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Urban Garden Demonstration Update (New Zealand)

by Kay Baxter, PRI New Zealand (Koanga Institute)

This is an update on our urban permaculture garden experiment which integrates the best ideas from our Permaculture Design Course students into a working urban garden here in our North Island, New Zealand temperate climate.

Our end product includes rabbits, chickens, a 36 sq m biointensive garden, 2 vines, 19 fruit trees, 15 berry bushes, 1 olive and 3 nut trees. We have since added guinea pigs.

The rabbits, guinea pigs and eggs will go a long way towards producing optimal quantities of the fat soluble vitamins and minerals we believe are required in an optimal diet for our family of four and we can provide fresh vegetables on a daily basis. We can also provide fresh fruit on a daily basis, with dried fruit out of season, within three years. We will be producing olive oil and pickled olives for daily use, as well as nuts on a regular basis in about three years also.

The key elements of this design are:

1. Sacred Food high in Vitamin A and minerals, and traditional fats and oils.

Vitamin A comes from those foods regarded as sacred among indigenous people: eggs, butter, oils, and animals (for their fat, livers/heads/offal and roe mainly).

In this design vitamin A will come from rabbit livers mainly, but also from occasional chicken livers, and from making bone broth using all of the animal parts, especially the heads and organ meats.

Calcium will come from rabbit bone broth, with more minor amounts from the chickens that have finished laying, small amounts from high brix fruit, eggs, vegetables, herbs, nuts, and olive oil, as well as significant calcium and other essential minerals and hormones from nettle tea and other weeds such as chickweed and cleavers.

Traditional fats will come mostly from eggs, olives and nuts. Olives, almonds and hazelnuts are a feature in this design to maximise oils and minerals. High brix vegetables contain high quality fats and oils, especially Omega 3 and 6. We’ll get animal fat from small animals such as chickens and rabbits (who store their fat around internal organs rather than in the meat or under the skin).

2. Highly nutritious fruit and nuts all year round.

  • We used organic, heritage varieties of vegetables and fruit to maximize nutritional content.
  • We chose fruit trees for their wide range of vitamins and minerals, with year round fruiting time and storable produce, including heritage fruit species known to contain high levels of nutrition such as berries and apples, goji and Arguta.
  • Potential vege garden area maximized by keeping fruit trees vertical, and using all possible vertical and high horizontal spaces (whilst ensuring possible year round fruit and nuts).
  • Maximization of edges and vertical spaces with espaliered and cordoned trees (apples & pears) and vines (Grapes & Arguta). Cordons allow for maximum length of ripening time, and maximum varieties for different end uses.

We’ve used fruit trees and the almond on dwarfing rootstocks to ensure they will not outgrow their spaces.

3. 40sq m of vegetable garden bed.

For the garden we chose to do biointensively managed beds because this is the most efficient and sustainable strategy for maximum production of nutrient dense food. If you are not familiar with biointensive gardening or how to grow nutrient dense food, I suggest you get a copy of our Beginner Gardener Booklet and our How To Grow Nutrient Dense Food Booklet which will help a lot.


Urban garden demonstration design (click for larger view)

  • We have planned the garden so we are growing heritage vegetables, because we know by the taste and from science, they contain far more nutrition than industrial vegetables.
  • We have chosen specific vegetables containing high levels of nutrition such as Dalmatian cabbage, aka Collards and vegetables that crop heavily per sq m if Beginner Gardener instructions are followed.
  • We have chosen a range of vegetables that will ensure there is something every day for our family to eat throughout the year, especially for making wholesome soups, stews, stir frys and salads!
  • If you follow the instructions and do a great job of taking care of the soil you could expect to get the following harvest from your vege garden over one year, whilst improving/growing the soil!*

* If your soil is very difficult initially it may take one or two years to get your production up to these levels. These vegetables are worth $2,500 in today’s supermarkets and they aren’t organic or nutrient dense there! The seed, tools and fertiliser to get this 40sq m garden going will be around $240 if you are buying everything.

Summer Garden

  • Tomatoes — 40kgs
  • Basil — enough to pick daily for 3 months with enough to store pesto and dry basil for many meals
  • Cucumber — 30kgs
  • Red Kuri pumpkin — 40kgs (20 x 2kg pumpkins)
  • Delicata Pumpkin — 20kgs (60 pumpkins)
  • Courgettes — 7kgs
  • Lettuce — 100 small hearting plus another 100 in a second planting = 200
  • Welsh Bunching onions — enough to pick some every day for raw or cooking
  • Sweet Corn — 240 cobs
  • Carrots — 80 kgs
  • Beetroot — 80kgs
  • Daikon — 90kgs, excellent for raw, cooked or fermented dishes. Edible leaves as well.

Winter Garden

  • Peas — 1.5kgs
  • Broadbeans (Shellout) — 6 kgs
  • Silverbeet — 20kgs
  • Collards — 20kgs
  • Leeks — 50 kgs
  • Broccoli — 20kgs, includes eating stems and leaves

4. We include wicking beds on our concreted area to maximise ways to increase food production and nutrition in this small area….

Of the crops that produce well in these beds, we’ll try: potato, tomato, pepper and eggplant, and herbs.

5. We have chosen to include some box gardens to grow other crops that suit these beds, to help maximise production/nutrition.

We’ll grow water chestnuts in 1 box, kumara in 2 boxes.

6. We include a solar drier to maximise use of all crops.

  • we will dry our nuts after soaking them
  • we’ll dry any excess fruit on a daily basis
  • we’ll dry any excess green vegetables so that they can be powdered and added to soups and stews over the lean early spring season
  • we’ll have an ability to harvest and store any crops that may be in local parks, waste areas, road sides


Top Bar Beehive for honey, pollen and propolis

7. We include a biochar cooker to maximise use of tree prunings from urban garden fruit trees and also local prunings from parks and roadside or neighbourhood trees, together with all of the tagasaste branches left when the rabbits have eaten the leaves and bark. As well as being able to heat water or cook meals with the biochar we will also have extra biochar which we’ll add to the chicken compost heap to eventually go back into the soil. This will help build soil resilience and sequester carbon, hold nutrients and moisture in the soil and generally create a more resilient system.

We’ll use the following strategies and techniques to achieve production of our animals, fruits and vegetables in a regenerative way.

  • We have multiple systems in place to produce our own chicken and rabbit feed: Composting worms under rabbits, black solider fly larvae, garden compost heap in chicken scratch yard.
  • High quality chicken and rabbit food is grown on all paths and under trees, everywhere possible; in the form of a herbal ley consisting of alfalfa, phacellia, buckwheat, parsnip, red sensation clover, subterranean clover, huia white clover, blue borage and giant chioggia chicory.
  • Dynamic accumulators like comfrey, French sorrel , yarrow are planted everywhere — excellent chicken, rabbit and compost food.
  • Tree prunings are taken from legumes and all fruiting trees for rabbit forage and compost, in particular tagasaste which is a complete food for rabbits, which we would also guerrilla plant around our neighborhood for foraging from! We will also harvest neighbourhood sources of tree prunings for the rabbits, especially willow and tagasaste.
  • Seeds on nitrogen fixing trees for chickens, etc.
  • The chicken scratch yard will be where the compost is made for the garden as a whole and all kitchen waste will go in there for the chickens to turn over. Attention will need to be paid to adding sufficient carbon so it remains aerobic and the chickens can actually turn the heap. The idea is that the chickens can actually live well entirely by eating the decomposers in the compost plus green material like comfrey.

  • We’ll harvest seaweed as it comes in during storms for the compost in the chicken scratch yard.
  • We will invest with our neighbours in a chipper so that we can harvest carbon from urban trees and parks to maintain the mulch for fruit trees and berries, compost carbon for the chickens and also extra feed for the rabbits. Already we have seen that feeding rabbits tagasaste and all tree crops leaves us with a perfect source of carbon which if shredded will produce all the carbon needed for the chicken scratch yard, and it is an excellent source of minerals coming on site from council, wild space, park, and roadside tree plantings.
  • We will checkout our parks and vacant places around our area and see what possibilities there are for guerrilla planting to the advantage of those on the area — especially things like large nut trees, comfrey, fruit that could be shared by groups of people, trees and plants that produce biomass for compost making and feeding rabbits and potentially other animals. There may be specific trees that produce seeds that are good food for fattening pigeons for example.

Remineralisation for soil, plant, animal and human health!

For the whole design to work we need to re-mineralise the soil… so as well as designing in mineral accumulators (as above) there will need to be a focus on finding local sources of minerals, recycling all nutrients, and buying in what is missing. A soil test will be done in the beginning and we will buy a refractometer. It will be critical for the family to understand that if they have low brix vegetables, then feeding low brix vegetables to their rabbits and simply recycle the deficiencies. Their goal must be to produce high brix plant material to feed themselves and their animals, so those minerals can be recycled through them!

  • Recycle all bones through bone ash in the compost.
  • Recycle all brown cardboard and clean white paper we can find through the compost or worm farms
  • Collect all leaves we can in autumn from the wider area, as well as neighbour’s hedge prunings, which may also be great for feeding rabbits.
  • Install a simple composting toilet that can be used to recycle the nutrient flow back into the forest garden
  • Create a neighbourhood project to chip council prunings and either use as wood chips or to make biochar. The group could get the council contract to do the local area tree maintenance.
  • We will ensure we harvest seaweed and salt water at any possible time (ideally monthly) to ensure the health of our soil, animals and family.
  • We’ll either catch fish or barter for fish to increase our calcium, vitamin A and traditional fats and oils intake, and to have more bones to burn to return to the compost.

Forest garden – 5-6 layers. A major part of the design to re-mineralise the soil and maintain soil fertility lies in designing the garden to have multiple layers, as in a forest garden. E.g. deep rooting herbs, ground cover, legumes, herbaceous woody perennials, low growing shrubs, legumes to 3 metres, canopy fruit trees in full sun, as well as many mineral accumulators.

The family will need to choose good genetics for animals, trees, ground covers and vegetables, so heritage lines are very important.

Rabbit System

Five cages to be installed across the garden facing wall of the house. (See design map).

  • 1x sq/m per rabbit, 45cm high so the rabbits have room to stand up.
  • Mesh size no larger than 25mm sq on the bottom. (We will use 19-13mm.) This is so the rabbits do not get sore feet. If it is too large they hurt their feet, if it is too small the faeces pellets cannot fall through the holes.

Breeding Stock:

New Zealand White and Californian White Cross. NZ White is the world’s most popular meat rabbit due to gaining weight quickly, with Californian White being a close second due to having a high dress out weight.

2x cages for Doe, 1x cage for Buck and 2x cage for Fryers.

  • We will stagger the production of litters in order to easily manage the number of baby rabbits.
  • In our system each doe should produce about 40 young each year. (Less than most other systems.)
  • One Doe will be put into the cage with the Buck for mating. (She will get territorial if we put him into her cage.)
  • The nest will go in just prior to birth of the litter or she will ruin it.
  • 31 days later she should give birth to 8 – 11 young. We may lose one or two or these.
  • At two weeks they open their eyes and leave the nest.
  • The does wean their kits at at 4-6 weeks, at which time we’ll place them into a separate cage. We can also at this stage introduce them to the rabbit tractor (see below), if unoccupied with another litter, otherwise they will go into a fryer cage for no longer than two weeks. During the cold and wet months they will be happier in the fryer cages as well.
  • Eating age 13-16 weeks. We found using no grain or industrial pellets, they took a little longer to reach eating size.
  • We will rebreed the mother again four weeks after her last litter is weaned. We could rebreed five days after birth to step up production, but it is preferable for the mother to give her a break.
  • At three-years, replace all breading stock — swap out breeding mothers with daughters and bring in a new buck.

Rabbit Tractor

This is a cage that sits on the ground, 1m x 2m. It is moved on to a new spot every day so the young rabbits can be in contact with the ground, thereby gaining contact with vitally important micro-organisms. They will also be able to eat the nutritious herbal/ley ground cover consisting of alfalfa, phacellia, buckwheat, parsnip, red sensation clover, subterranean clover, huia white clover, blue borage and giant chioggia chicory. Yarrow and comfrey and French sorrel will also be available for them to eat.

This “Rabbit Tractor” will move in a clockwise direction around the edge of the vegetable garden on a 1.3m track. (See design map). This has carrying capacity for approximately eight rabbits.

Rabbit Food

Rabbits are quite particular when it comes to what goes into and leaves their bodies. Because their leafy diets include so much cellulose, rabbits produce two different types of excrement – the first are hard, light-brown droppings (which will be made into mineral-rich vermicast by the worm-farm below), and darker, soft pellets or caecotrophs, which the rabbits eat; if you see this, don’t be alarmed! Like cows chewing the cud, rabbits re-ingest these droppings to further digest their food and extract as many nutrients as possible.

Another aspect of their unique digestive system is rabbits’ inability to process gas; because they cannot burp or fart, gassy foods like grass can make a rabbit very sick and, as a result, we have to watch what they are fed.

Rabbits feed on herbs, forbs, and leafy weeds, and can eat a lot – about 1.5 cups of leafy greens, stalks, and dry material per kilogram of body weight each day, and 3 times as much when they’re pregnant (indicated here by due-dates written on the cage). Our bunnies particularly like clover, plantain, chicory, and dandelion leaves; some other rabbit-approved foods include radicchio, endive, silver beet, basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, strawberry and raspberry leaves, wheat grass, dandelion leaves and flowers, and, occasionally, carrot tops, and spinach . The darker the better! Light-coloured plants have little nutritional value for rabbits and should be avoided.

Rabbits, like most animals, are creatures of habit, and even though something might be good rabbit food, if they are not used to it it may take a while for them to get used to eating it!

In addition to the leafy stuff, we include 50% stalky material in each bundle of green feed — plant stems, chicory branches and fruit tree prunings, willow, tagasaste, alfalfa hay, meadow hay, but not fruit: small amounts of certain fruits are ok, like strawberries, apples (though not the seeds, which are poisonous to rabbits), pears, cherries, blueberries, grapes and bananas. However, because of its high sugar content, fruit is like junk food for rabbits, and should be limited to about 15% of their diet. This goes for pellets too – our rabbits currently get ½ cup per day, though we are working towards completely eliminating commercial feed from their diets. Veggies, on the other hand, are ok — except brassicas — and acidic fruits like tomatoes, pineapples and oranges are also good in small amounts, as they actually help rabbits pass any hairballs (rabbits can’t throw up either).

The following foods are toxic to rabbits, and should not be fed to them:

  • Brassicas, including cabbage, swede, turnip, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kohlrabi;
  • Amaranth; foxglove; lettuce; lupine; laurel ; milkweed; oak; nuts or seeds; horse chestnuts; poppy;
  • Potato leaves, sprouts, or peels; rhubarb leaves; soybeans or soybean vines; tomato plant parts.

This list is limited to what can be found in our area, but there’s heaps more online which are good to know.

Further Reading:

7 Comments

  1. Lovely article. However I currently have rabbits and do feed them Kale and both wild and cultivated amaranth. There has been no ill effects. Kale and broccoli are on the RWF web site of good food to eat for them.

  2. Was fortunate enough to visit this garden when we toured the North Island late last year. Nice to read about it’s design and purpose. I really wish we could have a rabbit system, but it is banned in Queensland, Australia (anyone know exactly why and it the law will change any time soon?). It is ridiculous because we are on the side of the rabbit fence WITH rabbits (although I have heard that the fence isn’t effective anyhow(?)). Anyhow, we found it amusing to learn that rabbits cannot burp or fart, and throw up. Important to know!!

    Good luck on getting off the pellets. I know I wish we could do the same soon for chickens and pigeons and any other animals we get.

    Thanks for such a detailed article, I’m sure it will be useful to many others :)

  3. Brilliant combination of annuals & perennials in a heavily managed, intensively planted regenerative system where nutrition is one of the key, if not the key design feature.

    These kinds of permaculture designs are sorely lacking in permaculture with its focus food forests and perennial vegetables.

  4. Great demonstration project and fantastic article to share this valuable information. Thank you to Kay and the rest of the team at Koanga for all the great work you are doing!

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