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My garden transformation project: why I’m digging out my lawn by hand

When it comes to transforming my garden into an edible and productive food space, there’s one task that’s taking up most of my time currently: digging out the lawn. And if there’s one question I’m answering most often from the garden updates I post it is this: why are you digging out your lawn?

Which actually has two meanings: why aren’t you keeping the lawn? and why have you chosen digging out the lawn as your method of removal?

It’s not a short answer, so I thought I’d explain it here.

Why I’m digging out my lawn (why I’m not keeping the lawn)

I would like to grow edible food in my garden. I would like fruit trees and vegetables. I’d like native plants too. To grow these, I need to remove the lawn.

Lawn in Western Australia is not like lawn in Europe. If I leave it, it won’t grow into a beautiful field of wildflowers. In summer it will be dead without a lot of inputs. What does grow will be non-native grass species and weeds like castor oil (which is toxic to dogs – it’s the source of ricin).

My climate doesn’t naturally support meadows.

Growing lawn in Perth is hard work and takes a surprising amount of resources. It needs a lot of water to keep it green. I have a bore (which is a pump that draws water from the ground, as opposed to using drinking water from the tap) but even so, our groundwater levels are dropping and in my opinion, it is a waste of water to keep so much grass alive.

Anyways, I’m only allowed to use my bore reticulation three times a week. Any other watering needs to be drinking water.

The reticulation that’s in place to keep the lawn green is plastic and the parts break all the time. It breaks, and the trickle is replaced with a jet stream that gushes gallons of water down the road at the front (or floods the garden at the back). After replacing a few broken bits (luckily with second-hand freebies I was given, not new plastic) only to end up with more broken bits, I decided to just switch it off.

Then, it needs fertilising to keep it green. Lawn fertilisers cause a lot of problems in our rivers, because they are soluble fertilisers than run-off into the water and contribute to algal blooms (which kill the fish).

My non-fertilised lawn is yellow and patchy. Which is fine, because I’m digging it out.

Yes, lawn feels nice underneath the feet (well, when it’s not dead). Although our Australian grasses are not as soft as the European grasses, so it isn’t quite the same. But there are parks close by with lots of grass that are properly maintained and accessible to lots of people.

I know that a lot of non-Western Australians will look at a garden full of coarse wood chip mulch and think it looks ugly and weird. It took me a bit of getting used to when I first saw it, too. But if meadows are what happens to grasses in Europe, this layer of dead tree matter is what nature does in our natural bush areas.

It acts to protect the soil from the harsh sun, retains moisture underneath – and eventually breaks down to add carbon to the soil.

Although it looks extreme now, eventually I’ll cover most of my mulch with plants so it won’t be so obvious.

Why I’ve chosen digging out the lawn as my method of removal

There are lots of ways that people choose to get rid of their lawn. Digging mine out by hand (well, I did contemplate a turf cutter, but I’ve stuck with the spade) was the only option I really considered. I know there are plenty of ways, but I have my reasons for choosing this. Let me explain them.

Perth grass is TOUGH.

Even though I told you grass dies here in summer, it doesn’t actually die. Every autumn when the rain returns the dead patch of yellow grass resurrects itself. It dies, and yet it is almost impossible to truly kill.

There are a few species of grass used for lawns in Perth, and I have a few, definitely included these two.

Kikuyu grass: a tropical grass speces Pennisetum clandestinum, native to the highland regions of East Africa. Grows rapidly and aggressively. Categorized as a noxious weed in some regions. Has underground runners and its root system can grow to 3 metres deep.

Couch grass: a drought-tolerant grass described as ‘high maintenance and invasive’. It has an extensive root system with fine roots that is difficult to remove. Can grow through concrete. Also called Wintergreen couch – I wonder if this is because it dies back in summer and returns with vengeance in winter?

I don’t want to use chemicals (which is often recommended)

Because our grasses are so hard to kill, many gardeners and organizations recommend using glyphosate (you might know it as Roundup) to kill lawn. It’s a controversial chemical that’s been banned in many European countries due to safety concerns.

Whilst verge gardens tend to be non-edibles (well, for humans only) I’m not interested in using chemicals to kill any of my lawn that will remain in the soil and enter the food chain.

Smothering/solarising doesn’t work well in Perth

Lots of readers have suggested I just cover the grass with cardboard and mulch, or use black plastic to solarise the grass and kill it. I know that these methods work well in other places with other types of grasses, but they aren’t great in Perth.

If it has worked for you, brilliant (and I’m sure it can be done). But when it doesn’t work, all that happens is you create a cosy, warm, wet environment for the grass which means it expands its root networks, and eventually busts through the mulch/plastic.

An earlier guide to verge gardens by the Water Corporation specifically advised against these methods, recognising that they rarely work.

I’ve seen many, many examples of mulching/solarising grass failing in Perth, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen an example of it working successfully on the types of grass that I have.

Putting the work in up-front

Even if I thought that mulching/solarising was a great idea, and wanted to give it a go, I’d need to wait several months for the grass to die before I could plant anything in the ground. And I don’t want to wait.

The sooner I can plant trees the better, and the sooner I can plant vegetables the better.

Also, I think putting in the work up-front means not playing catch-up later. I don’t want to spend the next six months digging out regrowing grass – especially not grass that has grown through raised garden beds and now has 1+ metre deep roots.

I expect there will still be some regrowth, but it should be a lot less than if I’d just tried to plant on top.

The level of the land

One other reason why sheet mulching with cardboard and then heaping on the mulch wouldn’t work for me – at the front at least – is that the ground level is already a little high. It’s higher than the driveway, which means when it rains all the water (and mulch) will run off onto the concrete and down the drain.

In a place that’s short of water, this is a huge waste. I need to ensure any water that falls stays in my soil.

Adding an extra 10-15 cm of mulch on top would create a mini mountain, and just exacerbate the problem.

By removing the lawn I’m reducing the height of the land slightly, so the new surface is flush with the kerb/driveway.

Knowing my land

I did contemplate getting a turf cutter, and a few friends suggested just getting a bobcat in to blitz it in a couple of hours. But I decided to do it by hand.

Out the back, I don’t need it all done at once, so I’m chipping away as I’m ready to plant trees or put in beds.

At the front I am removing the whole lot, but I’ve found the by-hand approach useful.

There is a huge tree on my verge, and I don’t want to trash all of its roots with heavy machinery.

There are gas pipes, water pipes (and PVC reticulation pipes!) under the lawn, and I don’t want to damage anything.

It’s been useful to go slowly and see exactly where the roots from the big tree, my neighbours’ trees and my hedge extend, remove random bricks I find, and also see the condition of the soil (which varies from extremely bad to pretty bad. But I did find a worm. Just the one. Yeah, Perth soil is really not great).

Because I want to put in-ground beds at the front, its useful to know if there are networks of roots or blocks of concrete under the soil before I plant anything out.

Removing the lawn – progress to date

The one advantage of living on a sandpit rather than heavy clay soils is that it is fairly easy to dig out grass. It isn’t back-breaking work… but there is a lot of it.

My superstar neighbour has given me a hand out the front (I think she is impatient for it to look good!) and it is quite amazing how much can be removed in a day.

Currently, the front looks like this:

(The plants are a native Geraldton wax I transplanted from the back garden, a lemongrass bush and the beginnings of my broad bean patch).

I’m going to have another blitz at the weekend, and I’m hoping it will almost all be gone when I’m done.

Here’s the back, with the new beginnings of my citrus ‘grove’ and my raised garden beds beginning to fill up:

So that, my friends, is the extremely long answer to the question: why am I digging out my lawn. It’s fairly boring work up front, but the long-term rewards will be worth it.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Any more questions about lawn or lawn removal? Any experiences of removing lawn yourself – both successful and unsuccessful? Any other thoughts at all? Please share in the comments below!

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!

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 :)