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Planning and good design feed an urban family

Story by Russ Grayson 1999

OCCUPYING SANDY SOIL adjacent to Botany Bay, a fruit and vegetable garden has been designed and planted to feed a household of three.

“We’re not trying to grow all our own food”, says Fiona Campbell, designer and householder, ” …just produce some of our staples as well as a few uncommon vegetables and herbs for cooking.

Garden paths made, the soil mulched and perennials planted, the garden is almost ready for planting out.
Garden paths made, the soil mulched and perennials planted, the garden is almost ready for planting out.

“The woman over the back — she’s from an Italian family — is the only other person around here with a vegetable garden. There’s all this land in backyards going to waste, just growing lawn. The only useful trees in gardens, directly useful to people that is, is the unused lemon tree next door, an unharvested Magenta Lillypilly (Syzygium paniculatum) a couple houses down and my mandarin tree.

“One of the reasons for redesigning the garden was to make suburban living more sustainable in a food and in an environmental sense, so we do not have to buy food that is imported great distances and so we can make effective use of our kitchen and garden wastes to make compost”.

First, the design

Using a stringline to measure the placement of recycled bricks to edge the garden path around a circular bed. Fiona's bckground in the design professions taught her the importance of accuracy in making durable gardens.
Using a stringline to measure the placement of recycled bricks to edge the garden path around a circular bed. Fiona’s bckground in the design professions taught her the importance of accuracy in making durable gardens.

When Fiona set out to design the food garden she quickly discovered the site’s limiting factors. These were a nutrient-poor, sandy soil, a large Jacaranda tree at the northern end of the garden and a neighbour’s tall oleanders that cast long shadows over the garden, making up to two-thirds of the site unusable in winter.

“These are fairly common limitations to gardens in urban areas”, Fiona said. She later removed the Jacaranda but could do little about the oleanders. “As other urban gardeners have learned, some things you have to live with”. Another limitation was a concrete block fence along two sides of the site. This could not be removed.

To start, measure the site

Fiona’s earlier work in civil engineering design and landscape drafting were to come in handy.

Out came the measuring tape, the calculator and drawing instruments and off Fiona went to measure up the site and draw a base plan. That done, she carried out a site analysis to identify wind directions through the seasons, the paths followed by sunlight and shade and the characteristics of the soil.

“The goal was to design a vegetable garden that would be intensively managed so as to maximise yield.

“Access was very important. I needed to get a wheelbarrow into the garden, so I’ve had to think carefully about paths. It was important to make the paths wide enough for a wheelbarrow but to minimise the path to growing area ratio.

“There was already a compost system by the side fence so I decided to keep it there, especially as the local lawn maintenance man gives me his lawn clippings and leaf sweepings so I can compost them. I want some small fruit trees — pawpaw, banana, tamarillo — down the back and an area for growing culinary herbs. Altogether, the garden design has to pack a lot into a small space”.

Fiona considered a range of garden bed and path designs before settling on two concentric circles joined by a curved path. Drawn up on paper the design looked promising, but Fiona wanted to get some idea of how the design sat on the ground and of the look and scale of the design. Measuring the design out on site, she drove a stake into the soil at the centres of what would become the circular garden beds. A length of rope was knotted at the circumference of the circular bed and, further along, at the width of the surrounding circular path. As Fiona moved the rope around the stake, it described the circumference of the circles by marking them with handfuls of organic fertiliser. This traced out the shapes of the gardens and the path.

Spreading compost over a thick weed barrier of newspaper. The biointensive method was tried on this part of the garden. 25mm of compost was spread over the surface and incorporated into the soil profile by double digging.
Spreading compost over a thick weed barrier of newspaper. The biointensive method was tried on this part of the garden. 25mm of compost was spread over the surface and incorporated into the soil profile by digging and forking, then thoroughly watered in. To reduce weed growth, newspaper and more compost was spread over it.

“Doing this is a useful way to visualise the garden design on the ground. It provides hints about where the design could be improved before you start construction. It’s a way of getting direct feedback about the likelihood of your design working”.

The garden appears as two circular beds surrounded by a 600mm wide path, with the garden areas either side of the path composted, mulched and planted to vegetables. Banana and pawpaw occupy the outer edges of the garden as they require less access for maintenance. A curving path links the beds. A circular water garden was dug in the centre of one of the circular beds and planted to edible water crops such as watercress, water chestnut and water dropwort. A circular herb garden was made in the central section of the other circular bed.

The design decided and assessed, the next stage was construction.

Building the garden

First was to clear the site and prepare the soil.

The entire area was mowed and the weeds left to break down in the soil. “You cannot do this with weeds that are carrying dried seeds”, explained Fiona. “Because those seeds are likely become the next generation of weeds”.

“Next, I loosened the soil by forking it to the depth of the garden fork. I did not turn it, just penetrated it and rocked the fork back and forth to loosen the soil. This helps water and fertiliser to penetrate and it aerates the soil and allows plant roots to grow unimpeded. I added organic fertiliser on top of the soil before forking — I used dolomite, blood and bone, dynamic lifter and compost as the sandy soil is extremely poor in nutrients. The forking works the fertilisers into the soil profile.

The circular path has been layered with newspaper as a weed barrier prior to spreading bark chips. The surrounding garden has been sheet mulched ready for planting.
The circular path has been layered with newspaper as a weed barrier prior to spreading bark chips. The surrounding garden has been sheet mulched ready for planting.

“Now, I planted the perennials such as banana, pawpaw, New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes, an indigenous bush food of Sydney’s sandstone soils) and rhubarb. It is important that this be done before laying the newspaper weed barrier and mulching”.

The paths were edged with old bricks and the garden beds infilled with compost placed on overlapped sheets of newspaper seven to ten pages thick. The paper formed a weed barrier which, over time, would break down. Over the entire garden, a layer of mulch was added and seedlings planted through the mulch and newspaper layers.

Going biointensive

As an experiment in part of the garden, Fiona tried a different means of soil preparation.

“I wanted to try the biointensive method developed by John Jaevons. I modified his double-dig method by using single-dig then forking the soil layer below the dig. The method starts with a one-centimeter layer of compost on top of the soil. This is incorporated as the digging progresses.

“The biointensive approach incorporates nutrients into the soil much faster than the no-dig method used elsewhere in the garden. Some people don’t like it because digging, they say, disturbs the soil life. I have found it to be no problem at all — the soil biota quickly recolonises soils that have been dug, especially when they are enriched with compost.

A circular herb garden was built around a sunken pond. The clay pipe provided habitat for lizards or other wildlife.
A circular herb garden was built around a sunken pond. The clay pipe provided habitat for lizards or other wildlife.

“Unlike Jaevon’s method, I watered the soil well then added a layer of newspaper and watered that well too, in part to reduce weed growth because there are still weed seeds in the soil, in part to retain soil moisture in our free-draining sandy soil. Over this, I added a thick layer of straw mulch, then watered again”.

A diversity of crops

Vegetables seed and seedlings were planted into compost placed in holes scooped into the mulch. “I make a cut through the underlying newspaper to assist the growth of roots, but some people don’t do this”, Fiona says. “I plant large seeds directly into the soil but I propagate small seeds into seedlings to plant out”.

Silver beet, rainbow chard, malabar spinach, upland cress, tomato, chives, capsicum, garlic chives, beans, corn, leafy greens and basil were among the first crops planted in the main garden adjacent to the circular paths. This area was retained mainly for annual crops — those that go through their life cycle, from seed to seed, within a year. Perennials — french sorrel, rhubarb and New Zealand spinach, were established further from the paths.

“With only three in the household we did not need many of any particular plant, so we could plant a wide variety of vegetables and herbs in the garden. There is no sense in planting more than you can eat though you should plant plenty of the crops that you do eat as a regular part of your diet. Bush beans are a favoutite of mine because they take so little space, can be close planted and produce a lot of beans. Silverbeet and spinach are our main greens and are supplemented by the perennial green, New Zealand spinach.

“As an experiment I planted a couple slippery cabbage — Hibiscus manihot — that is a staple leafy green of the tropical Pacific and which I know from our food security training work in the Solomon Islands.

“Unfortunatly, Sydney is a little too cold for it and it grew poorly into a stunted form and was subject to insect attack because of its weakness. It was out of its ecological range. Just as people in the Pacific islands are better off with slippery cabbage rather than imported varities of greens, because it is adapted to the climate and soils, so we in Sydney are better off sticking to leafy green vegetables that are adapted to our climate, such as the European and Chinese cabbages, New Zealand spinach, Asian greens, European spinach and chard and the other familiar greens.”

The yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) crop was prolific.
The yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) crop was prolific.

In the shadier area between the garden and the back fence two tamarillo (so-called ‘tree tomato’), banana and pawpaw (the pawpaw died after two seasons, probably due to cold winter winds) were established. Sweet potato and a small number of the Tahitian spinach variety of taro, given to Fiona by Jude Fanton from the Seed Savers Network, and which are grown for their edible leaf rather than for the corm (which does not grow large as in other taro varieties), were planted as an understory.

“Bananas do well in this climate. Some cultures cook and eat the long purple banana flower that appears below the ripening bunch, but I have not tried this. Tamarillo yield a succulent, strongly-flavoured red or orange coloured fruit the size of an egg, depending on the variety planted. It is a fast-growing, small tree whose home is South America. If you plant it in a windy area you might have to provide a stake for stability until it grows stronger. People make it into jam or eat it raw. Most people are familiar with pawpaw and I find it delicious raw or grated while still green onto salad.

“At the end of the garden adjacent to where the small trees are planted I established a few Jerusalum artichoke, which grow like sunflower as they are in the same family — and a Peruvian ground apple or yacon, an edible tuber that is delicious raw, sliced and marinated in lemon juice, grated onto salad or lightly cooked as a vegetable, though I don’t think cooking is its strong point as a food.

An edible water garden was made in salvaged foam vegetable boxes. These were later replaced by a salvaged fibreglass planter. Growing are water chestnut, water celery, duck potato and arrowhead.
An edible water garden was made in salvaged foam vegetable boxes. These were later replaced by a salvaged fibreglass planter. Growing are water chestnut, water celery, duck potato and arrowhead.

“The Jerusalum is not the same as the familiar globe artichoke. It is an edible root made into soup, eaten fresh and grated or cooked like potato. Its centre of origin is North America, where it is believed to have been gathered or cultivated by Indian peoples.”

The concrete block fence around the garden was used as a trellis for climbing beans and a black passionfruit vine. A strip garden was made along the outer side of the fence and planted to leafy green vegetables of the type that produce leaves that are frequently used, such as lettuce, spinach and chard, rather than the entire plant being harvested at once. Herbs and climbing beans — scarlet runners — were also established there. A few foam fruit boxes were turned into container gardens for water cress, arrowhead, water dropwort and other water crops and lined along the verandah.

Around the garden’s fenceline a two-metre high trellis was erected for choko, passionfruit, grape, climbing beans and a trial of New Guinea gourd, which failed to thrive.

“The frequently used vegetables and herbs are planted close to the path so they are accessible for easy picking for each meal”, says Fiona.

A moveable garden

In winter, the rear two-thirds of the garden was left fallow because shading by the neighbour’s oleanders prevented the growing of vegetables.

“This did not stop us growing vegetables”, Fiona explained.

“There was the third of the garden closest to the house that still received sunlight and we made container gardens for vegetables which we lined up along the verandah, where they received plenty of light.”

Enough productivity for a family

The garden, small though it was, provided enough food for evening meals and lunchtime salads.

The bananas thrived, producing so much fruit that not all of it could be eaten. The tamarillos yielded sweet, red fruits and even the pawpaw produced small fruits before succumbing to the cold.

The yacon and Jerusalum artichoke produced year after year, each time growing back from tubers left in the soil.

Time for a redesign

Some years later, Fiona planned a redesign of the garden to make it safe for her aging mother.

“This required a major modification as designing for aged people is quite different to designing for the able-bodied. Designing for the aged… you have to minimise risk.

“The curving paths were not suited to an aged person, so we contemplated the reconstruction of the garden into raised, rectangular beds and straight, smooth, paved paths. We had earlier installed bark chip pathways but they would have had to be reconstructed and paved with recycled bricks. Designing for households with aged parents is different than designing to satisfy your own whims”.

At this time, three Isa Brown chickens were acquired as animal therapy for Fiona’s mother. They produced so many eggs that there were plenty to give to neighbours.

“The Isa-brown, a French breed so I believe, is bred for its egg-laying productivity”, said Fiona. “We would get six eggs a week from each bird in summer, perhaps one or two less in winter. This was well beyond our needs. They were fed on bought grains and mash supplemented by kitchen scraps and what they fund in their area of the garden”.

Urban chookery

“The chooks were installed in a mobile pen consisting of two easily-moved modules that sat on a base plate. We fenced around the pen to create a small scratchyard. Every month or two we would move the pen and the chook house to another area of the garden. The chooks ended up following the movement of the sun through the garden, from summer to winter.

We now had less time to garden, having to care for my mother”, says Fiona.

“The taro and arrowroot planted earlier provided greenfeed for the chooks, the leaves of which they ate with great enthusiasm. They also liked any cabbage-type leaf as well as New Zealand spinach and long grass from the garden.

“Greenfeed is important to the health of chooks. Like we humans, they need a balanced diet. The Jerusalum artichoke and yacon were still coming up all by themselves so we chopped them up and gave it to them as supplementary feed.

“Their diet was made up of bought mixed grains, laying mash soaked in water to make a paste, a little sorghum and sunflower that we grew in the garden — we lost a lot of sunflower to marauding sulphur crested cockatoos which sweep through this area — vegetable leaf, crop residue, grass and weeds. The chooks virtually eliminated pellitory (asthma weed) from the garden and ate the leaf of dandelion. Protein came from snails we collected and threw into the pen and the occasional skink they caught, as well as kitchen scraps.

“Like many urban gardens, ours was too small to be self-sufficient in chook food.”


Gardening on sandy soils necessitated the continuous production of compost.

“We got the lawn maintenance man to leave his grass clippings and leaf sweepings and this made up the bulk of our composting material. As a small, waste-conscious household, we did not produce enough green waste to make sufficient compost and we did not have the space to grow crops especially to use for compost. Our kitchen waste and much of the garden waste went straight to the chooks.

“This is a problem faced by many urban gardeners with the small families common in Australia today. They simply do not produce enough green waste, even when they have lawn. Some make worm compost but this produces only enough for use on potted plants.”

The value of mulch on dry soils

Another learning was about the value of mulched gardens.

“Not only does the mulch break down into nutrient for the plants and reduce the growth of weeds, it reduces water loss from the sandy soil. This can be acute in the dry summer months. It also keeps the soil cool in summer”, Fiona explains.

Over the years the soils in the garden changed from porous, nutrient-deprived sand to a darker sand that holds moisture. “This was entirely due to composting and mulching”, Fiona claimed, ” …which also reduces water use in irrigation. With the use of sprinklers being banned in Sydney during our present water shortage and only hand-held hosing allowed in the early morning and evening three days a week, any method that conserves soil moisture is to be encouraged”.

Water-holding crystals of a type approved for organic gardening were added to the soil to improve its water retention capacity.

Careful design

The need for careful design has been a critical learning.

“When you have the limited space of a small urban garden you have to make best use of it if you are to grow enough fruit and vegetables for your needs. That’s why I made accurate measurements and took the time to draw a base plan to scale. On this, I drew the information discovered during site analysis and the existing structures and features, such as the concrete block fence. Then I toyed with different garden bed designs and the location of paths to come up with a detail plan that would guide the construction of the garden.

“The aim was to minimise the area taken by paths and maximise that covered by garden bed, while at the same time making all of the garden accessible. I wanted to have all beds accessible from paths so we did not have to walk on the garden beds and compact the soil and trample plants. Where the garden bed was too wide we placed stepping stones. Accessibility is very important”.

Fiona was after a design suited to the small gardens common in the city. “This is achievable first by looking around to see how other people have approached design, then by taking care with site analysis. After that, it is the turn of the imagination in the design of the garden. Then, soil preparation and close planting. Critical to continued productivity is maintaining the soil in fertile condition”.

Fiona’s garden proves that a little thought can go a long way when it comes to a productive, healthy garden

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