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Design an Edible Garden
A good garden starts with a good design. Put your veggies in the wrong spot and you may lose morale and give up. Put a tree in the wrong spot and you may be regretting it for decades as it shades the house in winter. Get it right and you can have a highly productive garden with a lot less work. We’ve designed hundreds of gardens at VEG, and there are a few simple strategies and rules of thumb we employ consistently, most of which we’ve derived through the study of permaculture.
Designing an Edible Garden Course Notes © Very Edible Gardens Pty Ltd www.veryediblegardens.com
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture a sustainable design system for helping us work with nature – rather than against it – to provide for human needs.
Permaculture practitioners look to recycle all waste, produce no pollution, protect the soil, value diversity, value edges and margins, store and infiltrate water, and catch and store energy. Usually, we look more towards balance than control.
But hey, you might not be looking for a new philosophy, just looking for a way to get the garden growing strong! We have solutions… At its core, permaculture is about applying common sense principles to design. Here’s the VEG permaculture design process (simplified):
Know yourself first
The first stage to design is ‘people analysis’. For your own property ask yourself what you would like to achieve (and why): articulate your goals. Realistically, how much time, skills, resources and enthusiasm do you have? What do you like things to look like? Then come up with a wish list of features you would like which match this. Most of our clients want some combination of the following…
- A herb and salad garden
- Larger cropping veggie gardens
- Fruit trees
- Chickens or ducks
- A composting system
- A greywater reuse system
- A seating area
- Lawn for kids
- Some natives
- Some flowers
- A garden shed
- A pergola, a hammock, a trampoline, etc…
Now we have a wishlist, we have a list of elements. Much of our job as a designer when coming up with a design on paper (or computer) is to come up with a base map, and move these elements around into the optimum positions.
Before we jump into design we take time just to observe. If it’s your own house you can observe it over the seasons. With enough observation, the site almost designs itself!
Sun: Where are the afternoon summer hot spots, the winter sunny spots, the shady spots? Where does the sun move through the sky in winter and in summer? You’ll see in the sector analysis diagrams below the sun paths for Melbourne.
Water: Are there wet or dry spots? Are there areas where driveways and paths naturally run off to? We sometimes pour buckets of water around and watch where they go! Can we direct this water elsewhere? How much rainwater can we capture from the roof? To answer this question multiply the roof size in square metres by the annual rainfall in mm and this will give you the rain capture potential in litres. Is the laundry and shower drain plumbing easily accessible and is greywater an option?
Wind: Are there windy spots? In Melbourne the predominant hot winds come from the north west, and the cold from the south west, but buildings and landscape can create local conditions.
Soil: Different soils need different strategies, but if you don’t know much about soil, compost and mulch always help. See below.Slope and aspect: Using tools such as a simple A-frame (made of three bits of wood and some string), a laser level or just pouring buckets of water around, we look at the slope
including where water flows.
Other features: for instance, large trees might have large water competition.
We compress these observations into what we call the sectors and microclimates analysis map. It’s called ‘sectors’ because we are looking at from what direction (or sector) things like sun and wind are coming from. In the one house block, there can be very shady and very warm spaces. These are examples of microclimates. For instance, you can grow bananas in Melbourne on many north-facing walls, as the climate is more like Sydney there than Melbourne.
A model showing shadows at the same house from above around midday in a) December
and b) June.
An example garden design for all year round weather.
Once and only once we’ve really tuned in to the people and site, it’s time to design. (Okay, you can’t help but have design ideas before this point, but it’s important not to get emotionally attached to them, until you’ve learnt as much as you can from the people and site.) At this point it’s really important to work from concept to details. We always do our first draft of a design with messy hand-drawn blobs. It helps to do them with a fat texta or crayon so you can’t draw details.
Often we think of design based on three primary lenses: design based on the site analysis, design based on the ‘oftenest-nearest’ principle, and design based on ‘making connections’.
Design based onsite analysis
The site analysis suggests some hard restraints and good locations of some features. E.g.:
- Place veggies where they get maximum sun in winter, and ideally some summer afternoon summer shade. Can deciduous trees to the west protect them in summer?
- Can deciduous trees and vines protect the house from hot summer sun? The high angle northerly sun can be blocked with a grape pergola (horizontal) on the north of the building, and westerly and easterly sun can be blocked with trees.
- Items that don’t need sun, or prefer shade, such as worm farms, mushroom logs and tanks can be located in shady areas.
- Sub-tropicals in Melbourne prefer good sun and a north-facing wall, and possibly a pond to the north of that for cooling the summer air and humidity.
- On sloping ground, paths and veggie beds and fruit tree rows often work well following the contours of the land, i.e. curving around the land at the one level. Countour beds and paths helps collect water and stop mulch and soil running off in rain. Mulch paths on countour allow water to penetrate and infiltrate into the soil. On flat ground, there’s much more flexibility of shape.
- If wind-exposed, can trees be used as multi-use windbreaks? On smaller blocks can semi-permeable fencing be used?
- If you’re siting evergreen trees, especially large ones, can they be placed where their winter shade is not a problem, e.g. to the north of driveways, or on the southern boundary (if this doesn’t shade out the neighbours).
- If the west of the building is exposed to sun, can mediterranean climate herbs and trees be used there?
- Can water loving plants be situated in wetter areas?
- …and so on!
You can basically design a whole site based on these guides, but we need to consider the other two layers.
The oftenest-nearest principle
One common sense permaculture strategy is ‘oftenest-nearest’. We tend to place regularly accessed herbs and salad greens as close to the kitchen door as we can, also taking into consideration issues of light and access. High use routes through the garden, such as from the laundry to the washing line we call ‘energy pathways’ and here too is often a good place for high maintenance or regularly picked vegetable crops. Fruit trees can be further back. Natives and other very low maintenance areas can be in areas less visited again.
Features like food forests might suit the front yard where you visit them a little less. Again we could design a whole site (badly) based on this principle alone, but in combination with the site analysis and the next principle, we’ll get a good design.
Making connections is about getting the elements in your design together so they are complimentary – we are looking for win-win solutions.
Part of getting win-win solutions is beginning with a diversity of plants and elements. For instance particular flowers (such as daisy and umbelliferous family plants) and other companion plants which provide extra beauty as well as pest protection, while the veggie patch by the back door can be thing of pride and colour.
Can we combine our fruit trees with several layers of edible, pest controlling, or nitrogen fixing low maintenance perennial understory plants, to create a ‘food forest’?
Natives can often be at home in dryer banks of the property, on the nature strip, or integrated in and around food forests. Acacias, casuarinas, grevilleas and banksias and any number of native understory and climbing plants provide ecosystem services like nitrogen fixation, nutrient accumulation, mulch, wildlife habitat as well as beauty.
Where possible we incorporate a pond and rockery to encourage lizards, dragonflies, birds and frogs. Some scoops of water from a well established pond can bring in the bug life necessary to keep mosquito numbers well and truly under control.
What we want is not just diversity but functional diversity, I.e. making connections between the elements.
Nature uses everything in more than one way. If we can find more than one use for any particular element in our design, we know we’re heading in the right direction. Ideally we’ll be able to list four or five reasons for why something is in a particular place. E.g., is it possible to place deciduous trees so that they provide afternoon summer sun protection to some of the veggie beds? Can they double as windbreaks for the veggies, with a shrubby understory? Can they be integrated with chickens so chickens get shade, shelter and food, while the fruit trees get pest control, weed control and fertiliser? Can they be used for screening for unattractive walls or neighbouring houses? Can they help protect the house from summer heat? Are there microclimates such as north facing walls where we can plant bananas, babacos or other sub tropical species, while protecting the house from heat?
Let Nature do the Hard Work
We want to design systems where a lot of the work is done by the other elements in the system. There are many ways to use chooks to our advantage and theirs. Often an L or U shaped chicken run (along the sides and back fence) and orchard system suggests itself, allowing the chickens lots of roaming space, and not cutting the yard in half. This is also a good spot for fruit trees in line with the oftenest-nearest principle. Out of the deal, chickens get bugs, shade and fallen fruit, the fruit get fertiliser, weed and pest control.
With chickens we always incorporate ‘straw yards’. This is a deep litter straw enclosure where you can throw all your food scraps and the chickens will turn it into the straw after they eat what they want, creating beautiful compost. The chickens have a great time looking for worms and bugs.
Soil and Water
We often encourage clients to get laboratory soil tests and help them interpret the results, to help them improve their soil, and grow food which has the full complement of nutrients. An assessment of the water requirements of the garden, and harvesting ability of the roof often suggests that around 4-8 thousand litres is a good size tanks capacity is best – a surprise to many who were thinking closer to 2,000. At the home scale with permaculture strategies, food can be grown with less than 1/5th the water of broadacre agriculture, and there’s plenty enough roof space in any suburban block to supply it.
Greywater we generally use untreated, subsurface on fruit trees, often in mulch pits, and never directly on veggies. Wherever possible we use gravity and no pumps. We encourage our clients not to use in the wet months to allow the soil to be flushed of salts.
An example garden plan
There are lots of information about design and other home gardening topics including companion planting, no-dig gardening, fruit tree care, working with chickens and more: www.veryediblegardens.com/iveg You can get some hands-on experience at a permablitz: www.permablitz.net
(Picture from Dan’s rental)