share some of my plastic-free and zero waste gardening tips, beginning with eco-friendly plant pots.

Choosing Eco-Friendly Plant Pots when Growing from Seed

The best way to avoid waste is to grow from seed. Saving your own seeds, and swapping seeds with others, is the best way to source seeds. However, it isn’t always practical. If you’re establishing a new garden, like I was, you’ll probably need to buy seeds.

However, before you go shopping, I’d recommend looking for local gardening groups and seed swaps, just in case. A few of our local libraries even offer seeds to “borrow” – the idea is that once you’ve planted them and have your own seeds, you return these to the library.

Some seeds can be sown directly in the ground, but most need planting into trays or pots before planting out.

Toilet rolls

Toilet rolls are the perfect size for seedlings, and you can fold one end over to make a base. However, if you have a productive garden, getting enough can be a challenge!

If you need more, Buy Nothing groups and Gumtree are a great way to find them. Similarly, if you don’t need your own, they are a great way to offload them to someone who does. Save them up until you have enough to entice someone to make the trip, and give them away.

It sounds bizarre, but if you look you’ll see that old toilet roll tube trading is a real thing! ;)

Newspaper Pots

My favourite way to make seedling pots is folding them, origami-style, using old newspaper (you can find DIY instructions for making seedling newspaper pots here). There’s no tape and no glue, no tools required and it takes less than a minute to make one.

I love these as, unlike toilet rolls, there’s no need to store them. Grab a couple of old newspapers and make everything you need in half an hour.

You can buy tools to make newspaper pots. They are usually made of wood, and to make the pot the newspaper is wrapped around a cylinder and pressing into an indented base (here’s an example of a wooden paper potter). Personally I think they are unnecessary, and as a minimalist I like to keep my tools to essentials only.

Wooden Seedling Flats

These are wooden boxes that are not compartmentalised, used for seed-raising. They are filled with soil and seeds sown, which can be transplanted once they’ve germinated.

Seedling flats can be made from softwood (like pine) or hardwood. If looked after properly and maintained, they can last several years. The most eco-friendly option are those made from reclaimed timber and offcuts.

Soil Blockers

Soil blockers are metal presses that allow you to press soil together to make cells to plant seeds without any other material. I first heard of soil blockers via Milkwood, and whilst I love the idea, I’m yet to give them a go. A friend has recently purchased one so I’m keen to test it out and will keep you posted.

Purpose-Bought Compostable Pots

It’s worth noting that ‘compostable’ is not the same as ‘biodegradable’. Compostable means it will break down in a compost bin or soil into humus (natural material) with no toxic residue. Biodegradable means it will be broken down by bacteria under certain conditions (often tested in a lab).

A ‘biodegradable’ label does not guarantee it will be broken down into constituent parts, only that it will break down small enough that it cannot be seen. It does not guarantee there will be no toxic residue.

There are a lot of pots that fall under the “compostable” category. The most eco-friendly ones are natural and made of waste materials like coconut coir or aged cow manure. Less environmentally sound ones are made with brand new wood fibre, and/or peat moss (removal of peat moss has been linked to global warming).

Whatever they are made from, they are designed to be single-use. They require energy to manufacture, package and transport. If we can use what we already have, that is a more eco-friendly option.

They are more durable than newspaper or toilet rolls, so are a good option for growing seedlings to sell or where they need to look more professional.

Purpose-bought Biodegradable Pots

Biodegradable (but not compostable) pots are often made with PLA plastic, also called corn starch or plant-based plastic. This is a polyester made from plant material rather than fossil fuels like traditional polyester.

Some PLA pots will state that they are compostable, but this will usually refer to composting under controlled conditions. They should state the test standard used and be “certified compostable.” Without the certification, the claim is meaningless.

These pots are a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional fossil-fuel based plastic pots. It should be possible to reuse them a few times before they begin to break down.

Personally, if a pot says biodegradable but does not say compostable, or is made of PLA plastic, I would avoid it unless absolutely necessary.

Things I don’t recommend:

Eggshells might look cute, but they are ridiculously impractical to fill. I found the same with egg boxes, and they are so absorbent they dry out the soil, but if you don’t live in a hot climate, they might work. On the downside, too cold and damp and they will encourage mold growth.

Terracotta pots aren’t great for seedlings as the roots can attach to the clay and get damaged in transplanting. Brand new compostable seedling punnets might sound green, but they seem a waste of resources when there are so many other options to use.

Transplanting Seedlings to Bigger Pots

Sometimes seedlings need to be transplanted into bigger pots before heading out to the veggie patch.

Reusing Seedling Trays/Plastic Pots

I’m a big fan of re-using what we have. We don’t use plastic at home, but I often find plastic plant pots thrown out on verge collection day, and I collect them to re-use. Plastic yoghurt pots, milk bottles and other plastic containers that can all be re-used to make plant pots.

Plastic that has been used with soil is difficult to clean and won’t be recycled. That’s fine if you intend to reuse the plastic as plant pots again and again. If there’s a choice, it is better to choose plastic that isn’t recyclable over plastic that is, and aim for as many re-uses as possible.

Plastic that is left in the sun will also begin to photo-degrade (break down into smaller pieces). They will last better in cooler, shadier conditions.

Potting On (Transferring Plants from Small Plant Pots to Bigger Plant Pots)

Seedlings eventually grow up, and either go into the garden or need bigger, more permanent homes. Whilst it’s easy to find small pots in various sizes, as the size goes up the opportunities become more limited. Here I’ve focussed on some of the biggest options, which are big enough to plant a small tree.

Terracotta Pots

I’ve found that terracotta pots aren’t great for small plants that I intend to repot as the roots get damaged, but they are a great plastic-free option for bigger plants, bulbs or annuals. We got these pots from the verge when our neighbours moved to Queensland.

One thing to note about terracotta – it is porous, which means in hot summers it can wick moisture out of the soil. One solution is to paint or glaze on the outside or the inside, to maintain the moisture of the soil, or choose pots that are already glazed.

Wine Barrels

I love wine barrels. They look beautiful and rustic, and are a waste product of the wine industry, but they are also very expensive to buy. These two wine barrels were purchased several years ago, but now they’d cost more than $100 each. Great for a feature, but not practical if you are on a budget or need more than one.

Wine barrels can be stained or varnished to help protect them from the weather, but ultimately the wood will break down. In Perth with its long dry summers, a wine barrel receiving haphazard (or no) care should last several years. In wetter climates I’d expect they’d need more management.

Olive Barrels

Olive barrels are big 190 litre food-grade plastic barrels that olives are imported in. They cannot be re-used by the import/export industry, so they are a waste product. Yes they are plastic, but they are second-hand. Much as I hate plastic, I love re-use,. Most terracotta pots for sale in WA are imported from Italy, whereas these barrels are already here. They are also extremely low cost – one barrel costs around $25 and can be cut in half to make two pots.

I would always choose the orange barrels, which are food grade. The blue ones are chemical barrels and most originally contained pesticides and fungicides, or other chemicals. They also tend to buckle in full sun, whereas the orange ones do not.

I’ve made all my olive barrels into wicking beds, meaning they have a hole at the side rather than the bottom, and a reservoir below the soil to hold water. This means the soil can wick water from the reservoir in summer, so the plants need less watering. Because a container needs to be fully waterproof to do this, it is difficult to do without plastic.

Upcycled Things

Honestly, it is only your imagination that will restrict you when it comes to finding eco-friendly plant pots. I’ve seen garden beds and plant pots made of old toilets, sinks, bathtubs, metal tins, plastic clam-shells and much more.

Just because it isn’t round and sold in a garden centre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t grow something in it!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other suggestions to add to this list? Do you have any “not-to-do”s or things to avoid? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen used as a plant pot? And more importantly – did it work or was it a fail?! Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Permaculture Principles for Modern (Zero Waste) Living

Have you heard of permaculture? Founded by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s, permaculture was the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. The term came from “permanent agriculture.”

Let me tell you, it’s actually about a lot more than gardening.

Since the 1970s, the idea has expanded and grown, as has the movement. At its core it is a ‘systems thinking’ approach, and the design principles can be applied to anywhere where sustainability is the focus.

But many people would describe permaculture as a “philosophy” – a set of guidelines to live by. Many people would describe zero waste in the same way. Both have the idea of fair share, not taking or using more than we need, not wasting resources or people.

Because of this, I think permaculture principles (and ethics) are just as relevant for plastic-free (and zero waste) living. They are relevant to people living within cities, and without so much as a pot plant to their name.

But many people without gardens simply don’t know enough (or anything!) about it.

Let’s change that! I’d like to introduce the permaculture principles, and their relevance (as I see it) to the zero waste movement.

Permaculture Living: The Three Ethics

At the centre of the movement are three ethics: people care; earth care; and fair share. I would argue that anybody who believes in sustainability believes in these three ethics.

Permaculture Living: The 12 Principles (And How They Relate To Zero Waste Living)

The 12 principles of permaculture, developed by David Holmgren in 2002, are described as “thinking tools”. Used together, they can enable us to re-design both our environment and our behavior in a world of less energy and resources.

They are guiding principles for an ethical lifestyle.

Observe and Interact.

To me, this is about taking the time to look around us, to explore our surroundings and learn from others. We often learn good habits from others, or we find answers simply by watching and thinking.

By asking questions, seeking out information and being open to learn, we can come up with solutions that work for us.

Catch and Store Energy.

To me, this is about efficiency. Making the most of things when they are abundant, and being able to use them when they are not.

We think of energy as electricity or power, but it’s just as true for water and food, and the energy embedded in resources. From a zero waste perspective, maximising the use of anything is encouraged.

I like to think of reusables as “caught and stored energy”. An item, build to last and used forever. Rather than single use items that require energy to make, energy to ship and then are gone from usefulness forever. Wasted energy.

Obtain a Yield.

In gardening terms, this principle is pretty obvious. Actually, it should apply to everything we do. Money is another obvious yield, but it goes deeper. We don’t have to be paid for something to get pleasure from it. Yield can also mean enjoyment, satisfaction, motivation, and fulfillment.

When we love to do something, the pleasure of simply doing it can be its own reward.

There is a danger of doing things that bring us no pleasure, satisfaction nor other reward: they ultimately leave us burned-out, demotivated, resentful and frustrated.

That’s not sustainable.

Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback.

Permaculture looks at this from a systems perspective, but I think it’s just as relevant for individuals.

None of us are perfect. We strive to do the best we can. When we receive feedback telling us there is a better way, or pointing out something we hadn’t thought of before, we can begrudge and feel judged and not take action; or we can embrace the challenge to improve ourselves a little more.

Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services.

This is definitely a principle that underpins both the plastic-free and zero waste movements. Most plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels, and recycling options for all plastics are limited (and result in downcycling).

The zero waste movement embraces a circular economy, and aims to see nothing sent to landfill.

Both movements value choosing materials that are natural, renewable, reusable, recyclable and biodegradable.

Produce No Waste.

My favourite principle! Clearly the zero waste movement is built around “produce no waste”, but permaculture has a different (broader) perspective.

Whilst permaculture recognizes there is a bigger system, the zero waste movement can lean towards individualism.

In permaculture, reusing and repurposing other people’s waste is a huge part of reducing our impact and use of resources. The zero waste movement celebrates individual action and achievement: it focuses on reducing personal landfill waste, but doesn’t always recognize that waste is still produced upstream.

Personally, I think they both have a place, and I think both ideals can learn from the other.

Design From Patterns to Details.

This principle recognises the value in observing before doing, and the importance at looking at the bigger picture before making choices.

From a zero waste/plastic-free perspective, I see the patterns as “habits” and details as “stuff”. Rather than deciding to embrace a low-waste lifestyle and then spending hours choosing the best mason jars to equip the pantry with, it is better to look at our habits first.

Take time to look for the patterns, and then decide what fits best.

It’s another way of saying: take time, observe first, and do second.

Integrate Rather Than Segregate.

Integration is important for any community. It’s what glues community together, and it’s what creates a movement. To get the best outcomes, we need to work together.

There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’. There is only ‘us’.

Whether we teach, motivate, encourage or provide support, communities are best when we embrace networks, share freely and collaborate.

Community is strong in both permaculture and zero waste, and for many of us, that’s the best part.

Use Small and Slow Solutions.

Bigger isn’t always better. Small and slow solutions are at the heart of the zero waste movement. Taking time, making do, thinking creatively; embracing local and seasonal.

Use and Value Diversity.

There is never a “one-size-fits-all” approach. There is rarely a single way to do anything. There are different voices and different perspectives, and different ways of doing things, even when the outcomes are similar.

We connect with different stories, and everyone has something to add.

Use Edges and Value the Margins.

In permaculture, we talk about the interfaces between things being where the most valuable, diverse and productive elements lie. The edge of a pond, lake or river; or the edge of the forest where the trees meet the grassland.

In zero waste, I think of these “edges” and “margins” as the parts that are often seen as waste – things like offcuts or scraps. Yet they have just as much potential and are just as valuable – it often just takes a little creative thinking.

Creatively Use and Respond to Change.

“Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be.” Both the permaculture and zero waste movements are build around a desire to do things differently; to do things better than the “status quo” of overconsumption and exploitation.

Both embrace creativity, not at an artistic level but at a solutions-based, practical and ideas level. Looking at the system, and creating new ways to do things better. Seeing things that aren’t working, and coming up with better ways.

It isn’t about having all the answers, or creating change on a global scale. It’s about being creative with what we know and what we see, and doing things differently.

For me, both permaculture and zero waste living offer practical solutions for those of us that feel dissatisfied with the current ways of the world, and want to  create a more positive future. Neither are perfect, but they enable us to do things differently, and encourage those that follow to go one step further.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is permaculture new to you or old news? How do you think the permaculture principles compare to zero waste living? Which principles do you personally see as the most important – or do you think all of them? Do you have any personal principles that you live by? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Establishing an Organic Vegetable Garden (Progress in Pictures)

It’s no secret that I love food, and I love growing my own food even more. There’s nothing more satisfying than eating something freshly picked; there’s no unnecessary single-use plastic packaging when we grow our own; and we can’t get more local than our own back yards.

Not everyone has a garden, true. When I moved to Perth from the UK, I swapped my beautiful and much-loved allotment for an upstairs apartment with a dark balcony. That didn’t stop me having a few pots outside the front door with herbs, though. Then we moved to another upstairs apartment with a bigger balcony, and I got a few more things growing.

Even the darkest, smallest balcony can grow microherbs!

Now I’ve moved to a development with 7 dwellings and a community garden, I finally have the space and the opportunity to plant more. And believe me, I’m making the most of it!

We’ve lived here for just over a year, and I thought I’d share how our garden has evolved over the time. Although there are 7 dwellings, some are still empty and others have been rented to tenants with no interest in gardening. To date, my husband and I have had the garden pretty much to ourselves. Two sets of neighbours have their own garden bed spaces, but other than that, we have free reign.

Honestly, we love having the space to ourselves, but we’re looking forward to more garden enthusiasts moving in. There’s so much wasted opportunity as we don’t have the time to turn over the beds as quickly as we should, or succession plant as regularly as we could. There are plenty of other tasks that get neglected, too.

Whilst the garden produces a lot of food, it could be so much more productive with just a little extra work.

Take the tour of my organic veggie patch (and permaculture garden in the making), Perth Australia

We own and occupy the ground floor flat, and the communal garden backs straight onto our home. We have two sets of big sliding doors, so the garden is an extension of our living space.

This is what it looked like when we moved in:

When we moved in the metal garden beds were in place, and reticulation had been installed, which definitively gave us a head start. ~April 2016

For 1 household, it’s a lot of space, but for 7 households it will be quite small. There’s also a huge amount of wasted space/growing potential, so we’ve been working hard to develop this and improve the soil and increase productivity.

We’ve also added a lot of pots, which is a great way to decide which things work best where before digging them into the ground. The two wine barrels contain the citrus trees we had on our balcony in our previous place. All the other pots are new additions.

Creating New Veggie Beds

If you’re thinking that the soil looks really sandy, you’d be right. It is really sandy. The grey sands of the Perth Swan coastal plain (where I live) are considered to be the worst in the world. I don’t mean by disgruntled Perth gardeners, either. It’s a fact.

It means that we’ve dug in heaps of compost, veggie concentrate and clay into the sand to create soil. It might not look like it, but we have! The wood chip mulch breaks down over time to add carbon to the soil, too.

We bought a cubic metre of veggie concentrate from our soil yard and it was delivered via a tipping truck, so without packaging. It isn’t the cheapest option (we could have built up nitrogen using nitrogen-fixing plants or green manures, carbon using mulch and the soil web over time), but it meant we could plant veggies in the sand straightaway rather than waiting several months. It contains all the nutrients and minerals needed to grow veggies.

Creating Our Own Compost

We have four compost bins and create as much of our own compost as we can. We don’t turn it as often as we should so it isn’t breaking down as quickly as it could be.

If the whole complex got involved we’d have compost coming out of our ears! The reality is, many of the tenants live on a diet of junk food (fried chicken and other fast food is delivered almost daily – I kid you not) and they don’t even compost the paper food packaging – it goes in the landfill bin. Sigh.

To top up our compost my husband brings food scraps home from his work every week (in a big 20 litre bucket), and we collect coffee grounds from a local cafe every month or so.

It’s pretty amazing that we can add stinky food scraps and a few handfuls of dried leaves to a compost bin and be rewarded with beautiful soil-like compost!

This is what your food scraps can be turned into. Beautiful compost!

Planting in Pots (and Wicking Pots)

To maximise the use of the patio area without ripping out the paving, we’ve planted a lot of things in pots. Our garden is north-facing, and the patio is one of the best spots to grow (we’re in the southern hemisphere – its the opposite for those in the north). The space is sheltered by the house by the hot summer afternoon sun, and gets full winter sun because the sun is lower in the sky.

To ignore this is a missed opportunity!

Wicking beds are self-watering pots. Not something I needed to worry about in the UK, but in Perth it is a different story. We’ve used old olive export barrels to make wicking beds – they have a hole at the side rather than at the bottom, so a reservoir can hold water for the plants.

Greening the Garden: Progress in the First Year

I’ve taken a few images from the same spots over time, and I’ve included a few below so you can see how things have changed in the first year.

The View from the Office Window:

April 2016

November 2016

February 2017

The Patio Space:

April 2016

November 2016

March 2017

The Ground Dug-In Beds:

July 2016

November 2016

The Veggie Beds:

July 2016

December 2016

February 2017

April 2017

The Raised Garden Beds:

April 2016

Feb 2017

A Glimpse of the Harvest

We definitely aren’t growing all our own vegetables, but I do think we have the space. Unfortunately space isn’t the only constraint; the other is time! We did manage to produce a lot of our own vegetables over summer. Here’s a glimpse:

Perth has a warm enough climate to garden all year round, and in many ways summer presents more challenges than winter. We’re currently in the process of planting our winter veggies. By the start of next summer we’re expecting to have new neighbours, so it will be interesting to find out how the garden evolves. I’m looking forward to more hands!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Did you enjoy the garden tour? Did you have any questions? Is there anything you’d like me to write about in more detail? Do you have your own garden, and what tips do you have to share? Anything else you’d like to add? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Zero Waste (+ Plastic-Free) Gardening

I may have got to grips with plastic-free living and the zero waste lifestyle when it comes to inside the home, but when it comes to the garden, I’m a plastic-free newbie. Having lived in an upstairs apartment with little more than a balcony for the last four years, I haven’t really needed to think about it.

Now we’ve moved and I finally have the garden space I’ve been dreaming about all that time, I’m really keen to keep up with the plastic-free lifestyle and avoid using plastic in the garden where I can. (Spoiler alert – there have been compromises!)

Of course, paving or wood chip mulch would solve the waste problem straightaway, but I’m keen to grow as much food as I can, so no easy options for me!

Starting from scratch with anything can be daunting, and the hardware stores seem to have more plastic packaging in them than the supermarkets! I do not have all the answers – we have only been living here for three months, after all – but I’m beginning to find zero waste solutions and plastic-free alternatives that work for me.

No doubt in another three months I’ll have far more answers (and if you have any tips of your own, please share them!) but I thought I’d share my plastic-free and zero waste gardening solutions so far.

Starting with the Soil

We were lucky enough that when we moved, the four garden beds were pre-filled with soil (and pre-planted with seedings). However, there is still plenty of space for planting additional things, and empty pots need soil to fill them. Perth doesn’t have soil: it is a city build on grey sand, with no nutrient content or water-holding capacity whatsoever. I

t’s not possible to scoop up some soil from the ground and put it in a pot. You have to source it from somewhere.

We’d been given some potting mix in 25 litre plastic bags (the only size available where I live) but the bags seemed so wasteful that I didn’t want to buy any myself. Instead I found a compromise: coconut coir.

It’s a waste product from coconut growing areas. It comes as a dry, lightweight block wrapped in a very thin plastic layer. Once added to water it expands: this block will make enough to fill a wheelbarrow (90 litres).

To buy this much potting mix would require four bags, and heaps more plastic.

Peat-free potting mix made from a waste product: coconut coir.

Peat-free potting mix made from a waste product: coconut coir.

Coconut coir itself does not have any nutritional value, but can be mixed with worm castings, compost or other fertilisers to add nutrients.

Repurposed Polystyrene Box Plastic Free Gardening Zero Waste Gardening

Coconut coir once water has been added. This old polystyrene box is our old worm farm. Despite hating plastic and especially polystyrene, I couldn’t throw it out knowing it still had (some) use. It’s good for mixing up potting mix and saves me from buying a new container.

Coconut coir is great for raising seedlings, but to top up the garden beds (and create new garden beds) we needed soil. After a couple of phone calls, I found a local soil company that could deliver a trailer load of soil to us. This tiny looking pile is half a cubic litre (500l), which is the equivalent of 40 bags.

Whilst we didn’t need it all, we have been able to store what we didn’t use in our wheelie bin (we don’t use it for rubbish, after all) until we can use it.

Plastic Free Zero Waste Bulk Soil Delivery Treading My Own Path

Plastic-free zero waste soil delivery.

Compost, Worm Castings and Manure

In the beginning, we decided to buy a few bags (in plastic – shudder) of mushroom compost and animal manure, to get things started. We have two compost bins, but they are yet to crank out any compost. In future I hope to make all of our compost at home. (We also plan to get more bins.)

Zero Waste Plastic Free Gardening Homemade Compost Treading My Own Path

Our two compost bins. We hope to get more so that we can produce all of our own compost at home.

Clearly, if we plan to produce all of our own compost at home we will need more plant matter and food waste to compost! We’ve probably got enough weeds on the verge to provide all the nitrogen we could ever want, but compost needs both carbon and nitrogen. Our solution is to collect excess coffee grounds from the local cafe. We’ll also go leaf collecting to gather some extra carbon for the pot.

Repurposing Cafe Coffee Grounds Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

Coffee grounds from a local cafe (they were pre-packaged in plastic). We may have been a little over-eager… I could not lift these bags, they were so heavy! Coffee grounds are a great compost additive though, and we could never drink this much coffee!

Our solution for animal manure was simple. Our friends own a cow, and offered us their “spare” manure! We can provide our own containers and fill them up. Sounds stinky, but it’s plastic-free at least!

On top of this, we still have our worm farm, and can use the castings to enrich the soil.

Adding Nutrients to the Soil

We’d rather not buy plastic bottles of plant food because aside from the waste, we prefer to feed our plants natural ingredients and these pre-packaged feeds are high in salts and urea. The most natural options recommended seem to be kelp, soy bean meal (an alternative to blood and bone), blood and bone, rock dust, fish hydrolysate and pelletized chicken manure.

The soil company who delivered our soil also sell these in bulk, so we can refill our own containers when we need to.

Another, more cost-effective place to source these products is a stock feed place. We didn’t need the huge quantities, but a local lady purchased some and split the bags into smaller amounts for us. If that hadn’t been an option, these ingredients all have a long shelf life.

Zero Waste Gardening Kelp Soybean Meal Molasses Treading My Own Path

A local lady purchased these in bulk, and split into containers for a group of us. (She added the plastic jar labels – it’s not something I would have done!)

Seedlings and Seeds

To start with, we purchased a few seedling punnets. I’ve begun to plant seeds in the repurposed punnets and hope that I will be able to grow everything from seed in the future. Even seed packets sometimes contain tiny little ziplock bags.

Much further down the track I hope to be able to save my own seeds. Right now we are at the beginning of our journey. I need to learn what grows well and what we like to eat before I even think about saving seeds! I’m not worrying about the tiny little ziplock bags – for now ; )

We have swapped seeds with our neighbours which has worked well, as most seed packs seem to expire before all the seeds have been planted. This way we double our selection (and they do too) and the seeds are fresher – hopefully meaning that more germinate!

Seed Saving and Seed Sharing Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

Seeds on the left are our neighbours’; seeds on the right are ours. Seeds in the middle are saved from the beans that were growing in the garden. No idea what the different types are, though!

Repurposing

We’ve been able to find heaps of plant pots for free on the verge, which has been great for growing seedlings. Alongside the few seedling punnets we’ve bought, we now have enough to pot on our seedlings to beef them up before they go in the beds.

Reusing old plastic plant pots zero waste gardening Treading My Own Path

Gardening in containers Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

Plastic Plant Pots Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

Repurposing Plastic Plant Pots Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

What about the plastic so far?

There is no way I’m throwing any of the plastic we’ve used so far in the bin. Not a chance! But clearly, plastic bags that contained sheep manure and compost are not suitable for recycling as they are. They need to be clean. Such is my dedication that I cleaned them!

I would have just put them all in the washing machine out of laziness but my husband would have killed me (and I didn’t really want to wreck the washing machine). So I washed them all off as best I could outside (in a tub of water which I used in the garden), and then brought them in and scrubbed them in the shower with an old brush.

Cleaning old plastic bags Zero Waste Gardening Treading My Own Path

True story. I washed out my soil bags so I could recycle them properly.

Cleaning plastic potting mix bags Treading My Own Path

Hanging on the washing line to dry.

The only real waste item we’ve generated so far is the plastic labels that come attached to the seedling punnets. Most of them are currently in the garden reminding us what is planted where, but when the season is finished we may not have another use for them. Still, if we can reduce our garden waste to just a few seedling labels then I will be very happy!

Lindsay Miles Treading My Own Path Zero Waste Gardening

Plastic-free zero waste gardening in action : )

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have a garden? Do you have any tips for reducing waste and cutting down on plastic? Do you have any suggestions for how I might improve things further, or notice anything I’ll need to think about in the future? Is there anything you’ve struggled with? Do these struggles remain or have you managed to overcome them? Are there any compromises you make that you think are worthwhile? Are you put off gardening because of all the plastic packaging and chemicals? I’d really like to hear your thoughts so please leave me a comment below!