Transforming Your Urban Backyard

Many people living in the suburbs and cities would like to ‘have a go’ at living a more sustainable and satisfying life and yet are daunted by what they view as lack of space and appropriate surroundings. It is easy to say “I just don’t have the space here!” or “Oh, my soil is terrible – I couldn’t grow a thing!” One of the enjoyable aspects of permaculture design is the challenge of recognising ‘problems’ and turning them into solutions. Sometimes all it takes is a shift in perception to turn a frustrating obstacle into a much needed asset.

by Mal McKenna and Phil Dickie

Most of us would probably prefer to impose our designs on grand vistas of idyllic acreage. However, most of us also have to make do with something much smaller, like a suburban backyard. If this is a matter of great regret remember it is also a peculiarly affluent First World perspective – we live in a world where many have no choice but to live off far less than a quarter acre and many for whom even this is an impossible aspiration.

How do you make the best of a backyard garden? Ultimately, it is your experiment; there is no universal backyard plan. As every yard will be different it is totally up to you or your family to decide what you would like to create. You may wish to begin with small projects such as creating a suntrap to give you a warm place to sit and have your breakfast on chilly mornings – even to provide your breakfast if you grow the right species. You could also plan a shady nook for those hot summer days, maybe in the form of a shade tree, maybe a small pergola covered in juicy grapes. The following tips and inspirations, derived from experience both tragic and comical, might help in whatever backyard transformation you may choose.

Starting Out

In this society, gardening is a big business burdened with experts telling you what you need to do and most importantly, what you need to buy, spray, spread, plant and so on ad infinitum. Balls! – It is your backyard and gardening is not about feeding the economic machinery. Think of gardening as contemplative fun, productive and meaningful labour and a place to escape the manufactured stresses of everyday life. Go and sit in it, and get a feel for it. Before you know it you are starting to evolve the plan.

The Plan

Elements to consider include aspect, climate, your time, budget, needs and future plans and, most important in the city, your neighbours. Shade is often a constraint in built-up areas – give some thought to the extra shade you will create when all those fruit trees grow.

Consider the existing structures and features. Are you happy with their placements? Are they productive and useful – or are they dysfunctional and a maintenance hassle? Translate your ideas and feeling onto a piece of paper or several pieces of paper. Draw in what exists and what will stay, as well as such constraints as windblown or shaded areas. Then allocate general areas for trees, annual vegetables, animals, access paths and other needs such as clothes lines and play areas. Don’t go overboard on function – humanity has aesthetic and spiritual needs as well. Exotica such as herb spirals, mandala gardens, banana circles, ponds and bird baths can be a combination of the aesthetic and the functional.

If you need ideas there is a wealth of knowledge in books, magazines, and other people’s experience to help you draw up a plan. Send away for seed catalogues, visit local nurseries. Talk to your friends and neighbours, find out what grows well in your area. Visit other lots and take note of the structures and gardens. Observe why the connections between some components work well and others don’t. Note where your friends spend most of their time in their lots, and why. Observation at this point is the key.

Also remember ‘the problem is the solution’ philosophy. Perhaps your lot is concreted and you do not wish to jackhammer any of it to dig in a pond. The solution? Make use of an old bathtub or build your pond on top of the concrete using bricks, rocks and an old tractor or truck tyre.

The Soil

Soil is fundamental but don’t despair if yours is not ideal. Most Australian soils lack something. You can, if you wish, spend hundreds of dollars on soil tests. Alternatively, check out your soil yourself – is it full of life, particularly of the wormy variety? If it is not – it needs organic matter at the very least. Soil pH, or the acidity or the lack thereof, is also important enough to test for because it determines the availability of minerals. Bare soil is a no-no in the tropics and the subtropics, so mulch is important in these areas. Growing your own leguminous mulch is one of the best methods of soil improvement anyway. Think about improving soil quality through what you put on top of the soil and let the earthworms incorporate (an ancient practice going under such modern brand names as sheet mulching, no dig gardening and the magic of mulch).

Loosen compacted soil with a garden fork. Drainage is also important, as most trees like good drainage. Poor drainage may be a matter of poor soil texture (which can be improved) and/or topography (which might be difficult to change). Clay soils might appreciate the addition of sand and vise versa, but it is also hard to go wrong (in the longer term) with the addition of organic matter (general panacea for all soil problems). Rock dusts (quarry wastes) or even soil from somewhere else may supply the minerals that your soil lacks. Soil from elsewhere may also contain microorganisms missing from your soil – if you chance upon a tree growing better than your own of the same variety, take a handful of soil from underneath it and if you are lucky you may have acquired some beneficial bacteria and/or fungi. To a large extent if you look after your soil, your plants will look after themselves.

Getting It All In

In a small area, the main concern is space. Following the recommendations of your local agricultural inspector or the directions on seed packets might leave you just enough room for one small tree and a lettuce plant in a small backyard. However, small areas can be intensively planted as they can be (relatively) intensively cared for. Getting it all in is a matter of going up, going down, going sideways, and going with the flow (the McKenna theory of lateral gardening).

Going Up

This is a matter of using your vertical or high spaces as a growing support (or creating some where they do not exist) Consider even the roof; around the world many do. Overhangs can be the location of hanging trellises. High fences are natural trellises, as are houses and retaining walls, ‘feral’ or pioneer trees, balconies, chook houses, garages or even old clothes lines past their prime. The vine is the plant category invented to take advantage of natural or artificial trellises, to insulate, to shade, to beautify and to cool. Chicken wire, spread over surfaces, hanging down, pinned up or on any type of framework is the substance created to give the vine a home.

Plants of various heights, a balcony, or pots of various heights, can make the most of a scarce commodity like sunlight or horizontal space. Mounds, and such constructions as herb spirals also make the most of space by incorporating a vertical element into an otherwise uninspiring horizontal surface. Trees intent on taking over the yard can be kept small and productive (and their fruit within reach) by being potted, or tip and/or root pruned. Vertical stacking is the technical term for the art of putting things on top of each other – sheet mulching on concrete, vines on trees, beehives on roofs, ponds on top of spirals, gardens on roofs, bureaucrats in big tall buildings in city centres. Often the main limits are a lack of imagination and the willingness to experiment.

Going Down

Underground is the unseen dimension. Some plants feed deep and some feed shallow and so can be planted close together. Not enough soil depth? Why not dig out paths to subsoil level and build up topsoil elsewhere with the soil? Ponds are an obvious way of going down productively; a flow can be created between ponds at different levels. Ponds can also be terraced internally to suit the differing depth requirements of various plants. Water can be an extremely productive medium; rather than persist with a drainage problem area, why not turn it into a water-based garden, digging some areas down to create ponds and raising better drained mounds in other areas. Likewise, where drainage is poor but there is some slope, a chisel plough or like implement can be used to direct subterranean water from where it is not needed to where it might be more useful.

It is preferable to try and trap nutrients and water that naturally escape your system. You can use deep or spike rooted plants which can then be harvested as mulch – leucaena and comfrey are good examples. Water running down a slope to waste may be caught in contour depressions or into a hole to water a specific tree a short distance downhill. In sandy soils, where the water runs straight through, it may pay to bury subterranean water containers. And although it may be heresy to the local council, it is a fact that roof water and many needed nutrients are directed down subterranean pipeways to unproductive or destructive ends in river and seas. If possible this flow should be interrupted and the water tank and occasional piddle in the garden be considered useful subversion.

Going Sideways

This is the art of horizontal stacking, fitting more into less. Classic examples are the keyhole bed or its derivative, the mandala garden, where you get more access with less path; and the banana circle, where a single compost heap and watering point keep multiple plants happy. Edge is a useful concept here; wiggly edges – to ponds, garden beds and any ‘boundary’ – give more horizontal space, greater productivity and more interest to the system. Going sideways is also about connecting the elements and having them serve more than one purpose; as in Bill Mollison’s Parable of the Chicken. A mulberry is both chook and human food – why not plant it in the chook pen? A pigeon pea is potentially food, a mulch source and a soil improver – best incorporated in a garden as all three. It is hard to imagine a more multipurpose object than a chicken – egg and fertiliser producer, weed, pest and scraps eater, garden hoe, pet or, in a mutually exclusive use, Christmas dinner. In a small backyard, totally free-range chickens are usually garden destroyers; some form of confinement in a run is usually necessary.

Companion planting is an example of the same principle – nature seems to demonstrate that monocultures are preferred only by pests and modern agriculture. Background reading, observation around your area and some judicious experimentation are the way to find out what goes with what. Intensive vegetable gardens and mature trees do not generally go together so allow for each separately at the planning stage.

Going With

This is the Zen dimension, making the best of what is or turning problems into solutions. Very few of us inherit a blank slate with perfect soil, aspect and no problem plants, structures, conditions or neighbours. Rather than change the problem soil, why not find plants or uses suited to it, for example, blueberries in acid soil, ponds in poor drainage areas. Problem trees can be ready-made trellises, or can be brought down gradually through top and root pruning and turned into mulch as you go. Excess wind can be diverted to useful purposes as well as being blocked or impeded. Light or dark colouring, whether of leaves or walls, can reflect or absorb sunlight. As for neighbours, very few can remain hostile in the face of gifts of eggs, fruit or honey; this can be a beginning to co-operative actions on other fronts such as noise, traffic and community facilities.

Sometimes, it is just the mindset that is at fault; a whole destructive industry is based on paranoia about weeds, defined as plants we don’t want. However, weeds can also be thought of as soil protectors, indicators or improvers, many are food (for people, chooks, bees and pest predators) and most make good mulch and compost. An even more destructive industry is devoted to pests, seemingly defined as the entire insect population of the planet. Pests can be redefined as a vital signal of imbalance, as a tolerable nuisance on the way to generating its own solution if left alone, as predator (bird, fish, frog, insect and elsewhere, human) food, or as pollinators, scavengers or self motivated secateurs.

In transforming your backyard you may also like to create a recycling system. This may include recycling grey water, food scraps and/or excess produce. If you have space for small animals and/or poultry you will find that they handle most of the scraps, otherwise all scraps can be put in the compost. Chooks do not eat onions, garlic, citrus skins, tea or coffee. Most plain paper can be used for sheet mulching. Leftover cardboard can be used for pathways and other materials which are slow to break down can be ‘slow composted’ in a banana or paw paw circle.

Continuing to Learn

This has been but a brief flit through backyard possibilities. Remember, a welter of additional information is available through books, courses and from other backyard gardeners. However, your greatest teacher is likely to be your own backyard – if you get down there and interact with all your senses. Much of the most productive time spent in a garden is not that spent digging and working but that spent sitting and contemplating.


  1. Great article. We live on a small block next to the beach and the soil is very sandy and poor quality.Nothing would grow so earleir this year we built a chicken coop and, kept digging in leaf mulch into a sandy patch that we said would become our “garden.” It didnt take too long. We used the chicken poo to create compost that was also dug into the garden. Now our poor soil has been transformed from a lifeless patch of dirt to a garden rich with fat worms that the chicken love to scratch for to get their protein to make the eggs!. There is something quite rewarding about knowing you did that yourself. Not quite “Greening the Desert” Geoff Lawton style but good enough for me :)

  2. Yes brilliant, I too live on sandy soils.(waikiki, Rockingham WA)
    I’ve been here 6 Years now and have been converting my small suburban propety into organic permaculture bliss for the past 3yrs.
    With plenty of hard work and free to low cost resourses both my front and backyards are thriving in what was once water repellant lifeless sand.
    now my wallet, my family & my soil are all a lot healthier

  3. I have just learned of Permaculture, and I’m thrilled with it.
    I so wished to incorporate it into my space, however my space is so small, that I had all but given up on being able to use any of it at all, until I read your post.
    I have contemplated my land for years now, (retirement) and with your post, I now know that I can put things together, that I never thought I could do before, and can even incorporate many more Permaculture methods than I ever thought possible.
    I will be using a portion of my lot that is only about 120’long X 60′ wide, and I’m shocked by what I may be able to do. Thanks to YOU!
    We retired a few years ago, and are ready to start our backyard “hide-a-way” and I couldn’t be more thrilled with your message.
    Besides building a very small home, 32 x 32, I look forward to the best part of the property.

    Where we actually live. THE BACKYARD!

  4. I need ideas as to how to live within a Home Owners Assn and still enjoy gardening/permaculture. Im to old to move so I’m forced to compete with neighbors that are more concerned about the type vehicle they drive
    and do they have the greenest lawn. I expect next i’ll be crawling out to my garden in the middle of night,with miner’s light to plant my tomatoes . your ideas would be appreciated..

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