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How I’m planning my garden for food production

I’ve officially lived in my “new” (to me) house for 12 months (since October 2019). I started my garden transformation project in January and whilst it’s no way near being finished, I thought it was time for an update.

I thought I’d talk you through some of the planning and design, and explain the different choices I’ve made and why I’ve made them.

Just as a reminder, this is what I started with:

My garden is designed with permaculture principles in mind. What this means, is designing for the climate and with nature, rather than against it. I completed a Permaculture Design Course back in 2016, which is two weeks of full-time learning, and is a great foundation for making good decisions around environmentally sensitive garden design.

There are 12 principles to permaculture which help inform all the decisions. Some are self-explanatory, and others have a few different meanings depending on the context. The principles are:

  • Observe and interact;
  • Catch and store energy;
  • Obtain a yield;
  • Apply self-regulation and accept feedback;
  • Use and value renewable resources and services;
  • Produce no waste;
  • Design from patterns to details;
  • Integrate rather than segregate;
  • Use small and slow solutions;
  • Use and value diversity;
  • Use edges and value the marginal;
  • Creatively use and respond to change.

Permaculture garden design: designing for the climate

When planning a garden it’s helpful to think about the patterns (permaculture principle: design from patterns to details). Things that might change from day to day, but run in cycles, whether they are monthly, yearly or something else.

One of the biggest considerations when planning a garden is the climate. It affects so much: the types of things you can plant, when you can plant them, how much water you need, whether you need wind or sun protection, and I’m sure there’s more.

In Perth, we have a Mediterranean climate, hot (brutal) summer sun, and lack of rain. On the plus side, there are 300 days of sun a year, and where I live, we don’t get winter frost.

Which means I need to have a good and reliable water source (reticulation is a must, unless you want to water everything by hand every day in summer), and shade for the hottest summer months.

(Yes, in Perth, plants that are described as ‘needing full sun’ need some shade in summer.)

The temperature range also dictates the kinds of plants that will thrive. I can plant some tropical plants (bananas and mangoes will grow well, but not as well as in the tropics) and I can plant some cooler weather plants (like apples and pears, but they need to be low chill varieties as there won’t be a frost – which some trees need).

Mediterranean plants grow really well, as it’s the ideal climate for them.

Permaculture garden design: designing for microclimates

Within most gardens there are microclimates. Put simply, conditions will be different in different spots of the garden. Some spots will get the gentle early morning sun (here it comes from the north), others will be blasted by the brutal afternoon sun from the west). Buildings can radiate heat and create warmer zones. Some areas will be shaded in winter, others all year round.

You don’t need to have a big garden to have microclimates. A sunny spot right outside the kitchen doors only big enough for a couple of pots is a microclimate.

But it helps to be aware of microclimates (permaculture principle: design from patterns to details) so that you can choose plants that will survive best in these areas. In my garden, tropical plants need to go in the sunniest spot and get full winter as well as summer sun. Planting next to brick walls will help beause of the radiant heat (this isn’t really an option in my garden).

Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves and go dormant in winter) can be planted in a spot that gets summer sun and winter shade (closer to buildings). Without summer sun they won’t set fruit. Because they lose their leaves in winter, they won’t cast a big shadow over the garden like an evergreen tree will.

Permaculture garden design: planning zones

In permaculture design there are five zones, but for urban gardens it’s really only practical to have zones 1 and 2 (and maybe 3).

I’ll run through the permaculture zones quickly.

The zones are often imagined as concentric circles, but when applied to a block or dwelling, they tend not to be perfectly round, following boundaries and paths.

  • Zone 1: Closest to the house and/or following well-used pathways. These are the spots that require the most attention and will be visited most frequently. Usually described as the spot for a kitchen garden: vegetables, herbs, kitchen compost bins, seed raising.
  • Zone 2: Slightly further away from the house, and requiring slightly less maintenance. Perennial vegetables might be in this zone, along with fruit trees, beehives, chickens or quail.
  • Zone 3: Further away again, and usually dedicated to farmland: farm crops, orchards, livestock and semi-sufficient bird flocks, dams. I would argue that an urban native verge could be considered as zone 3.
  • Zone 4: A semi-wild area. In permaculture design, this is where you might forage or collect firewood, and possibly grow a woodlot.
  • Zone 5: Wilderness.
  • Zone 6: Not an official permaculture zone – the wider community. This is useful to think about in urban design when there is no space for outer zones, because produce can be swapped or traded, or several households can benefit from a single tree.

When I talk about zones in my urban garden, I’m really talking about zones that I’ve decided within permaculture zones 1 and 2, with some consideration for zone 6. (Permaculture principle: obtain a yield.)

Any vegetables I grow fit into the category of ‘kitchen garden’ rather than ‘urban farm’ because I’ll want to access them frequently and will be planting smaller beds of many different crops. I’m not planting out whole fields and then leaving them to do their thing.

Plant zones I’m planning for:

  • A herb garden. Herbs add so much flavour to a meal, and are easy to grow.
  • A vegetable patch. Of course.
  • Perennial vegetables. Plant once and they come up year after year (examples: asparagus, artichokes.)
  • Deciduous fruit trees.
  • Evergreen fruit trees.
  • Lawn. (Reluctantly, but my greyhound still needs some space to whizz about!)
  • Chickens. The long-term plan is to let them free range different areas of the garden at different times of the year, but they still need a house and a base.
  • Native plants. These are waterwise plants native to the local area (or sometimes, a little further afield) that attract pollinators and provide habitat.

With all of this in mind, let me share the latest update for the garden. I’m pretty excited because this week someone is coming round to help me sort out the reticulation with my plan in mind, which means the part of all of this where I get to plant *all the things* is getting closer.

(If you’re new here, you might like to read these first: My garden transformation project (Progress update: month one to three) ; My garden transformation project: why I’m digging out my lawn by hand ; My garden transformation project (progress update: month three to six).)

Planting out the front verge

I haven’t made any progress on the verge, but now the front lawn is dug out I’ve set my sights on removing this. The plan is to plant natives here, to provide habitat and food for insects, birds and whoever else might like to come here (permaculture principle: use and value diversity).

Because it’s not my land but council land there are some restrictions around what I can plant. I’m not allowed to place fixed structures (like raised garden beds) and because there is no footpath I have to leave a 1.5m gap between the road and the plantings.

The big fiddlewood tree which dominates the verge dictates some of the design for my front yard, as it casts a huge shadow in winter over the garden.

Planting out the front yard

(With your back to the house, the front garden faces north-east.)

I finally dug out all of the grass at the front (permaculture principle: use small and slow solutions), and am pleased to report that there was been no return of couch grass over the wet winter months.

(Not to say there won’t be any regrowth, but if it hasn’t come yet I think it will be very manageable.)

The plan from here is to turn the front into one giant in ground veggie bed zone (permaculture principle: obtain a yield). It will be a rectangle from the edge where I took the photo to the green box on the far wall (the gas meter), and across about as far as the silver metal bed.

It will measure 7m x 4m, approx. (Those two cream raised beds were a temporary solution whilst I was still digging out the grass. They’ll be moved: either to the back garden, or if I can’t find space there I’ll list them on Gumtree, which is where I got them in the first place.)

Along the back where you can see a small wooden (painted blue) raised bed and a hedge, I’m going to plant deciduous fruit trees, probably stone fruit that grow in a vase shape. I’m planning to place a compost bin in between each tree. I think the big tree on the verge will give too much shade in winter for evergreen trees (permaculture principle: observe and interact).

These three metal beds were an old rainwater tank my neighbour had, that she chopped into four pieces. She is keeping the base, and gifted me the other three bits. I’m going to try placing these on the boundary between the verge and the front garden, which is under the tree. There is a bit of competition between roots here, so the raised beds will give more growing area to the plants I plant.

There is also a lot more shade, meaning it isn’t suitable for sun-loving edibles. I’m thinking I’ll plant one with herbs, one with perennials and leafy greens, and one with tea (well, plants that tea can be made from, like chamomile, rather than literal tea plants) and medicinal herbs.

Planting out the eastern side of the block

Going round the corner where the gas meter is, towards the back garden, is the eastern side of the house.

This doesn’t get much sun – the tall trees in the neighbour’s yard block the early morning sun (well, that and my fence!) and the house shades the space from the afternoon sun. It’s noticeably cooler than the rest of the yard (a microclimate!).

Because the bed along here is raised and the house is single storey, the top canopy of the trees here reach the sun for most of the day in summer. Which got me thinking – could I grow deciduous fruit trees along here?

The fruit will need 5-6 hours of sun to set, and it will only be possible on the higher branches, but I’m going to give it a go. I’m also going to espalier the trees I plant too, which means growing the branches along horizontal poles. This means I can train the branches to reach the sun, the fruit won’t grow over the neighbour’s fence, and will be easier to net for fruit fly in what is a fiddly space. I’m not sure it will work, but worth trying.

The best deciduous trees to espalier are the pome fruits (apples, pears, quince) and persimmons will also work. (Stone fruit don’t, as they prefer to grow in a vase shape and their branches aren’t suited to it.)

At the end of this space is the pomegranate I planted earlier in the year. This section gets more sun, so I’ll definitely be able to get another (deciduous) tree in here – I’m thinking a persimmon.

Planting out the back yard

The back yard is where most of the work has happened so far. Being the biggest space, there are a number of zones: the tropical / evergreen fruit tree zone, the lawn, chickens and the deciduous tree zone.

I added some raised garden beds to the tropical zone when Covid-19 hit in March, because the front wasn’t ready and I wanted to grow vegetables, fast. They’ve been great. Once the front is established and the trees grow bigger I may remove them (the small one first), but they’ll stay for another year or so at least.

Behind the veggie beds are a banana, a papaya, an ice cream bean (which is a nitrogen fixer), an orange berry and a macadamia. Plus two Chilean guavas and a lemon verbena, which are more shrubs than trees – and four pineapple plants.

The macadamia is planted in the far (west) corner and will be a shade tree as it grows, protecting the rest of the garden from the brutal afternoon summer sun.

As the trees get bigger I’ll probably remove the hedge too, to give them more space.

There is a lawn zone because I don’t live by myself and others like the lawn. One of the reasons I moved was to give Hans the greyhound more space, so I can’t really take it all away from him!

I’ve planted more deciduous trees closer to the house ( a mulberry and a fig), as they get less sun in winter due to shading from the building.

I’ve added a passionfruit to act as a screen – it’s not deciduous but it’s fast growing, and so it can climb high (and the top of the trellis is in full sun).

Since I planted the passion fruit (in July) it’s barely grown – in fact, it’s shrunk…, but with the warmer weather I’ve spotted new shoots, so I’m hoping it’s going to cover the frame pretty soon.

The screen is to hide the washing line (and protect the clothes from bleaching in summer!) and keep some sun off of the building. This helps keep the inside of the house cool, and reduces the need for cooling in summer.

(The tree in the foreground is a lime; there’s also a lemon next to it.)

Once I’ve got the reticulation in, I can start to think about layers. (Because there will be a lot of digging to install it, I didn’t want to plant too much and have to disturb all the roots.)

When people talk about permaculture they often talk about food forests, which is a low maintenance system of food production based on woodland ecosystems that incorporate food trees, shrubs and perennial vegetables. Food forests can be divided into a number of layers:

  • The canopy: the tallest trees. The fiddlewood tree on the front verge is a canopy tree, and my neighbour’s avocado (which is the biggest avocado tree you’ve ever seen, and helps shade the garden from the afternoon summer sun. Eventually the macadamia, ice-cream bean and mulberry will be canopy trees.)
  • Understory layer: trees that flourish under dappled light.
  • Shrub layer: woody perennials such as berries. The two Chiliean guavas and lemon verbena are part of this layer.
  • Herbaceous layer: annuals like flowers and herbs.
  • Groundcover: plants that cover the bare mulch. Sweet potato is a great one, and there are plenty of green manures.
  • Rhizosphere: root layers. Sweet potato are part of this layer as are ginger, turmeric and galangal, regular potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes.
  • Vertical layer: climbers or vines.

I don’t have too many plans for the different layers yet, as I’m still focused on the canopy and understory layers. As these grow, I’ll start to add things underneath.

The best time to plant new trees is early autumn, so most of my planting will need to wait another few months. In the meantime I can still grow vegetables, and ensure the compost bins are cranking. Always something to do!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you investing more time in the garden (or allotment, or community patch) right now? What are you growing? What has been your biggest challenge? Any questions about my garden? Any other thoughts? Let me know 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!