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Designing An Urban Sanctuary


Designer: Taj Scicluna, in collaboration with Linton Cummins

Client: Lordy Dannaoui

Location: Yarraville, Victoria

Aim: To design an urban sanctuary of edible and medical plants.

Background: The property is in a region with a history of industrial use, close to the city of Melbourne and the estuary of the Yarra River. One person and three cats currently reside on the property, which is 960 square metres, consisting of a fairly flat and open area.

The priorities of the project will be to: build soil; grow fruit and vegetables; and create a beautiful environment that is healing and nourishing, as well as functional and productive.

Wish list: vegetable garden, food forest, medicinal garden, compost/worms, a variety of vines, water tanks, fire pit, greenhouse, geometric garden bed, outdoor pizza oven, sweat lodge, chickens (in future, depending on cats).

Goal statement: The garden and outdoor area is a physical meditation; a place of transformation, connection, healing and deep nourishment.

Design challenges: Soil contamination may be an issue, as the property is in an area that was used for industry. The local ecosystems are run down, meaning it will be harder to establish garden ecology and control certain pests.

Permaculture design is more about whole systems thinking and ecological succession than about two-dimensional representations. However, a well-drawn plan is an excellent tool for ‘visioning’.

The first step in Taj’s design process is creating realistic client expectations: ‘It’s important that the client understands that permaculture is NOT landscaping, and not to expect a “backyard blitz” style implementation. Permaculture is about slow and small solutions, and ecological systems which need to establish before you can expect balance and productivity’.

Passing on her passion for permaculture …

One thing that stands out in Taj’s design process is the importance that she places on sharing her knowledge and experience of permaculture and permaculture teaching with her clients.

Taj includes the following in a ‘disclaimer’ she gives all of her clients when she first meets them.

‘Permaculture focuses on the relationships and connections between elements in a system. Thoughtful placement is essential when designing and implementing a permaculture garden, and many aspects are considered in this planning. Climate, landform, water, legalities, community and soil are a few of these considerations to ensure an efficient and effective design is achieved.”

The research document for this project is extensive, and uses detailed information from government agencies and public records to build up an image of how this block of land fits into the bigger picture of space and time.


Clockwise from right: A blank canvas to implement the design; looking north towards the house; planting plan. Images and design by Taj Scicluna


Designing for the presence of heavy metals and soil contamination

Yarraville has been home to industry and manufacturing since the early 1800s. More recently the suburb has been converted to residential because it’s close to the CBD and Port Melbourne.

Soil can tell a lot about the history of the place, and when food production is planned it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper. Taj notes that, ‘A lot of urban areas would present some kind of soil contamination, from the lead that was used in paint, to the deposits from the lead-based car fumes of the past. In an area such as Yarraville, the risk is greater.’

Taj and Lordy are sending a soil sample to the VegeSafe Program, run through Macquarie University in Sydney, which offers free soil testing for metal and metalloid contaminants in garden soil. They will receive a formal report of the results, as well as links to information and advice about what to do next if the soils contain elevated concentrations of metals. The design work is proceeding with the assumption of some heavy metal contamination.

Some plants are fond of ‘sucking up’ metals: these are ‘dynamic accumulators’. For example, Taj suggests that, ‘Comfrey, dock and coriander accumulate heavy metals’, and that she ‘wouldn’t recommend planting them directly into the soil on a project such as this one’. Taj also explains that, ‘Some plants accumulate dust/pollution on their foliage and stop it spreading to the rest of the garden – such as sticky acacia (African) Acacia borleae, native sticky wattle Acacia howittii, tamarind Tamarindus indica’.

Taj has included raised garden beds in her design, in geometric mandala formations. Soil will be brought in for growing the leafy green vegetables and root crops that Lordy will be eating. Other plants (e.g. fruit trees), which pass on little or no contamination, will also be included in the food forest.

Taj advises that ‘Soil remediation will be a big part of this project – reactivating the life of the soil and introducing organic matter’.

There are lots of minerals in the high clay content soil for plant uptake when the system starts to function. Compost tea will benefit the food forest system especially. Taj will monitor the soil throughout implementation of the design. While in severe cases soil may need to be removed to allow for a healthy start to a project, Taj suggests that, with a few good design decisions, the impact of contamination can be reduced in a slower and simpler way.

Local native plant species

Taj also delves into local Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs) during design. These groups of plants occur together and would have grown naturally in areas before deforestation and urbanisation.

EVC information, available through the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (including species lists and distribution information), is valuable when recreating native bushland, even on a small block.

Taj explains that this information is relevant to an urban design because, ‘most people forget that the first chapter of Bill Mollison’s Permaculture: a Designer’s Manual (Tagari Publications, 1988) states that we have an inherent responsibility to revegetate our landscapes. Since we have lost over seventy per cent of our local vegetation in Victoria, I think we need to pay even more attention to this. Without natural ecosystems, we have nothing.’

Taj always tries to create pockets of habitat in her designs, if she can. It doesn’t always work for suburban blocks, but if she’s creating a frog pond or a food forest she may be able to research which species of frogs or birds or lizards are endangered in the area, and which ecosystems they lived in. She tries to mimic those, on even minute levels, so that the species can feed or breed or shelter. It also creates more diversity in a system.

Local plants can also offer a lot to a productive ecosystem. Native plants attract bees, can offer nutritional mulch (e.g. acacias), and create privacy and bird habitat. Planting local plants is also a powerful way to strengthen your own understanding and appreciation of the place in which you live. As Taj says, ‘Wilderness is us – we must look after it to look after ourselves’.

In this project we can see how the consultation and research phase has been invaluable in creating a design to fit both the client and the place. The time that Taj has taken to execute her final plan has given Lody a clear vision of her goal, which is an inspiration in itself.

If you have a design project that you’d like share with Pip, please email Ben Buggy at


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