Start at Your Doorstep – John and Laura’s Shade-Garden Makeover, Inner Urban Sydney
"If you want to change the world, start at your back doorstep" said Permaculture’s Bill Mollison.
John and his big sister Cecilia
Here is the story of how John and Laura turned a shady dirt-patch into a little jewel-box organic garden.
1. Start by Subtraction
Take out anything that’s not lovely, that doesn’t contribute.
Seven different kinds of floor materials, none of them looking like friends or relatives to each other. Loneliness in a crowd is the worst kind.
We took out the yellow tiles, and searched for stepping stones to go in their place — for us to land on sturdily as we bounce out the door.
2. Get a vision, take cuttings, go shopping
Helen’s garden, where I’m staying this year, is the inspiration. The longer I live, the more I realize the power of copying, of catching things from the people you admire. It’s not action that we dislike, its decisions, and the chance of making a wrong choice when we do something pioneering.
With this picture in mind, we did the big trek out to Plantmark, to get wholesale plants. If you are a designer, you should register here. Half price means you can buy twice as many plants. Since this spot has heavy shade for much of the winter, I must prepare myself psychologically for half of them not to make it through. The problem is, I don’t know which half.
Helen’s begonia cuttings will go in when they get more roots.
3. Announce a Gardening Party
If you invite people you like and prepare good food, then hard hauling of rocks is a party.
Since this isn’t sitting around chatting, you can go for diversity, and very different people can still enjoy each other.
I’ve never really liked opinion-sharing and story-trading as a form of socializing. Doing stuff, having an outcome, is more fun.
Our Politically diverse blend of gardeners included:
- Little brother – John, good at logistics, problem-solving initiative — getting out of hidden obstacles, etc. His job is shipping.
- MBA student and former US soldier — Jason, who is good at following orders, even better at giving orders, veiled as delicate suggestions. Good at lifting massive stones, and at stoically working in the rain when all my Aussie workers are having their 5th tea break.
- Architect — Sidney, who put all the stones into exciting and happy relationships.
- Occupational therapist — Jessica the treasure of a house mate.
- Economist — Laura, who played tuck shop lady, all day long.
- Permaculture girlie. That’s me.
4. Get good soil, make it 3D
Since he has only had his eco-bride for four months, John’s kitchen-scrap compost isn’t ready yet. We brought some commercial stuff in bags, then realized that the massive back garden jungle is one massive potting-mix factory. Under the leaf litter is last year’s leaves, now broken down to crumbly, microbe-rich soil. We did a big harvest, to add to our little garden, give it the hills and valleys it needs to feel that it’s a world of its own.
John’s vast back garden. Paul Bongiorno roasts lamb Dec 2010
A garden to harvest from needs stepping stones, so you don’t squash the air out of the soil, and suffocate all the microbes that keep things lively.
5. Choose plants that want to be there, and you want to see there
The edible plants that may survive the shade include mint and chives. The thyme groundcover probably won’t cover much till the summer sun reaches in and gives it the energy. The dill is to attract preying mantii. When she is done with the dill pollen, she will graduate on to cleaning up caterpillars. We put the tomatillo seedlings in against the sunny wall, hoping for the best. Magnificent salda verde is heading our way.
6. Train someone brave in manual pest management
The predator insects may not appear till summer to control the baddies. I trained Laura in how to spot and manage the green caterpillars and snails, or by summer she would have no garden. She was horrified at first, but soon got the hang of sending them to heaven, recycling them back into flowers. Eating is never an innocent activity.
7. Thank the cooks
I had battled with John all day, as he tempted my workers away with:
- 10.30 Second breakfast
- 11.00 Morning tea – macaroons
- 12.00 Lemonade break
- 12. 45 Lunch – Mexican soup
- 3.00 Afternoon tea by the fire – buns
- 4.00 Coffee break
- 6.00 Lasagne for dinner.
Will this garden ever produce the amount of calories it took to get it planted?
I’m going to say that it doesn’t matter.
The main harvest is of non-tangibles anyway — connection, being a life-giving problem solver, expanding the world of the things you love. And after feeling effort in our bodies, and the failures and triumphs that are inevitable, never, ever complaining that organic is expensive.