A productive food garden starts with great design. Applying permaculture design principles early on in the design phase means striking a balance with nature to get it working with you, achieving practical and permanent efficiencies to help feed you and your family.
Building a vegie patch from scratch can seem daunting, but by carefully observing your space and applying practical problem-solving techniques, you can create a thriving and productive food garden whether you’re on acreage or on a small city plot.
Homegrown vegetables are far better for both you and the planet than anything you can buy from a shop. Having a garden capable of producing vegetables for your family is a great place to kick off your permaculture journey and get you thinking about the best way to integrate growing food into your patch and your lifestyle.
Determining the best site for a food garden is about balancing suitability and convenience. But to do that, you need to work out exactly what role you want your new garden to play; do you want it to supplement your weekly fruit and vegie needs, or would you like it to replace it altogether? How much time do you realistically have to tend to it and how much of your available space are you willing to allocate to growing food?
Observe And Interact
Before you start planning your new vegetable garden, look around your yard and take stock of all the things you have to work with. At this point, determine whether your soil is clay, loamy or sandy, but don’t be put off by what you find. Lots of really productive food gardens start out with substandard soils, and half the fun is building up your soil using composted or living organic materials. Take note of aspect, whether your block is steep or flat, and even consider things like how your new garden might look from inside your home.
Understanding your climate’s temperature range, prevailing wind direction and average rainfall will be really useful in both the planning and planting stages of your new garden.
Soil temperature and rainfall are important and obvious factors to consider, but wind can dry out seedlings and small plants really quickly, so being able to provide shelter from the wind without blocking the all-important sunshine can make for more successful yields.
In the southern hemisphere, a northern aspect is desired for vegetable garden production. All fruit and vegetables need at least six or seven hours of sunshine per day and, where possible, should face north. As well as water and nutrients, your garden will benefit from being sheltered from the wind, and shelter from the harsh summer sun will also need to be considered if you live in the northern parts of the country. The winter sun is lower, casting longer shadows and the daylight hours are shorter than in summer. If you’ve got time to track and take note of where the sun falls during particular times of the year, do, and consider locating your garden bed for optimum winter sunshine.
Most vegetables need supplemental watering so knowing your annual rainfall will help you calculate how regularly you may need to water during the different seasons. And the availability of water needs to be an important part of the design process. You need a source of water nearby and its availability, combined with your chosen site and your climate, will dictate the best watering system (drip, overhead, hose, sprinkler, etc.) for you.
Planning The Site
Once you have gathered all the available knowledge through observation, you can then make educated decisions as you develop and adapt your design.
Measure your available space and draw it up roughly to scale (2:100 is a good starting point, where two centimetres on your plan is equal to one metre in your garden). Start by plotting north, before adding what you’ve learnt about the sun, shade and wind direction. Include your boundary, existing beds and large trees before working out the best place to locate your garden.
Bear in mind if your plan tells you the optimum place for your garden is right up the back of your yard, you’ll probably need to compromise. Having your garden conveniently located to your back door or kitchen will not only make your produce easier and more likely to be harvested, but you’ll also be more inclined to maintain it regularly if it’s nearby.
Allocate the general area your garden bed or beds will sit. There are no rules around what shape or length they should be, but aim for no more than 1.5 metres wide to allow for easy access to the centre without compacting the soil by having to climb in the bed. Walkways surrounding the beds should be at least 80 centimetres wide to provide access for wheelbarrows and other tools, and implementing a path around the beds will also reduce weeds encroaching on your newly made garden.
You will be surprised how much food you can grow in a small space (Pip, Issue 10), if you plant carefully. Your patch may vary from one to 100 square metres; this will vary depending on your family’s eating habits and the types of vegetables you want to grow.
Peg out the beds with stakes and string so you can make sure you can move around the area, reach across it, and observe if there are any shaded areas you didn’t account for.
Once you know where your beds will sit and why, you’ll then need to work out how best to execute it. Some people may find raised garden beds easier to maintain, but they add to the cost if you can’t repurpose existing materials to build them. If you have a steep site, you might choose to work with the slope and build a raised bed against the steepest side. Strawbale garden beds (Pip, Issue 19) are a less-expensive raised option, but will only last a couple of years before they’ll start breaking down and need replacing – they’ll make great mulch afterwards, as well as a great source of carbon for your compost.
Wicking beds are large, free-standing and self-watering containers that are relatively easy to make yourself. They’re great for excluding weeds or containing rampant plants like asparagus or Jerusalem artichokes.
The simplest option is a no-dig garden bed. If it’s covered in lawn, cover the area with a sun-blocking layer of sheet mulch to inhibit the grass, then alternate layers of wet brown material such as straw/dried leaves with layers of manure or compost to the required height. Finish with a layer of mulch. When it comes time to plant, create a pocket of compost to plant into.
Once your sheet mulch is down, add a layer of organic compost at least 15 centimetres thick before top-dressing it with a good layer of mulch. Leave it undisturbed for a week or two to allow the worms to condition the soil by transitioning the organic material from above into the earth underneath.
Resist digging it in, maintaining the soil’s structure means it won’t oxidise and release carbon, and will allow a stable soil ecosystem to be maintained. Planting directly into the well-composted layer of organic material on top will return just as good results, if not better, and will do wonders for your soil health if repeated each season.
All soils types will benefit from the addition of organic compost and mulches. Mulch is an important addition to a vegetable bed in most situations, helping with both water retention and soil improvement, but opt for a lightweight organic mulch, such as straw or sugarcane, that will break down rapidly. Heavier mulches such as wood chips are far better suited to use around established plants (or to create paths) than on your vegetable garden.
Weeds also take nutrients from your plants’ soil, but a thick layer of mulch can help keep them down while aiding moisture retention and keeping roots protected from temperature fluctuations.
A soil test will help you to understand your soil better and kits are readily available and easy to use.
Produce No Waste
Once your garden is established, it’s not just food it can be producing for you. Vegetable plants produce a lot of organic matter and composting the scraps, offcuts and spent plants means they can be producing nutrition for future crops and humus for the soil. Having your worm farm and compost bays placed conveniently nearby makes good sense as these add back to the nutrition cycle.
Chickens, too, make great vegie-garden companions. They can be fed the vegetable scraps and fallen fruit that don’t make it to the compost, they’ll eat weeds, pests and are a really great source of valuable nutrients for your compost through their nitrogen-rich droppings and bedding.
Don’t let them into your patch – they’ll destroy your crops – but by designing a chook run around the outside of your garden means the chooks will stop creeping weeds, slugs and snails from getting in.
Value The Marginal
Edging is not essential, but permaculture highlights it’s not just limited to aesthetic uses. Edging can be made from almost anything, but match it to your climate. If an edge is made from a solid material, in some climates it prevents beds drying out, however in others it may hold too much water. Having an edge allows you to make use of the margins and the available space, which can be used to great effect for planting things to attract pollinators.
Trace The Elements
Overlaid Parchment Paper Can Help You Visualise Your Options
Once you have drawn up this base plan you can use parchment paper to create overlays on your design. These extra layers can contain the sun and shade areas, wind direction and foot traffic. You could also plan your crop rotation or winter and summer planting plans on overlays. If you were designing your entire yard you would use more layers to show movement through the entire site, even contour information, views and other permanent features. Narrow down available space by using this group of maps to decide the space with the most beneficial aspects. The best space is one that is in full sun, close to both the house and a water source with little disruption to existing uses.