Clockwise from above left: New back room with passive solar design elements; Front garden five years on; Blue triangle butterfly on flowering chives; RE-designed back room; The backyard in 2016. Photos by Alison Mellor
Inspired by their experiences WWOOFING around Australia and volunteering at their local community garden, Alison Mellor and her partner Richard Walter embarked on an urban sustainability adventure. They retrofitted their 1950s suburban house in Wollongong (on NSW’s south coast) and transformed their backyard into a flourishing food garden. Ten years on, they reflect on the design process, the changes they’ve made and the lessons they’ve learned.
In The Beginning
In 2007, we first came across what would become our house and garden. It sat on a north facing 920 m2 suburban block. We saw a blank canvas ripe for creating a flourishing food garden, and plenty of potential to retrofit the small fibro house for sustainability. We spent three months working on the house before we moved in and during this time created the overall design for the food garden.
Retrofitting The House
Our plan for retrofitting the house focused on energy and water efficiency and on creating a healthy home environment. For energy efficiency we fitted insulation in the ceiling, removed a small air conditioner and selected energy efficient appliances and light fittings. We installed an efficient combustion wood heater, a 300 litre solar hot water system and a small 1 kW solar power system.
On the southern side of the house we planted deciduous fruit trees and grapevines that provide shade in summer and light in winter. All of this reduced our energy use to just 2.5 kWh a day. Since our daughter came along it’s risen to 4 kWh a day, but we’re still well under the 19 kWh a day average for a three-person household in NSW. Our oven is electric, but the cooktop uses LPG gas, and we use one small 45 kg bottle about every 15 months.
We installed two 9000 litre water tanks, one of which we hooked up to the washing machine. Simple greywater reuse systems were set up to divert greywater from the washing machine and shower to fruit trees in the backyard.
We used eco paints to freshen the place up, and natural linseed-based oil on the revived wooden floors. In the kitchen we took out a wall to create more connectivity to this important space.
There was a pretty dodgy DIY extension at the back of the house; basically a deck that had been boxed in with caravan annex type material. It leaked when it rained and was like a greenhouse in summer. Great for raising seedlings, but to make better use of this north-facing space we started working with a local architect in 2011.
In mid-2012 we started the ten-month process of implementing the new design for the back room and moving the kitchen and living room. Richard was able to work like an apprentice with the local building company we contracted and enjoyed being very involved in the process. To create thermal mass we used core-filled concrete bricks, and with welldesigned eaves, insulated glass windows and the use of ceiling fans, we vastly improved the comfort of the space.
A small deck made from locally sourced sustainable timber provides us with a bird’s-eye view of our back garden. Here we enjoy many a meal made with our garden produce, and watch the wildlife visiting our thriving suburban food forest.
The Garden Design
Putting down roots in our hometown, we had the advantage of being familiar with the local climate and knowing the kinds of edible plants that grow well here. Two of the main challenges in Wollongong with designing a food garden are scorching, dry periods in summer that are increasing with intensity with climate change, and the prevalence of Queensland fruit fly.
Our garden design takes this into account, focusing on using fruit fly resistant plants like bananas, as well as water management strategies including minimising hard surfaces, reusing greywater, mini swales, rainwater tanks, and focusing on building healthy soil. Diversity is also key to our food garden design. With over 100 different trees, shrubs, vines and groundcovers, no matter what the weather or garden pests throw at us, something is sure to thrive.
In the design, each tree, shrub and vine was strategically placed based on its requirements for water, protection from wind, and general hardiness. It surprises many people that in our coastal climate south of Sydney, we can grow subtropical plants like bananas, jaboticaba, pawpaw, babaco, sapodilla, custard apple and cherimoya.
The house is an integral part of the garden design and much thought was given to the way the garden and house interact with each other. Efficiency in terms of human effort and time was also important in the garden design, and is proving even more so now we are a family of three! Simple things like having the vegie patch right at the back door and set up with timers for irrigation and taps spread throughout the garden all add up in small ways to make the most efficient use of our time in the garden.
While we were both working full-time outside the home, the garden design took 18 months to implement. We’re very grateful to family and friends who generously helped us out, especially with big jobs like building the rock retaining wall, front deck and on mulching days. Now with us both working part-time and having a daughter, we would probably spend an average of ten hours a month managing the garden, not including once-a-year big jobs like mulching the paths and pruning the trees. We never aimed to be self-sufficient, but we enjoy always being able to harvest something and watching the incredible diversity of urban wildlife that also finds food and refuge in our garden.
Our front garden started off similar to most others in the street – approximately 300 m2 of flat lawn with a couple of exotic palms and a small white fence. There was a large driveway extending for 30 metres down to a garage. It certainly got the neighbours talking when we flipped the entire lawn on its head with a turf cutter, added a little topsoil, soil conditioners and green manure seeds, and grew a field of millet five foot high!
We sheet mulched the verge and planted it out with native shrubs and grasses, and used newspaper, mulch and comfrey to create a barrier against grass.
We tackled the excessive stencil concrete driveway and had it broken up into small pieces by an excavator. Richard spent a back-breaking summer shaping the concrete chunks into smaller pieces, creating a mosaic pathway which winds its way from the front gate to the chicken house down the back garden. The back garden is approximately 450 m2. It originally had a large in-ground swimming pool with concrete edging, and a garage close to the back door.
A Besser block retaining wall followed on from there, and the lawn area was scattered with a few small trees. We considered a number of options for the pool – turning it into a pond for wildlife, an underground water tank or aquaponics set up. But after weighing up all the pros and cons, we felt vegie beds were the best option for the area right at our back doorstep. So we organised for an excavator to break up the concrete and take it to a local recycling facility, removing the pool.
A friend with a bobcat helped re-level the garden, creating a flat vegie bed area followed by a gentle slope we could work with to hand build a retaining wall using locally sourced rocks. Greywater reuse systems were set up to divert water from the shower and washing machine. A frog pond was added to the lower backyard, mini swales dug to absorb run-off, and a chicken house was made from recycled materials.
Fruit trees, shrubs and vines were all strategically placed; the spaces between them filled with fast-growing natives. The natives were ‘pioneer trees’, able to grow quickly, bring life to the soil, create habitat and shade when needed, and then be removed over time as the fruit trees became established. Ten years on we have few pioneer trees left as the fruit trees have come into their own.
Around the edges of the property we planted a number of clumping, non-invasive bamboos for privacy. Some of these have grown much bigger than anticipated and have been replaced with smaller tiger grasses.
The Vegie Patch
Vegie beds, a plant nursery, water tanks and honeybee hive are where the pool used to be. The vegie patch was initially designed as a half mandala, with one circular bed in the centre, surrounded by four more circular beds, linked at the perimeters. Each bed was about three metres in diameter, with a small keyhole entrance. Over time we created more access points by extending the keyholes right through the middle of the beds. We thought we would create movable chook domes for the beds, but never got around to it – however, the centre of the mandala vegie patch proved a lovely place for our backyard wedding!
After having our daughter five years ago, we soon after undertook a renovation of the back part of the house and neglected the vegie beds, letting them go a bit wild. Partly to try something new and partly to see if we could improve the drip irrigation set up, we redesigned the vegie beds. We created seven rectangular beds 2.8 m long by 1.2 m wide, two small herb beds and a long narrow bed 40 cm wide and about 8 m long with a trellis for growing beans and other vines behind the vegie beds.
We love having chooks in the garden, and designed our garden around keeping a small flock of hens. In our sloping backyard, a rock wall and fences keep them restricted to the lower food forest section and out of the vegie patch. While our young trees and groundcovers were getting established, we had two gorgeous Chinese Silkies. Now our more established back garden can support two Pekins and four larger cross-breed chooks, giving us fresh eggs with the brightest of yellow yolks.
After living with and watching our system develop over ten years, we have learnt a lot and made changes as we needed to. Although we had a clear design at the beginning, it has evolved and changed over time as our needs have evolved as well.
Lessons Learned In The Burbs
- Invest time in your overall design and then break it into manageable sections, tackling one thing at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed
- Bamboo is brilliant, but be aware it can often grow much taller than expected. Be particularly aware of the need to grow small plants under power lines and close to fence lines
- Know your local council tree management policies. If you plan to grow trees as short term ‘pioneer trees,’ be sure to keep them to a small size. Large trees may need council tree permit applications to remove
- Check with your local council to see if they have guidelines on nature strip plantings. Remember to leave plenty of space right next to the road for people exiting their cars
- Don’t be afraid to change things around if certain aspects of your garden design aren’t working or are proving too high maintenance
- Use wildlife-friendly measures to protect produce (i.e. individual bagging, very small gauge netting), and be prepared to share some produce with urban wildlife