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Designing The Good Life

hannah
Hannah in her beautiful, colourful north-facing lounge room. Photo by Natalie Mendham

We bought our old house and quarter acre block in urban Hobart in late 2012. The only reason we could afford to buy it was because of its ‘interesting’ and limited access—just a steep old 100 m concrete staircase from the road. And while we were pretty okay with this initially, we always knew we wanted to buy the neighbouring block that came with easy access.

In 2016, we bought the neighbouring weed block, making our block three quarters of an acre now with access. We quickly built a driveway which we mostly use for our electric bikes and are now in the process of implementing our full design.

When we did our initial design, we designed the whole property with the neighbouring weed block in mind, hoping that one day we’d get it and thankfully we did. This means we’ve been able to quickly roll out the implementation process (as our budget allows) as we’d already been thinking about it for four years.

THE CHANGES WE MADE

Our house was built in 1925 and is a simple rectangle facing north/north-east, a wonderful design for maximum solar gain. The only changes we’ve made to the house so far include:

  • Re-roofing, as the old roof was starting to rust and was painted in lead paint, meaning we couldn’t harvest rain
  • water.
  • Insulating the ceiling and floor.
  • Painting it hot pink. It was flaking lead paint everywhere
  • when we bought it, so stripping and painting it was
  • essential to avoid further soil contamination. The hot
  • pink was essential to inspire joy and love.
  • Renovating beneath the house, improving the living space which allows us to share our home with more people.

Future works we plan on doing to the house to improve its design include:

  • Double glazing all the windows.
  • Shifting the kitchen from one of the southern rooms into the north-east room.
  • Adding a connecting deck from the kitchen to the garden to integrate it further into the landscape.
top
View from top of the property. Photo by Natalie Mendham

DESIGN CHALLENGES & SOLUTIONS

The slope

The biggest design challenge on our property has been our steep slope. How we’ve responded to it is to create a series of terraces with ramps between each one so a wheelbarrow can travel across the whole property. And while we would have loved stone retaining walls to create more flat space, we gave that idea away when we did a budget and the cost was pushing $100 000.

Instead we have large earth banks between each terrace which we’ve planted out as either a food forest or as orchards. The orchards are interplanted with tree lucerne or native indigo shrubs between each edible tree acting as nurse trees, fixing nitrogen and growing quickly to help protect edible trees from wind. A pasture layer including red and white clover, phacelia and comfrey also help stabilise the slope.

Heat treated pallets were an important addition to stabilising the slope and helping to get things growing. We embedded them into the landscape with timber pickets and planted into their ledges. This accelerated the plant’s growth significantly, and water and soil were held higher in the slope.

A great bonus is that these pallets are a free resource which we collect from industrial sites around town. Be sure to only collect the heat treated ones (look for their ‘HT’ stamp) as they’re free of methyl bromide, a chemical used to preserve some pallets—you don’t want this in your soil.

Water

Hobart is Australia’s second driest capital city with an annual rainfall of just over 600 mm. Before doing our earthworks, rain would just roll straight off our steep hillside. Now the terraces slow and sink water into the soil, benefiting surrounding crops. We’ve also directed some of the house’s greywater into the orchard downhill of our house with subsurface irrigation. All this means that water is working for us passively, reducing the amount of irrigating we need to do in hotter months.

Wind

We get very strong westerly winds, so strong they blew our broccoli crop out of the ground one season. With this in mind, we chose to keep the weedy windbreak made up on Cotoneaster and Pittosporum trees and move the annual beds to the new land next door in 2016. We’ve now planted these old annual patches with more productive trees to thicken up the windbreak and provide more food.

Contamination

We inherited a lot of rubbish and contaminants left over from the previous owners on the property, specifically lead in the soil downhill of the house from the house paint (where gravity put it) and old rotting furniture and goods half-buried in the front garden. As a result, this section of the property is contaminated with lead and has one large steep bank where plants struggle to grow. We call this bank ‘the death zone’.

Our response to this was to remove as much rubbish as we could and plant natives and herbs on the death zone bank, most of which died, but nasturtiums seem to thrive (it’s a work in progress). Next to this area, we’ve planted mixed fruit trees on the lead contaminated areas. While lead will show up in harmful levels in leafy crops and root vegetables, it doesn’t in fruit and nut trees and other fruiting crops such as tomatoes, peas and beans.

Clockwise from top: Happy families. Hannah, Frida, Anton and the goat; The house was painted hot pink to inspire joy and love; The property is designed so people, animals and plants thrive; Hannah working on the fruit trees. Photos by Natalie Mendham

ANIMALS

Animals are a big part of our life here. We have two female Toggenburg goats, one of whom we milk every morning and receive two litres each day for cheese, yoghurt and milk. Being in an urban space, we walk them down the back bush road, tether them around our garden in the grassy patches and cut them fresh fodder daily.

There are also chickens for eggs, beehives for honey and pollination, and thoughts of future geese to help mow the grass. While the animals require significant inputs from us (especially the goats), the rewards are enormous and well worth our time and energy.

ENERGY & NUTRIENT CYCLING

Being in an urban area, we’re connected to mains water and power, however we still have solar panels (connected to the grid), harvest water and optional low-tech compost toilets. Harnessing energy and cycling nutrients is important to us and nothing compostable leaves our property, instead it goes to one of our compost systems or animals and eventually back into the food gardens to provide valuable nutrients.

GROWING IN A COOL TEMPERATE CLIMATE

Being in a cool temperate climate, we’re always interested in making warmer microclimates in our landscape, including our cold frame. This nifty bit of infrastructure is more affordable and compact than a hot house but just as effective for small crops. We’ll be using this to grow bush tomatoes, basil and eggplants.

AN URBAN LIFE

We live a farming lifestyle but are only 2.7 kms from the centre of Hobart city. We purposefully chose to live in the city so we didn’t have to be dependent on a car to move around. Tasmania has limited public transport and we love riding our bikes. These days we have electric bikes to help carry a growing kid and the occasional sack of chook feed up some very steep hills.

As we run our business from home, our house and garden are more activated as there’s almost always someone here to tend the animals, water the carrot seeds and make sure the raspberries are protected from the birds. We’ve taken huge inspiration from the radical homemakers movement and hold community sufficiency close to our hearts and life intention.

NOW AND THE FUTURE

Over the next year we’ll build our shed, an earth cellar (for cheeses and garden produce) and a pergola for our rampant grapevines. We still have lots to do, but every now and then we look around and remember that where once grass, gorse, boneseed and cotoneaster thrived, now people, animals and edible and native plants do. A rich landscape providing around 70% of our food plus habitat and beauty, all coming together to form a love-filled home.

Permaculture ethics and principles have provided us the framework for practical and less tangible design thinking and methods that have led us here. To a lifestyle that’s meaningful, grounded, freeing, colourful and benefits others. The good life is pretty good here.

Good Life Permaculture is based on Mouheneenner Country, Lutruwita (Hobart, Tasmania). They are a permaculture landscape design and education enterprise that works to make lives and landscapes resilient and regenerative.

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