An edible garden for Eastern Suburbs apartment dwellers
Story & photos: Russ Grayson
WHEN WE MOVED INTO THE APARTMENT near The Spot in Randwick, we noticed that someone had planted a few herbs and that there was a wormery in use by one of the owners. There was also a large sandy strip, once a garden in the backyard. What sort of garden it had been we didn’t know.
At our first body corporate meeting one of the residents said that it was she who had planted the herbs and who maintained the small wormery. She also said that she would like a garden in which to grow food. The other owners were not particularly interested in gardening, however they were fine with the idea of building a new garden from which we could all take some food.
It would soon come to be.
Preliminaries — look and think
First to do was to observe the sun and shade patterns, figure our what would happen with runoff in heavy rain and to assess the type of soil in the backyard.
Soil conditions were obvious. This is the Eastern Suburbs and the soil is, well… it’s mainly Eastern Suburbs sand… which means that it retains few of the nutrients that growing plants need and little of the water they require to grow strong and healthy. The sandy soil would have to be augmented to make it fertile.
Designwise, we decided on two narrow beds for those veges and herbs plucked frequently – such as leafy greens, tomato, capsicum, eggplant and so on – and a broadbed for those that take a longer time to grow to harvest and for perennial vegetables (those that live and produce over several years). The beds would be raised above the ground and, to produce a good harvest as soon as possible, we decided to bring in an organic-rich growing medium to fill the beds and to supplement the sandy soil.
We could have gone with the no-dig, sheet mulched type of garden, however this type of garden construction takes some time for nutrients to penetrate the sandy soil to such as extent that the garden would reach optimal productivity in reasonable time. We had seen the value of building raised beds and bringing in a rich, organic fill at Randwick Council’s training garden, which is used for its Sustainable Gardening course at the Bundock Street community centre. Here, the raised beds are far more productive than the adjacent ground level no-dig, sheet mulched garden. Eastern Suburbs sandy soils are so nutrient-poor that bringing in a nutritious fill to make a garden is justified.
The fill we used was composted from council’s green waste collection and was accelerated in processing by spraying the green waste windrows with ‘effective microorganisms’. Essentially, this makes it a bacterially-accelerated composting method.
The beds were to be made from recycled plastic boards, which once were printer cartridges. These come sealed against ultraviolet light and leaching.
The decision to go ahead and create a garden was easily made.
Day one — time to act
The crew from Sydney Organic Gardens turned up a few minutes ahead of time and soon we were measuring and laying out the position for the beds. In addition to the garden beds, an adjacent slope needed stabilising and work started on this by installing the first retaining wall. Later, we will backfill this and also a second retaining wall, to effectively turn an unstable, unusable bare soil slope into a terraced garden.
By lunchtime, what had been a patch of bare, unproductive sand had been replaced by a series of three raised garden beds. After a break, we started work in the hot afternoon sun on the task of moving the five cubic metre mound of organic fill that was blocking the footpath… by hand.
As a 1920s apartment block, there was no driveway to bring materials to us in the backyard, so everything had to be carried manually. The fill was shoveled into buckets and rubbish bins on the footpath, carried down a total of 17 steps, tipped into a wheelbarrow, wheeled carefully down the narrow path and, finally, tipped on to the garden where it was raked into a low mounded shape. It was hot work.
Today, the garden beds having been built and filled by late afternoon the previous day, we were off to the nursery to buy bales of pea straw to mulch the garden. Other than being a good price at the time, pea straw is leguminous, that is, it comes from the pea plant, which is a legume. The advantage of this is that legumes have a biological association with the bacteria that produce nitrogen, one of the main nutrients needed by growing plants. As the mulch breaks down the nitrogen becomes available to the roots of the vegetables, providing them with a source of the plant food.
A source of nitrogen-rich material in the garden activates the principle of the garden providing some of its own nutrients, cutting down on the material brought in from outside as the garden gets underway. This is nature-assisted-design.
The mulch was well watered in as the day cooled towards evening.
Up while the day was cool, it was a morning for us to plant our seeds and seedlings.
First in were some flowering plants that will attract pollinating insects as well as them meat-eating, predatory insects that feed on the vegetarian bugs that eat our vegetables. This makes the basis of a food web and it’s something that evolves as the garden matures. It’s part of our Integrated Pest Management strategy that helps us avoid the need for non-organic pesticides.
Capsicum, asparagus, lettuce and other vegetable seeds and seedlings then went in. Hopefully, in a few months, we will return to the garden to harvest and eat what we have planted.
By 9am, food production on Sully Street was underway.
Enacting principles of design
Some of the design principles enacted in the garden include supplying nutrient inputs for the garden. To help with this, a compost bin was installed. When one of the non-gardening residents saw this, she asked if she, too, could use it for her kitchen wastes. This shows how ideas spread via the ‘demonstration effect’. That is, by demonstrating the idea and providing the infrastructure (a compost bin in this case), some people will be motivated to adopt it.
Another principle was that of access. Plants that will grow in the narrow beds are easily reached from three sides (the fourth abuts the fence, which we will trellis for passionfruit, climbing beans and the like). Stepping stones provide access into the broadbed where longer term and scrambling plants like melon, pumpkin, asparagus and the like are to be established. It’s understatement to say that Amanda, one of the apartment owners, is something of an asparagus enthusiast and was quick to put her young plants in. Next day, she was seen nibbling on the thin shoots.
Low maintenance was another consideration as well as being an established principal of effective garden design. That is one reason recycled plastic boards were used, hoping that they might outlast timber. Bark chips were layered thickly to make mulched pathways around the garden beds and to keep down weeds, and a strip of plastic edging was dug into the soil around the garden to reduce invasion by stoloniferous (those that spread by creeping and setting roots from their nodes) lawn grasses.
The use of the recycled plastic boards lent itself to the construction of rectangular garden beds. We chose these because of their ease of construction, maintenance and harvest. There are garden designs such as the mandala gardens favoured by those in permaculture, however these can make for more intensive maintenance on account of the greater length of garden edge that interfaces with paths and grassed areas, and there is no factual evidence that they are any more productive that conventional, rectangular garden beds. Simplicity, as usual, is the key to effective and manageable systems.
We enacted the principle of low-water-use gardening by bringing in the organic-rich, moisture-retentive fill for the garden beds and by placing a think layer of pea straw mulch on top of the beds to reduce water loss by evaporation. Now, a couple of the apartment owners are talking about a water tank and one of them even likes the idea of a photovoltaic array on the roof.
Edible gardens on apartment block common land can be difficult things to start as the agreement of people on the body corporate is necessary. Fortunately, though slowly, they are starting to appear. Now, here is Sully Street’s first. As well as food, apartment gardens provide the opportunity for active recreation and make a more useful form of landscaping than lawn and unproductive ornamental plants.
By growing some of the food we eat we apartment dwellers, too, can become producers, not mere consumers.
See another City East apartment garden here.
IT’S THE END OF FEBRUARY AND OF THE SUMMER OF 2010, and around two months after creating our Randwick apartment blocks’ vegetable garden it is now in full bloom and we have started to harvest from it. The foliage of the plants forms a low canopy over the mulch. Pests have been few and minor.
A new garden has now been made on the opposite side of the apartment block’s backyard and has been planted to seedlings of jam melon. These were grown from flat, red seed given by the Italian partner of one of the apartment owners. He got the seed from his parents, who inherited it in Italy from their parents. I guess this is what you might call ‘hetritage’ seed. He says that the jam melons taste terrible raw but make an excellent jam. We look forward to a jam processing session upon his return from Italy is a few months.
Shading may limit winter productivity in the existing vegetable garden, however the jam melon patch could make a fine winter garden. We’ll see.