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A Beginner’s Guide to The Edible Garden Revolution

Editor’s Note: We welcome new writer Matthew Lynch as he treats us to this awesome first post! Matthew is currently based in Melbourne, Australia, but will soon be sharing his exploits as he visits permaculture sites across Europe, before heading back to Hawaii to set up a permaculture business there.

Six months ago I graduated from my Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Southern Cross Permaculture, bright eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to change the world.

I raced back home and made my first compost pile in the middle of the lawn, then set about the task of redesigning my parent’s suburban backyard in Melbourne to a productive permacultural paradise.

To my surprise, my parents weren’t exactly thrilled that their prodigal son was returning home from his two-week intensive course in the bush to convert their neatly manicured green lawns to a messy, hippy garden they would have to explain to their urbanite friends after awkward silences at their next dinner party.


The Permie Prodigal Son

…Errr, yes, that’s a, um, a kama-sutra garden bed our son has installed beneath our clothesline. He says it’s good feng shui for the vegetables.

Completing a PDC can be a landmark event in your life. For many PDC graduates, it feels as though we’ve been given a new pair of eyes through which to view the world.

The framework for sustainable design that permaculture offers equips us with a set of tools to catalog and organize information in a unique way: weeds become useful indicators of soil type and moisture levels, old bricks become valuable building materials to create our garden borders.


Old bricks become garden borders

Suddenly, problems become solutions, waste materials become valuable resources… all with a slight shift in our perception, and a simple foundation of ethics and principles to guide us.

We are given more options to navigate the overwhelming world of choices towards sustainability.

However, as empowering and exhilarating as completing your PDC can be, navigating re-entry into civilization post-completion can be tricky.

“How do I explain what it is that you do now?”, my dad asked recently.

While our perceptions and understanding may have experienced a paradigm shift, it is important to remember that those around us – often those we care about most – have not had the same opportunity to learn and grow that we have just given ourselves.


Cilantro, beetroot, kale, sorrel, sweetpea, and lettuce grow together.
Comfrey can be seen establishing a living weed barrier, compost accelerant
and chop & drop green manure.

If the permaculture movement is to move solidly into mainstream consciousness, than we must engage with our friends and family from the starting point of their perceptions, otherwise we risk alienating those we care about most – potentially driving permaculture perceptions back to the ‘fringe’, and perhaps even hindering the spread of permaculture awareness into the mainstream.

Not everyone wants to convert their backyard into a lush veggie overflowing with fresh produce… think of all the extra work weeding, harvesting, cooking, and preserving all those vegetables!


Function can be beautiful – camellia flowers provide an attractive mulch

Sometimes, less is more.

Take over a small corner of the backyard and design a low-maintenance perennial veggie patch or mini-food forest first, or start with something even simpler like a beautiful, fragrant herb garden.

Mum loved the fresh parsley, oregano, sage and coriander we were able to harvest so much that she was only too thrilled to have me install a winter veggie patch to grow our salad greens in.


Fresh veggie harvest: kale, beetroot greens, sorrel,
parsley, cilantro, and snow peas

After the first couple of salads, harvested entirely from the backyard garden, she was hooked… a keyhole garden bed underneath the clothes line? Go for it!

Now there is garlic growing in the rose beds, potatoes under the hills-hoist, and plans to put in The Three Sisters guild planting of corn, green beans and zucchini in the front yard over Spring…. and hey presto, mum and dad are enjoying their unconscious conversion towards becoming permaculturists… and happily munching the delicious organically home-grown along the way!

Lessons learned in creating ‘The Edible Backyard Revolution’ video

The keyhole garden bed today. Potatoes, nasturtium, leek, horse radish
and marigolds

1) One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Bricks used for the keyhole garden border were scrounged from a demolition site around the corner; empty cardboard boxes and waste packing paper from our recent move formed the weed mats; compost in both garden beds were made from our household kitchen scraps fed to our worm farms. With a little more creative thought, manures used to enrich both garden beds could have been scrounged from the nearby horse stables, instead of being bought at the garden supplies store. Same goes from the imported organic sugarcane mulch used; we could have salvaged used straw from the stables (though you’d probably want to dry out ‘used’ straw before applying to your veggie patch!).

2) Peas and Onions are not friends. Plants in the allium family secrete root exudes that inhibit the growth of legumes. Our snow peas and honey peas really struggled to take off because red onions and garlic were planted in the same beds.

3) Design to be lazy. When I move on from my parents’ house they will no longer have a gardener to lovingly care for their veggie patches. Therefore, comfrey was planted along the outer edges to act as both a barrier for the encroaching cooch-grass lawn, and a green manure, making it easy to ‘chop and drop’ comfrey leaves into the beds to prepare them for the next growing season. Locating the keyhole garden under the clothes line limits us to ‘low growing’ crops and ground covers like potatoes and nasturtium, but allows this grow bed to be checked each time the laundry is hung.

4) Build on small successes. Hardy crops such as kale and parsley, and low-maintenance crops like beetroot and lettuce were chosen because they are easier to grow than more finicky crops such as cauliflower and broccoli. Rather than be discouraged by early failures, design in opportunities for new gardeners to succeed with basic and prolific crops (peas, squash) to build experience and confidence to try their hand at growing more diverse and exotic crops. Because of the early success of the herb garden, mum was excited to try something new on a larger scale. Now we are working on designs to reclaim the front yard to convert into productive space.

5) Perennials are your friends. Hot mustard greens, artichokes and amaranth were sown in a corner of the backyard as a mini-food forest. Dad is now salivating at the prospect of all-he-can-eat artichokes over the summer, and it won’t be a huge stretch for him to let a few artichoke heads go to seed to ensure he has another artichoke buffet next year. Similarly, mum is excited about being able to harvest hot mustard greens and seed for her asian salads, and amaranth greens to use unexpectedly in her stir-frys, while the poppy-seed like amaranth grains go great in cookies and muffins! Best of all, this self-sowing patch of garden will continue to flourish with a little training, and very little maintenance, and lays the foundation for the possibility of a larger scale food forest down the line.

17 Comments

  1. Glad u enjoyed the post and video!

    @Winston – actually, it only took a couple afternoons to complete the keyhole gardenbed. Most of the time was spent in finding and scrounging the bricks …we could have installed the gardenbed in one afternoon except that it takes time to stop, click the camera, place one more brick, etc etc…

    Lots of fun though! …Mum says she wishes the little Green Wheelbarrow would work as hard for her as it did for me… ;-)

  2. I too have centered my mandala garden around my clothes line. It was a bit of a learning curve, the birds found it great as a perch to munch on the taller produce, whilst towels and sheets circulating in the breezes caused a bit of damage. But it’s great for keeping an eye out for pests and means I can harvest and bring in the clothes all at once.

  3. What a great idea ,turning the ugly ( great) line into a veg garden.
    It is really going to take off,Gardening Aus will be calling you or ch 9 !!

  4. @Susan thanks for sharing ur experience; I may have to install a scarecrow on the top of the hills hoist to keep the birds at bay – don’t know how excited they would be about birds pooping on their clean washing! We were going for hardy, low-growing crops to keep out of the way from breezy sheets …so why the heck did i plant leeks there?? oh well, maybe we harvest them as baby leeks…

  5. Thank you so very much for this fantastic article. I am wishing to obtain my PDC and very excited for what I know I will learn, but the journey along that path is going to be filled with fantastic friendships bonds of like-minded and like-hearted people. Thank you Matthew for sharing and inspiring through your words and actions… your contribution to the web of life is great and vast… well done, you are choosing well in life. All the best, Vanessa.

  6. Great work Matthew, I also have my raised vegie patch under my under-used hills hoist. Being so hot in summer over here in Perth this is great as I just throw some shade cloth over the clothesline and my vegies all make it through our hottest days (and I can still put the clothes on the line if I wish but they’re usually dried under the patio so they don’t fade and go hard). My only regret is that I didn’t make it a wicking bed … but think I will re-build it as such in 2011.

    Am looking to do the PDC next year. Thanks for sharing :)

  7. AS having something serve more than one purpose is a guiding principle of permaculture, I see that you achieved that in many ways including how your efforts served to widen the horizons of your parents. Good work and a loving result.

    Anna

  8. @Noala – would love to see some photos of your hills-hoist garden :)

    @Anna – thanks you for your comments. Almost 6 months later and they are sharing surplus produce with extended amily & friends, and showing off their beautiful vegges to anyone they can coax into the backyard ;-)

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