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Letters from Melbourne – Cam and Jesse’s Urban Retreat

An urban hideaway managed by Cam, Jesse and Yarrow Wilson
(Yarrow was taking a break for this shot)

All photographs © Craig Mackintosh

On my recent trip to the Bill Mollison/Geoff Lawton course in Melbourne, that I forced myself to miss so I could go on site visits in the area, Cam Wilson kindly offered to be my guide – giving me very knowledgeable insights into the places we visited. As well as the Dalpura Farm site we just posted about and giving me the heads up on Angelo the Wizard, covered in this post, Cam took me to see the very cool stuff he’s doing on an urban block currently under his expert control in the ‘burbs of Melbourne.

Cam’s garden is rich in biodiversity, yet purposeful placement and organisation
makes for a very aesthetic retreat – one you truly feel a lure to spend time in

Cam has that kind of a quiet, understated personality that inspires confidence. He said his garden “should be worth a look”. Being a Permaculture instructor – running regular PDCs – and being one of the main guys helping get the Permablitz movement off the ground, I was keen to do exactly that.

Cam uses a broadfork to aerate the orchard soil, stimulating microbial life and
soil building, whilst chickens get busy maintaining the section through their
irrepressible behaviours and their manure

The section is rather generous – three quarters of an acre all up, leaving a full quarter acre to garden once you subtract the house and garage. Cam and Jesse take care of the place for Kim and Clive, who are currently doing international Permaculture project aid work in Africa. Rather than leave their home to grow musty and the yard to turn rapidly into a candidate for a small scale carbon offset venture, Kim and Clive thoughtfully placed their own hard working pioneer species in their garden – namely, Cam Wilson!

Distractions of colour and fragrance, as well as beneficial host plants with
multiple purposes, all make it very difficult for ‘pests’ to become an issue.
Healthy soil, means healthy plants, which also repels pest attack.

And, what would you do once when you’ve successfully roped an expert Permaculturist into house sitting at your place? Well, you give him a budget, a big thumbs up, and tell him to let his creative knowhow loose on the place in whatever way he wishes, of course!

And so he has.

The original mainframe design of the section was done by Dan Palmer and Cam Wilson (placing the swaled orchard, chook system and raised kitchen bed), before Cam was invited to move in and take it further. Cam has since designed and implemented the terraces, the food forest, a very cool and functional water feature, and more.

Next-in-line plants wait their turn….

Everything about Cam’s work is ordered. Raised beds are on contour to ensure passive water filtration, and, with the whole yard sloping, plants like yarrow (achillea millefolium) are planted on the downward side to act as dynamic bio accumulators – collecting and storing the downward flow of nutrients, where they can later be pulled and returned to the beds as mulch.

Yarrow, bottom, mops up nutrients that leach through the garden

Grapes are being planted to run along wires above paths, where they’ll cut light intensity in the hot summer months, before dropping their leaves as mulch in autumn, and thus allowing full winter sunshine through during the colder months.

Cam checks the temperature of his compost pile

Nasturtium flowers add colour and
a peppery tang to salads

I visited in mid-winter – but would love to take a lengthy wander, preferably at lunch time, through the orchard in summer and autumn months, when your average fruit preserver would be getting frantic with vacuum sealed jars. You’ve got persimmons, plum, apricot, pomegranate, olive, peach, nectarine, pear, apple, fig, orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, hazelnut and mulberry. Interplanted support species – for nitrogen fixing and/or biomass – include tagasaste (Chamaecytisus palmensis), Acacia floribunda, subterranean clover, white clover, vetch, broad beans, oats and wheat during winter, along with nasturtium and comfrey for chop and drop.

Yarrow swings through the larder

Comfrey works well here, with its deep root system bringing nutrients up to the surface from depths that regular grass never could. Nasturtium is used in many places, also acting as a nutrient accumulator and a great ground cover – protecting against erosion, improving soil structure and providing beneficial insect habitat. (Hoverflies love ’em.) Excess growth is simply broken off and put around fruit trees, or eaten!

Chunky wood chips make for guilt-free, comfortable walking along paths – holding moisture, absorbing pressure to reduce compaction, and ultimately converting into rich, dark humus.

Even the laundry gets a great view

The latest addition is what will ultimately become a gorgeous and still practical centrepiece for the yard – a pond fed by a cascading series of infiltration basins that slow-soak water through to a number of newly planted trees.

Those of you interested to combine urban water harvesting and food forest establishment with yard landscaping will find Cam’s detailed article on how and why he built this invaluable.

Despite the garden still being in full establishment mode – i.e. quite new, being only two growing seasons in since initial designs – it was producing a good amount of food already, and my visit six weeks ago was right at the trailing end of winter. Cam and Jesse have been at the site only since January, and Cam has put in an average of one day per week into the garden. For what you’re getting in return, base costs look modest:

  • Huge worm farm – $250
  • 4 main terraces – $2000 (should last at least 50 years)
  • Greenhouse – $700
  • Food forest plants – $400 (mainly fruit trees and shrubs and some of the herbs). Cam grew most of the under-storey himself from seeds, cuttings and divisions.

Cam’s already taunting me by email with descriptions of how it looks now that spring is in full swing. I can’t wait to check it out again. In the meantime, I asked Cam to give us all a few tips from his storehouse of knowledge – be sure to check them out below.

Worth a look it was Cam!

Cam’s Top Five Not-so-Common-Tips for Edible Gardening

Cam’s mega worm farm

The basics are covered in a thousand books, so here are a few tips you don’t come across quite so often.

  1. Design. A few extra hours spent thinking about your garden layout can save you many heart-aches, head-aches and back-aches down the track. Permaculture and Organic gardening books are a good place to start, a PDC (Permaculture Design Course) is a very helpful experience, or you could hire a Permaculture consultant for a couple of hours to look over your design attempt (paying someone with experience to tell you “That won’t work because…. Try this instead….” is money very well spent, keeping the ache-trio I mentioned before in mind.
  2. Protection for the garden is really important. Those books that say your vegie garden needs full sun are either from the very South of Tassie or they’re written for cloudy English conditions. In the harsh Aussie sun, most vegies only need about 6 hours of full sun and those baking afternoon rays from the west can be more of a liability than an asset. A deciduous vine to the west will provide summer protection, whilst allowing in valuable winter sun. Some movable pots of bamboo can also be a good solution.It’s also important to block out hot-dry summer winds, which suck the life out of your plants. If you’re in Melbourne, those winds come from the N/W. In this case a 1m wide strip of fast growing acacia planted against the fence can be a good solution. Allow them to grow up as a windbreak for the summer-time and then chop them back in winter to allow in sunlight (the prunings make excellent mulch for fruit trees).
  3. Catch and infiltrate runoff right where you need it. If you’re planting fruit trees it pays to dig basins or trenches just above them. These intercept any runoff, giving the water time to infiltrate, right where the tree needs it. If you’re setting up a vegie garden, make your pathways level and place a mini dam wall at each end. This means that your pathways will hold water and allow it to infiltrate into the vegie beds. If it’s been really wet and you risk leaching valuable nutrients from your garden, you can just dig out your little dam wall and the paths act as drains. So that you don’t need gumboots to walk in your garden, crusher dust can be used to fill the paths, which provides drainage, a nice surface to walk on and will add trace minerals into the bed over time.
  4. Cycle all nutrients. What springs to mind for most is to return the parts of the vegies you don’t eat back to the garden (via the worms for example). That’s a good start but there are some other important ways:- If a weed pops up in the garden, as you’re pulling it out say ‘Thanks!’ for the carbon it’s captured and the nutrients it’s brought to the surface, and tuck it back under the mulch where it will break down and feed your vegies.
    – If you have a slope, gravity will do its best to leach nutrients from your garden. By planting ‘dynamic accumulators’ such as Comfrey, Yarrow, Tansy, Horseradish or Nasturtium at the base of the garden, they’ll capture these nutrients and bring them up into their foliage. You can cycle them back onto the garden by chopping them back from time to time, and then tucking them under the mulch. (Important: don’t plant comfrey ‘inside’ your vegie garden where you might disturb its roots or else it will take over)
    – Why do I keep mentioning tucking green plants in under mulch? Because if you leave green plants such as a green manure crop on the surface they quickly turn brown, and what’s happened is that a good chunk of nitrogen has evaporated off into the atmosphere; lost. By covering green stuff with a thin layer of brown mulch, you’ll notice when you come back a few weeks later that it’s still green underneath, and it’s holding onto the nitrogen until the soil critters get around to breaking it down and incorporating it into the soil.
    – Wee in a bucket of water and put it out on the garden once a day. If you have a nice layer of carbon rich mulch, the garden won’t smell at all. (By the way, urine actually contains far more nutrient than your #2 does.)
    – Commercial composting toilets can now be legally installed in any sewered area of Victoria, even in the heart of the city. Also check out Jo Jenkins The Humanure Handbook which you can download from this website, but I’d recommend supporting Jo’s ‘shit-hot’ work by buying a copy and keeping it in the dunny.
  5. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Seems like a strange one to add in a list of ‘not-so-common tips’, but there are a couple of aspects which are often misunderstood. Here’s a couple of quick tips:- Think of your mulch as a flat, spread out compost pile, for which you should be aiming for a similar carbon:nitrogen ratio. If you just put down pea straw for example, this is really high in carbon. The soil critters that will want to get to work on breaking it down need nitrogen to build their bodies and if you don’t provide it for them they’ll go looking in the soil and will steal every last bit from around your plants; that’s what’s known as nitrogen drawback. By providing a bit of nitrogen in the form of blood and bone, manure, urine etc., you’ll get the wonderful benefits of mulching, along with the decent plant growth you’re after.
    – It’s a good idea to use mulch which has a similar herbaceous/woody consistency to the plant you are growing. The reason for this comes down to the soil biology, in particular the ratio of fungi:bacteria, which different plants prefer. For example, as a result of millions of years of evolution, vegies prefer a soil that is fairly bacterial dominated rather than fungal. If you mulch with woodchips, which are predominantly broken down by fungi, that’s what your soil will be dominated by. A more appropriate approach would be to use grass clippings or pea straw on the veg, whereas for a fruit tree you’re better off with the slightly woody tree prunings from leguminous trees or from a local tree lopper.

Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy people

Feel free to check in anytime to read about some of the stuff I’m up to.



  1. Cam rules. He is a great teacher, human, gardener and inspiration. I love his work and thank him for all he has taught me and inspired me to do.

  2. This is an inspiration as to what can be done by by ones self.You have shared this with us and in turn we would like to share something unbelievable. Josie was suffering with a frozen shoulder. She couldn’t sleep because of the pain and inflammation, and we tried every kind of healing process for her. Then when we were at complete despair, some idiot recommended a comfrey Poultice.The results were unbelievable, within three days the pain was gone.Her osteoarthritis also disappeared.
    I concede that she is not entirely out of the woods.But the affects of Comfrey and its healing properties is beyond contestation. This is coming from a skeptic, and i repent any previous remarks i may have made about organic gardening to anyone.
    Cam if i told you that by applying Comfrey to any part of the body that is in pain, then be reassured that immediate relief is there.Because we are just simple hard working vegetarian people, and we just shared this knowledge to our friends, who were also suffering from all sorts of pains, from migraines, back aches, deep tissue strains, etc, and in every case immediate relief was there for them. I am sure that you may have access to similar knowledge. But this is our own experience with a diverse age group of children, teenagers and older people like us.
    If you feel like a laugh one lady we knew, paid $11.00 each for some pain tablets, which didn’t work, we gave her some Comfrey for free and immediately she was well. But suffered from the side affects of the painkillers.

    Bless you Cam and your family and thanks once again for sharing your knowledge with us in a time when this is of paramount importance to humanity. Only because we have lost touch with nature and need to ground ourselves into some sort of rational thinking. Yours sincerely

    W Bellman.

  3. Another great article Craig. I visited this property yesterday and it is looking amazing, with 1.5-year old fruit trees fully laden and tagasastes well over two metres tall. The food forest area Cam did recently has taken off fast, and Kim said she’s impressed how well it has held up to the heat – thanks to all the careful soil prep I’m sure.


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