Turning a challenging piece of land into a productive permaculture patch doesn’t need to be as daunting or as difficult as you might think. Successful design starts with providing honest answers to the right questions.
Michelle and her two kids live in the northern suburbs of nipaluna/Hobart on a 750 mÇ urban property. Chosen for its low-maintenance house and the relatively large land size, other would-be owners saw overgrown lawn and a steep slope, but Michelle saw her future edible landscape.
As a passionate gardener striving for a productive patch, Michelle wasn’t interested in just popping in a garden bed here and there, she wanted to completely transform the property. We worked with Michelle to first understand what she wanted and how we could realistically achieve it given her challenging urban block, before turning it into a waterpreserving, soul-nourishing and nutrient-dense foodscape.
Dreams And Vision
When designing your property, you need to be really honest with yourself about how much time, money and experience you have to maintain the finished product. The last thing you want to do is invest in a huge garden when you don’t have the time to manage it. Allow yourself the time to dream about and reflect upon what type of life you want to live and how your garden can help bring this into reality.
A useful tool to adopt is to create a vision statement. This is a present-tense statement that encapsulates what your mature garden feels like 10 years down the track. By writing it down using present rather than future tense is a strategic approach that helps it feel real right now. This is a great test of your future concept, it’s free and goes a long way to making sure you’re on the right track before you pick up a shovel or hop on an excavator.
There are no rules in terms of a right or wrong vision statement – Michelle’s thoughtfully worded statement was the central role she needed her garden to play to tie her home and its inhabitants together.
‘Our property is a real sanctuary that feeds us, is beautiful to look at and be in. We love the diverse abundance that’s growing out of every nook and cranny and that it’s constantly evolving, just like us!’
Once you’ve spent a good amount of time working out what you want from your property and have a vision statement drafted (or locked in) you can turn your eyes to the landscape. When you’re first learning, reading the landscape can feel a little daunting for lots of people and it often results in random zigzagging across the block (which can still be useful in its own way).
A more focused, useful guide on things to look for in order to best read your property is the Scale of Permanence Checklist (see breakout). Created by Australian farmer PA Yeomans in the 1950s, the version at the end of this feature has been adapted by American permaculturalist Dave Jacke.
Ranked from the hardest to change (1) to the easiest (10), the checklist is a prompt for you to think about how to use your time, money and energy most efficiently. You need to keep in mind that while the checklist is transferable to urban areas, Yeomans created this list within a rural context – so when he talks about landforms he means mountains and valleys, rather than piles of dirt you can move with a shovel. You can use this list when you’re walking your property to map what’s happening with each item.
The first three items are climate, landform and water, then comes access/circulation, vegetation/wildlife, microclimate, buildings/infrastructure, zones of use, soil fertility/management, ending on aesthetics/experience of place.
With Michelle’s Tasmanian property, we could quickly map the climate as being cool temperate and the landform as being mostly steep with one flat terrace near the house. We clocked that water arrived through a tap and left via the stormwater drain, and that rainfall mostly drained quickly off the slope. The access and circulation around the block was a bit awkward in parts, vegetation consisted of mostly lawn, with a small element of established vegies and fruit trees.
When it came to microclimates, we mapped where it was sunny, shady, damp and dry and placed the buildings – the house and existing shed – as the infrastructure. We documented where the zones of use were, not only where they hang out the most, but also where they wanted to hang out more, and noticed that most of the soil was hungry for nutrients. Lastly Michelle described how she wanted her property to look and feel when it was established. This last point is such an important one as this is where you can really dig down to what matters most to people.
On top of this list, you can find ‘sectors’ impacting your property. Sectors are energies external to your property, but which impact your property significantly enough that you will have to design with them in mind. For Michelle, this included some gnarly southerly winds which needed buffering with a windbreak, northern sun access which needed to be maximised as much as possible for crops as well as beautiful views across the valley which needed to be maintained. All these things are elements that Michelle didn’t have control over but had to address in order to create a productive and comfortable garden.
Sectors can be anything – good and not-so good. They can include pollution (noise, visual, air or water pollution) or wonderful neighbours that you love so much you want to include a gate in your fence for easier access.
The master plan
HANNAH’S FINAL DESIGN FOR MICHELLE’S PLACE AT AN APPROXIMATE SCALE OF 1:150
- Lots of root competition, small flowers or grasses only
- Three evergreen feijoas
- Existing citrus with two roses and flowers beneath
- A stepped retaining wall with four leaucadendrons
- Mixed herbs and flowers
- Two annual vegie beds
- Annual garden beds with one mobile compost bin
- Worm-farm seat made from a recycled bath
- Mixed native correa shrubs for aesthetic and habitat
- Courtyard for sitting
- Existing half stone wall
- Gravity-fed rain tank to water the garden
- Mixed dwarf fruit and/or nut trees, bulb understory
- Seaside daisy path border
- Stone retaining wall, max height of one metre
- Grape or kiwi vine growing over wire pergola
- Six mixed currant bushes
- Espaliered apples along fence and globe artichokes
- Potting shed and chicken house with external access
- Compost bays
- Seven native hop bushes (or feijoas) for windbreak
- Seven evergreen shrubs
- Mixed dwarf fruit trees in chook run for windbreak and shelter
- Wormwood shrubs to deter mites on chooks
- Raspberries along fence
- Espaliered fruit tree
- Ramp for wheelbarrow access and deliveries
- Existing pot plants
- Thornless bluebarries trained along fence
- Deck with planter boxes
- Annual garden bed
*Not shown on this design are beehives, these can be placed within the chook run or near compost bays.
Once you’ve collected information, it’s time to start designing concepts. It’s important to remember not to stay too attached to the early ideas you had. Just start brainstorming with messy drawings – once you’ve started, which is often the hardest bit, you can research your concepts or talk with contractors to gauge the feasibility, especially with things like earthworks or construction.
It’s easy to design a grand permaculture garden, but it’s harder to design one that matches your budget and capacity – but this is what you have to do. So sure, let your imagination rip at first to stretch your thinking of what might be possible. But then step back, reflect and make sure it’s realistic. This might mean you need to get more creative to achieve more with less; it can result in doing the work yourself, or using salvaged materials. But it can also be the most beautiful part of the process, so meet the challenge with enthusiasm and don’t let ‘the perfect permaculture garden’ get in the way of a very, very good one.
For Michelle’s property, a draft design was created which was then workshopped and tweaked with herself and contractors. Before doing earthwork, always get the excavator driver to look over the draft concepts before they’re drawn up into final plans. But more often than not, they’ll provide some invaluable information that results in a few tweaks here and there which make the design even better and saves time and money later on.
Now and only now is the time to start implementing the design. If you’re wondering where to start, WASPA (water, access, structures, plants, animals) is a useful acronym to guide you in the ideal order of implementation.
For Michelle’s garden the first thing to happen was some significant earthworks to create large terraces. This did a number of things for the land; it managed the rainfall, slowing and sinking water it into the soil and retaining nutrients high in the slope where they’re needed. A tank was also installed in the landscape to catch and store water. Even if you’re connected to mains water supply, it’s still a strategic move to install a tank to back up your major functions. Secondly, the earthworks improved wheelbarrow access around the entire garden and opened up new social areas to spend time in. I believe some of the best use of fossil fuels is using them to create regenerative landscapes.
Once water and access are taken care of then structures can be built. This takes in all structures like dwellings and sheds, but for Michelle, it was rebuilding fences, erecting a pergola and establishing retaining walls made from large boulders to stabilise her newly created terraces. Once these systems are in place the plants can be put into the ground before introducing the animals at the end. Michelle wanted chickens for their eggs, their company and their deep litter (see Pip Issue 16) to help create rich compost which eventually ends up back on the garden.
Clockwise from top: Hannah sitting in the mature garden she designed for Michelle; an opening in the south side of the potting shed allows chooks to enter; Michelle doesn’t need to go into the chook run to collect the eggs; The design incorporates a large annual garden for growing food. Photos By Natalie Mendham
Live And Learn
Of course a garden is never finished. Once the initial plan has been designed and implemented, you will spend the rest of your days happily tinkering around the edges and tweaking things as you need or desire. But the key thing is it’s always going to thrive because you invested in a solid framework that fosters healthy soil and healthy plants – the two things that are needed to make healthy people.
These days visiting Michelle’s garden is such a colourful pleasure. Within less than a year of it being implemented, it has transformed from a dry and depleted landscape into a productive sanctuary of abundance, life and love.
By taking the time to design the property thoroughly, Michelle was able to action this swift transition with confidence, knowing that all that thinking work would result in a resilient landscape that will nourish her and her family, inside and out.
Designed by Good Life Permaculture, built by Earth and Wood and Artisan Earthworks.
Scale of Permanence Design Checklist
1 CLIMATE Sun, wind, rainfall, temperatures
2 LANDFORM Slope and aspect
3 WATER Sources of supply, flooding, pollution
4 ACCESS/CIRCULATION Pedestrian/vehicle access, patterns and frequency
5 VEGETATION AND WILDLIFE Existing flora and fauna, invasiveness
6 MICROCLIMATE Aspect, sun/shade patterns, frost pockets
7 BUILDINGS AND INFRASTRUCTURE Size, shape, location and boundaries
8 ZONES OF USE Property lines, existing zones, neighbours and passersby
9 SOIL FERTILITY AND MANAGEMENT Structure, drainage, fertility, toxins
10 AESTHETICS/EXPERIENCE OF PLACE Qualities, feelings, functions, features