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Urban Abundance: Productive Small Space Growers

urban-abundance
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

KAT LAVERS

Words by Samantha Allemann

urban-abundance
Photo by Amy Piessel
urban-abundance
Photo by Amy Piessel

The Plummery sounds like a sprawling countryside property. Its garden beds grow an abundance of vegetables, with surrounding fruit and nut trees underplanted with shrubs, herbs and flowers. Bubblegum grape shades the house and there’s a greenhouse with bananas and babaco. A quail aviary sits by the side of the house and on the southern side are avocados, feijoas and a cherry guava.

Yet all of this is contained on a 280 m2 block in Melbourne’s inner city suburb of Northcote, at the home of permaculture designer Kat Lavers. Last year, the Plummery provided 350 kg of herbs, vegies, fruit, eggs and honey, with Kat only spending half a day a week gardening. ‘Sometimes I dream about planting oaks and chestnuts, but the reality is I don’t have the time to manage more than I’ve got,’ says Kat.

Kat is creative in overcoming spatial limitations, saying it has made her a better designer and gardener. ‘You can’t bury your mistakes under the rug!’ she says. ‘Observation and interaction are virtually constant and therefore so is the learning. It also means that you can concentrate your compost, mulch and water resources on a smaller number of plants. Many gardeners don’t get these basics right and have poor yields from much larger gardens.’

Keeping produce records and a garden diary helps Kat to refine her planting plans, with much thought going into what she grows. ‘I’m careful to only grow plants that I actually use. I love eating my way through the seasons —I used to grow warrigal greens but realised I hadn’t bothered to harvest them for years!’ Kat says. ‘I choose vegies where I can eat most of the plant for most of the season, trial varieties to find the most productive for my microclimate and use poles, trellises and pergolas to grow climbing varieties.’

‘I embrace weeds as a bonus crop of food and animal fodder,’ she says. I have a small army of perennial vegetables (wild rocket, chokos, arrowroot) to reduce work. My fruit and nut trees are designed to provide shelter for the house and garden, and crop in sequence for a succession of fruit all year round.’

Kat recommends quail as a fantastic egg-laying alternative to chickens for small gardens. Her quail also provide compost through a deep litter system made up of leaves and sawdust. All of the Plummery’s organic waste is processed on site thanks also to a worm farm and a home-built composting toilet.

Kat spends hours wandering around the garden, immersed in the magic of it all. ‘I love watching the seasons come and go, learning more about my plants and seeing all the creatures that come to visit,’ Kat says. ‘The anticipation of juicy ripe tomatoes when the first warm weather arrives…pickled cucamelons, quince paste and feijoas in autumn, sweet carrots and crisp radicchio leaves in winter, and leeks, greens and herbs in spring.’

MICHELE AND DARIO FRANZINELLI

Words by Samantha Allemann

urban-abundance
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
urban-abundance
Photo by Dario Franzinelli

Michele and Dario Franzinelli’s garden is called Jetto’s Patch, a 1482 m2 block that grows over 500 different types of produce. In 1989, their suburban Perth backyard started transforming into the thriving vegetable, herb and cottage garden it is today. Their dream was for a garden that could be eaten from all year round, so that they would not need to rely on supermarkets for food.

‘It has turned into a continuing experiment as to the range of what can be grown and the list has become surprisingly large,’ says Michele. Jetto’s Patch now contains 200 food-producing trees (including 46 citrus, 18 types of apple, 12 types of bananas and 11 nut trees), 23 vines, 168 seasonal vegies and 144 seasonal herbs and edible natives. ‘The object is to follow the natural rules observed in nature and grow without the use of chemicals or pesticides,’ says Michele. The garden’s produce is mostly used fresh within minutes of picking or is preserved by bottling, pickling, drying or fermenting. ‘It provides us with great-tasting, fresh, natural produce, with no food miles or additives, picked straight from the ground or tree,’ says Michele.

Chicken, cow and sheep manure have been used on the garden, as has blood and bone and rock dust for trace elements and minerals. Mulch comes from the trees in their garden as well as eucalypts from the neighbouring park. ‘I make seed raising mix from our worm farm contents,’ says Michele. ‘Potting mix is made from leaf mould and compost heap soil mixed with sand.’

The popular garden is regularly visited by PDC participants and Living Smart groups. It also has a large online community, with over 2000 members in its Facebook group. ‘We all share photos, information and solve gardening problems,’ says Michele. ‘We help each other because we are all learners trying to do what nature does best.’

Michele and Dario find great satisfaction in their garden – its diversity and the peacefulness, entertainment and exercise it provides. ‘It’s a great feeling to know we have an intensely diverse range of food at our fingertips and that it’s sustainable, easy to maintain and provides habitat for many other creatures,’ says Michele.

Then there’s the fun challenge to get more into and out of the garden than would ever seem possible. ‘If you think you have no room left, think again,’ advises Michele. ‘You will be surprised at what you can cram in.’ Michele recommends researching plants, streamlining what you can for practicality and ease of use as well as restructuring work areas to get the most out of what growing space you have. ‘Make a list of what you like to eat and plant those, then branch out to try new and unfamiliar edibles,’ she says. ‘Or make a list of what is expensive to buy and grow those. Think practically and outside the box, and more than you ever dreamt possible will soon be growing around you.’

INDIRA NAIDOO

Words by Samantha Allemann

urban-abundance
Photo by Indira Naidoo
urban-abundance
Photo by Alan Benson

When Indira Naidoo first started filling her 13th floor balcony in Sydney with plants, few people thought that the novice gardener would have any success. ‘Because I’d never been a gardener, generally everyone was sceptical,’ Indira recalls. ‘Really the only person who was positive was Peter Cundall. He said, “just give it a go – you won’t know until you try”.’

Indira now grows around 60 different varieties of fruit and vegetables on the balcony of her inner Sydney apartment. ‘The things I’ve found that grow the most successfully tend to be tomatoes, and surprisingly, lemons,’ Indira says. ‘I do carrots, radishes, potatoes, strawberries and lots of herbs. I love adding fresh herbs into everything I cook, so there’s always plenty of parsley, mint and basil. The kale’s coming up pretty nicely, as well as broccoli and little lettuces.’ Indira says that she can get as much as half of her household’s produce from the garden at peak season but usually it’s less than that, with lettuce, spinach and herbs being what she picks most.

The three metre height of her balcony comes in handy. ‘I’ve got a vertical wall that has 20 little pods; a self-irrigating system that allows me to grow all of my shallow-rooted lettuces and herbs and indigenous greens,’ says Indira. ‘And I have hanging baskets and pots underneath, so that it uses high space and the water can drip through to the lower pots underneath it. I’ve found that I actually still have room to dry the clothes on the clothes rack and have a BBQ and some chairs, so it’s not an overrun jungle, it’s a space that has multi-uses.’ Also on the balcony is a Hungry Bin worm farm which Indira composts food scraps into and gets fertiliser from.

The other residents of Indira’s vertical village have now become inspired to use their own balconies to grow food. ‘We share tips, produce and meals and that’s how it’s growing community,’ says Indira. ‘We have our own microclimates within the one building, so that’s been quite a revelation. What we’ve found is that some might have more sun, and I’ve noticed that even in my balcony from one end to the other, there are quite different wind and sunlight effects. In my more sheltered section that’s where I put my lemons, the tomatoes like a lot of heat so I push them right in the corner to get lots of direct sun, and the mint I push right at the back.’

‘If you told me 20 years ago that a few plants would make you relook at your whole universe differently, I just would not have believed it,’ Indira says. ‘I love all of the birdlife that the garden has attracted. It’s beautiful to know that you’ve created an ecosystem within the concrete and tiles. And the way I look at the weather and the environment is so different – it’s not how it used to be where I’d just think whether I needed to carry an umbrella. My plants show me that there’s a much bigger effect that the weather is going to have, in that it’s going to change entire systems. It stops you having that very myopic human view.’

MALCOLM AND JELINA HAINES

Words by Samantha Allemann

urban-abundance
Photo by Malcolm and Jelina Haines
urban-abundance
Photo by Malcolm and Jelina Haines

‘Ligaya’ means happiness in the Tagalog language. ‘It’s a special kind of happiness, one that comes from connectedness with family and community,’ explains Malcolm Haines. It’s a fitting name for his family’s garden. Located in Gawler South, South Australia, Ligaya is home to Malcolm, Jelina and their son Marlon, as well as Athena the Labrador, three chooks, several fish and ‘innumerable bugs’.

Ligaya grows an abundance of food within its 61 m2. Malcolm reels off a huge list of what it has yielded over the last year. ‘Lablab beans, sweet apple berry, muntries, edible chrysanthemums, Jerusalem artichokes, five kinds of deciduous fruit trees, seven citrus, four types of guava, pepinos, okra, olives, hops, two kinds of passionfruit, assorted herbs, the usual kitchen vegies, two types of melons, daikon, strange radishes, several kinds of saltbush and three varieties of sweet potatoes.’ Then there are all of the pots, growing taro and figs to name just a few.

‘We mostly learn as much about our plants before we put them in,’ says Malcolm. ‘We look at things like size, how wide do the crown and roots get, does the plant yield a large amount for the small space, is it valuable enough to include? Also I think about plants that have multiple purposes. The deciduous trees for example are a key part of our energy conservation measures, plus provide food, beauty, mulch, support and shade for other plants. And on a small block, digging things up can be disruptive, so perennials can help avoid this. They are also better for water use and provide what we would call higher-value crops.’

And by thinking vertically, ‘the sky’s the limit’. ‘Actually, about four metres is the practical limit, because my ladder doesn’t get me any higher than that,’ Malcolm says. ‘We train vines up anything that is vertical. We have pumpkins and melons on foundation mesh, passionfruit and Sweet Apple Berry on the fence, plus we’re making a trellis pergola using hops, chokos, passionfruit and grapes.’

The chooks and worms help break down organic material, with a Bokashi system used for kitchen scraps (which are then added to a compost tumbler) and another Bokashi used for processing dog poo. All of that means that little organic material escapes our block.’ A neighbour donates their lawn cuttings and vegie scraps also.

‘By working to build a strong community and sharing with others around us, we have found that many people produce surplus in their own gardens and share lots of produce,’ Malcolm says. ‘We didn’t do well with tomatoes this year, but so many others did that we were rarely short of tomatoes, and lots of people had daikon for the first time when we had a glut.’

KRSHNADAS AND PREM KRANTI

Words by Robyn Rosenfeldt

urban-abundance
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
urban-abundance
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

Krshnadas and Prem Kranti farm their quarter acre plot in his backyard in urban Bega, NSW. On the edge of town, just dipping into the flood zone of the Bega River, his plot pumps out enough food to supply to a box scheme, a weekly market stall, the local wholefoods shop and private clients. Krshnadas does most of the work in the garden, but Premkranti helps when she has time. ‘She is a great pest control person and a good weeder,’ says Krshnadas.

All the food is grown using organic principles (although not certified), with Krshnadas planting by the biodynamic calendar, although he wouldn’t claim it is biodynamic. ‘I focus mostly on leafy greens as they are best fresh and I can supply them fresh to the customer,’ he says. ‘I also grow lots of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplant, beetroot, peas and beans.’

Krshnadas says that the great thing about growing in an urban setting is the food miles. ‘When people pick up directly, the food has travelled about 50 metres by wheelbarrow, and when I sell at the market it’s about half a kilometre. The food is really fresh. People get it the day I pick it and it lasts so much longer that way. It will last twice as long as what you buy at the supermarket.’

Keeping the soil productive is one of his main focuses. ‘I make all my own composts,’ says Krshnadas. ‘I make hot composts using green cuttings, chook manure from our chooks, and any leftover lucerne from the mulch. Every three years I do a green manure crop. I find that without the green manure crop, the soil becomes less and less vital, despite using composts.’

‘We water everything from a 30000 L rainwater tank and that is enough most of the year round. With the drippers and thick mulch, I mostly don’t need to water established plants, just the seedlings. I find the soil has a good profile and holds the moisture well. I do have mains water for backup but I prefer not to use that as it has chlorine in it and it kills the bacteria in the soil. It keeps things alive but they don’t thrive on it.’

The space he has to garden in is large enough for him. ‘I have enough room to rotate crops and because I do it all by hand it’s all that I can manage at this stage. I think some people can fall down when they start too large and can’t keep up. I use weed matting for the paths and weed the beds by hand.’

The garden is called Krishna’s Garden. ‘Everything we grow is an offering to the Lord. It’s about giving thanks,’ explains Premkranti. And although they don’t make a lot of money from it, it covers costs and supplies them with good food. ‘It’s very satisfying, knowing you are feeding people good organic food,’ Krshnadas says. ‘I also like getting outdoors and connecting with nature and the seasons. I could do something else that pays better, but this is really stress free.’

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