With 80% of Australians living in the suburbs, this reality is a hurdle for responsible edible landscapers who know that not all the cookie cutters that we are forced to live amongst share the same vision.
Some need to just get that first roof over their head and work on the dream of sustainability on an acreage later. Problems are compounded more for renters, like being promised long tenancies by landlords who are ‘in principle’ supportive of the free labor they receive to get their garden productive, but change their mind when the garden is a little “too productive”, giving lame reasons with cliches like “jungle” and “messy’, or just simply change their minds and finish the lease.
I’ve heard of this many times, sometimes from more forward thinking tenants, who’ve literally up and taken their garden with them when they left.
But for the sake of this article, it mainly pertains to people looking to buy a suitable house and land in a hard to find, tolerant (let alone supportive) neighbourhood. That said, many of these tips can also be applied for people who wish to rent.
A little history
In 1994 I found myself out on the street after eight years in a dream low-rent beachfront property at Sunrise Beach, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
The house was always earmarked for demolition / development by the owner, but as luck would have it, it seemed the owner always postponed the project.
Subsequent to this, I had pretty much free reign on whatever I wanted to do with the garden, and regarding myself rather a protégé of Geoff Lawton, I quickly planted anything I could eat anywhere I could, under Geoff’s guerilla gardening encouragement.
But crunch time came as quite a shock, when the bank foreclosed the property, during the Paul Keating recession that we had to have, and the eight year Disneyland world of surf, gardening and beachfront lifestyle was snatched away from me like an iPod from a homeboy.
It was time for the real world of bank mortgages, real estate salesmen, solicitors and contracts to sign.
My work involved local tourism so I needed a nearby affordable property.
Clever positioning is a big asset, so look for properties adjacent to bushland or other open land, preferably with a good aspect. Failing that, at least avoid those where you are totally surrounded by other houses. This is good as a buffer where you can afford to be unconventional, but out of people’s faces.
I managed to stumble across a ¼ acre block, in the neighbouring town of Tewantin, very close to Noosa’s North Shore with its 60 kms of pristine beach. It was prime positioning to implement my suburban edible forest masterplan.
The house was situated at the forested north end of a No Through Road with just enough easement width to still capture plenty of sun over the morning tree line shadow, allowing food forest potential.
I’ve grown pumpkins and all sorts on my easement and the Council lawnmower man always steers around it when he comes to mow with his tractor. As a bonus, the clippings are a great source of free mulch, when I am short on straw and don’t mind getting out for some light exercise for 15 minutes to rake up a few piles.
This is always a gamble and they change over time, and however ignorant, we still have to strive to live in peace with them.
From what I have seen, the Australian suburbs are still largely void of people who practice growing their own food.
Of course, seeing adjacent properties growing their own food is the obvious best sign, but neighbours with bush gardens are particularly promising, as at least they tend to be somewhat ecologically conscious, or any residents that have a rich pretty ornamental garden, not necessarily manicured. You can have a safe bet that these groups may be tolerant or even supportive of intense permaculture methods.
On the flip side, obvious bad signs are, at one end of the scale, McMansion penitentiaries, with their token turf and no garden to speak of, to a rough unkempt property with junk, cars, 500 dogs and cats… you get the picture.
That is, by the way, useless junk as opposed to useful junk. There is a big difference, with those of the latter usually at least trying to stack it neat and out of the way. You know the stuff, wood, chicken wire, small rock piles, all the OK resourceful stuff.
The biggest ploy neighbours use to criticize deep mulch gardens is snakes, but in my case I think it is a poor subterfuge when you consider we live next to forest with thick grasses.
I installed my food forest after living here a year, and I saw a once friendly old guy who rented over the road turn into a grimacing curmudgeon. The other two adjacent neighbours went from just curious to cautiously accepting. I find giving them fruit from time to time generally pats them down, and as I do get loads of bananas, and they all ripen at the same time, it is a sensible generous gesture.
The neighbour on west side, who shares the same easement, also grows fruit and veg, which makes for interesting swaps. She is also long established here, and lives here for its peacefulness (like me), and so is a welcome ally when rev-heads want to turn the easement into Trail-Bike World. She doesn’t engage and reason with them like me, na… she just calls the cops! Gotta love her!
This is a common problem with all easements in the ‘burbs, but luckily it seems all the other residents that share this length of forest easement want the tranquility, so it’s generally unanimous that it’s a bogan free zone.
In hindsight, it was probably not so much an unconventional garden, that freak some residents out, but I think it’s probably planting on the the public nature strip that critical McCitizens grumble over. But I think it’s heresy for people to waste such precious space. I would, however advise not being too gung-ho on the nature strip, at first — just some smaller fruit trees, with a conventional top dressing, like chip bark or a pretty ground cover like pinto-peanut.
The same goes for bamboo screens, which is what I originally planted. It’s perfect as a privacy screen, and great shade for the car, where it grows to a manageable height and creates a beautiful green foliar tube to park the car under. But now I would just plant bamboo within the fence line, not on the nature strip, unless you use the thinner clumping varieties. Due to power lines and so forth it has to be well trimmed, as it grows quick.
The shoots are a good food source, if you get in quick enough, but trimming is not a big deal now for me because the bushy foliage is a constant source of mulch — year round mulch.
Initially I was going to get rid of the high maintenance bamboo off the nature strip, but once I bought my trusty Greenfield 8hp mulcher, I found I could turn the bamboo into a nice fluffy top-dressing, and stash the thicker lengths under the deck for future trellising. It was the best investment I ever made, and a word of advice, don’t penny-pinch when it comes to buying a mulcher, spend more on a powerful one.
However, be aware they are, really noisy. So consider other residents about the times you do your shredding and I try to do it furthest away from anybody so the noise can disperse, which is of course, for me, the trusty easement.
Also every two or three years Energex do their tree-lopping in our area. The last three times I’ve bailed them up and politely suggested that they are “welcome to leave a truckload or two over in the forest in front of my place, if it suits them”, and later I have arrived home pleasantly surprised, with a few piles of enough chip bark to share with the other neighbours for a year! It doesn’t look an eyesore because it blends into the forest.
Also the McCitizens further up the street are bound to use the end of your street to sneakily dump their lawn clippings. Along with the clippings from the council lawnmower man, mentioned earlier, I hardly ever have to buy straw bales.
Large trees should be selected with caution. I am in clay soil, so I prune mine regularly because they can fall over if the ground becomes too wet. I have a magnificent ice-cream bean tree at the front of my driveway that would be gigantic by now, or would have fallen over and crushed the house and car if I hadn’t given it a good pruning every 7 years. I don’t eat the fruit that much, although delicious, but the wildlife sure appreciate it — so for that, I let it stay, and hopefully they’d leave the other fruit alone.
Generally speaking, any large trees are a no-go near a house.
I am now dwarfing many of my trees to allow for a wider selection thru more light.
Good use of Prunings
Being in the suburbs you have to be conscious of tidiness, but an enclosed system should have minimal waste and reuse everything possible.
I sell my thicker branches as firewood because my position is close to the Noosa North Shore Ferry and campers are always on the lookout for firewood. It’s a tidy little bonus where people pay to take away my prunings. I usually just advertise online on Gumtree.
Super large logs are split down the middle with a chainsaw and used for garden edging.
As I have recently done a heavy prune there is a decent supply of all the above and plenty of winter warmth and light.
Rock wall boundary
A knee-high rock wall is a nice structure to plant edibles into. I have a partially completed rock wall installed around the perimeter. A kind of ongoing project.
Although originally intended for herbs, I am now using the rock wall for any suitable edibles rather than have particular positions for just vegetables, another for fruit, another for herbs, etc.
Many vegetables can grow randomly throughout the garden, some better than others, and usually at tree bases where they can catch water when the fruit trees are watered.
Particularly feral edibles in this region include cherry tomatoes, chokos and passionfruit., which love using trees for trellises. Pineapples are particularly suitable in the rockwall as, being a bromeliad, they are particularly tidy and ornamental. They just need plenty of fertilising, with worm juice & castings.
Good soil is obviously best, but sandy and clay soils can become fertile over time. After nearly 20 years of annual top dressing with paper and mulch, the soil is now over a foot deep in fertility and macro fauna. There is even a healthy seven metre coconut palm, which prefers sandy soils, the opposite of the base soil I started with. It gives a nice beach look to the original inland tea tree forest environment.
The resulting good soil quality is a rich bonus, from just a periodic chore of weed elimination by layering with paper and mulch. It just takes time.
Space in the suburbs is always critical, so to maximise the number of trees possible, plant the larger ones at the rear of the best light aspect and the smaller ones, especially deciduous, at the front. Dwarf trees are a particularly popular hybrid these days. Smaller trees allow for a wider variety. Some fruit trees and plants are shade tolerant, and they can be planted under larger or deciduous trees.
There are now over 40 established edible trees in the 541 m2 block, not including Lady Finger bananas which I have planted pretty much throughout the property with one banana circle on the north-west corner.
Banana circles are good deposits for the more rough & tumble prunings, which I am too lazy to put through the mulcher.
I recommended to tidy the top of the pile with a thin covering of straw to placate the McCitizens who think it might be home to a fire-breathing bunyip or something.
The suckers have also proven to be a revenue source since I started advertising them online. As de-suckering can be hard work, I charge less if customers come and do it themselves.
Use your more vigorous ground covers, like the textbook sweet potato, well within your block. Sweet potato is a climber and can suffocate saplings if left unattended.
For the nature strip, use tidy ground covers, such as mint, mother of herb, makuana or pinto peanut. I also use pinto peanut over paths, and as a lawn substitute.
The past 20 years have been a great learning curve through careful observation, and I have come to be aware of zones, and putting plants in zones, with smaller frequently accessed herbs near the house and the fruit trees further away and trying not to plant more than I can maintain easily.
I liked to go gung-ho and plant it out as soon as possible, but the advantage of planting suburban permaculture gardens out slower, is it’s less of a shock for the McNeighbours.
Note: This property is also for sale. For enquiries contact Wayne Fleming 07 54741797.