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How to Establish a Small Space Intensive Food Garden

Editor’s Note: This post is a good reminder to ensure you take good before, during and after photos as you implement projects! Case studies like this become an awesome portfolio for yourselves, and help people to see the practical potential in permaculture. It can be totally inspiring, and help get people moving on the ground!

Case Study – Noela’s Garden, as installed by Geoff and Nadia Lawton

This is a story about a garden that Nadia and I were asked to establish in 2006. It’s a very small space – the area is 95m2. A friend of a friend asked if we could get involved to help to design and implement a garden. Nadia had only recently arrived in Australia and I wanted her and I to put a garden in together as a ‘start to finish’ job so she could get a feel for how we establish small space gardens in Australia, as she already had experience in small space gardening in Jordan.

The area on the North side of Noela’s house.

Noela, a friend of a friend at the time, is now a very close friend of the institute, due to the community friendship that this garden has created. On the north side of the house is the driveway, which is the south boundary of the garden space. The first thing we had to do was to define the area required and then fence that area. A fence was only needed on three sides of the garden because it joined the house on the south side allowing sun into the garden from the northern side. This created a typically ‘Zone 1’ urban garden design. The house was on an excavated site, slightly lower than the rest of the landscape, which allowed for an eye level view into the garden from three windows of the house – the kitchen, the lounge room and bedroom.

Next to the house was a rockery, which was already established in ornamental plants and our intention was to convert that over to a herb garden with useful culinary and medicinal herbs and nice scented herbal plants that would give a nice aroma as the breeze would blow through the house from the garden.

Nadia and Geoff establishing the initial fence posts
and digging the trench between the posts.

Below we’re digging the small trench around the garden between the fence posts:

This trench was dug so that we could sink the wire underneath the ground so it completely excludes any wildlife that might dig under the fence. In this part of Australia, as in many other climates and landscapes, there are all kinds of animals that would like to get in and eat your garden. We have bandicoots, wallabies and kangaroos, to name a few, so to avoid these animals identifying your garden as a food source, it is worth making sure that it is well secured from the outset to avoid problems later on.

Tip: For especially troublesome animals, like rabbits, you can bend the wire at bottom outwards for several inches – if you dig a wider trench – then cover with soil. The rabbits will try to dig under, but will get discouraged to continue when they discover they’re hitting a floor of wire.

A low height of wire being sunk down into the trench so that it can be buried.

Also in the photo above you can see that we’re starting to shape the garden beds with a ‘reach factor’ for a completely functional food garden. There are ‘single and ‘double reach’ garden beds (double reach = you can reach to the centre from each side). All garden beds and footpaths are on contour, completely level across the slope, and the soil for the garden beds is literally dug out of the footpaths, which gives the garden a slightly raised bed form and extra topsoil depth to grow your plants in. This is the beginning of the terra forming (earth shaping) of the garden.

The shot above shows the newspaper we put down either side of the wire before backfilling so that there is no soil between the newspaper (no soil contacting the wire). This creates an absolute soil cover and weed exclusion zone which means you don’t get any weeds growing against the fence of your garden for the first few months, allowing you enough time to establish useful and beneficial plants which will completely dominate that space. The newspaper simply gives you more time to get on with gardening, and the carbon in the paper enriches the soil as it breaks down.

We’ve now added some taller fence wire bringing it up to about 1.2m/4ft
high and we’re starting to put down donkey manure, straw mulch and
some compost to inoculate the soil with beneficial organisms.

We’ve now added a thin layer of straw mulch on top of that plus we’ve put in a worm farm for Noela (pictured further down this page), half filled with donkey manure and the rest with green leaves and vegetable scraps. Every 3 months we can empty the farm of worm castings by attracting the worms to one end with some lush fruit and veg scraps, pulling them all out 2 days later, taking out the castings and then re-filling it with manure and the worms with fruit scraps.

On each garden bed we’ve put one bale of straw to 25-30m2 of growing bed – a very thin layer of straw, loosely fluffed, as a scatter mulch. Into this we’ve sowed a cover crop seed of a vetch, a field pea, and lupin scattered into the straw mulch. As this was winter on the subtropical east coast of Australia, we use the same cover crop as you use in summer in a temperate climate. Before we put the seed down we mixed an inoculant into the seed mix, which is a bacteria suspended in peat with a natural glue. We mix this with some water into a black sticky paste and then stir through the seed, so the bacteria that is associated with those particular plants, are already attached to the seed. When the seeds go into the fluffy mulch water is added. It then quickly germinates and the bacteria adds nitrogen (that is available through the air in the soil) to the plants and the bacteria gets starch from the plant through photosynthesis.

We sow the cover crop seeds 4 times thicker than agriculturally recommended so that we completely dominate the planting area and useful plants take up the potential weed space. The interactions in the soil from the root exudates, not only from their rhizomes, but the plethora of diversity that’s added in the scattering of compost is quickly added to the soil and the organisms start to work with the organic matter and produce soluble plant food.

As you can see, we’re mulching the footpaths with paper and cardboard, quite thickly, then we’re covering it with gravel and fine crushed gravel dust thereby making a footpath that’s quite quick and easy and is absolutely weed free for the first few months, whilst we get the garden established. We’re doing the opposite to most people in this case by then putting into the footpath some low ground cover plants that can handle light foot traffic, for example Pennyroyal, which also lets off quite a strong smell that is very distracting to any potential pests coming through the garden.

Within 6 weeks you can see that the garden is completely dressed in a cover crop. There are actually vegetables already growing underneath that, which were planted on the day of sowing the cover crop. All Noela has to do is take her kitchen scissors and trim the cover crops if they are overpowering and overshading the vegetables, which in turn becomes the initial fertilising mulch to our seedlings. She also needed to set off a little irrigation timer, purchased from a local farm supply store, to start up the two moveable low pressure sprinklers for just half an hour every day to wet down the garden.

After 2 or 3 months the garden starts to show more vegetables and less cover crop as Noela starts to go to work with her kitchen scissors, freeing the cover crop away from the vegetables as they start to emerge. You can see the edge of the rockery, which we’ve started to convert from an ornamental to a herb rockery.

Views from the house into the garden.

The garden after the initial clean up – we’ve pruned plants that have finished,
removed any weeds that have come through, there is hardly any cover
crop left. We’ve put down more donkey manure, compost, worm castings and
more straw on top, ready for more seedlings for the next season of cropping.

The garden is coming through quite well in the next cropping stage.

View of the rockery, covering up with herbs quite well.

Perennial plants growing well, rosemary in corner of garden.

View of the rockery, covering up with herbs quite well.

Garden becoming quite full.

In the pictures that follow, the garden is at a much later stage – further established, more perennial plants, footpaths very stable, fence completely covered with crop, 7 yr bean dominating the fence, and gourds, loufahs, passionfruit, grapes in profusion, etc. The outside garden bed now has permanent perennial plants; inside garden bed with annual, perennial and medicinal plants:

The herb rockery is now almost maintenance free, with coloured and scented plants and different forms and patterns of distractions to pests, along with lizard rockeries, birdbaths and ponds, thus favouring predators within the system. No chemicals are being used, only natural fertilisers – very little mulch, manure and compost is required, mainly only worm castings every 3 months.

Noela is now almost completely self-sufficient with fresh food for her vegetarian diet. She picks fresh food out of her garden every day, and all she has to do is look out of her own house windows every day to decide what she’s going to eat – as it is right there in front of her. It is so easy to manage and it allows her time to relax in her garden, spend time planting more trees and getting other fruit and orchard systems and ornamental aesthetic gardens established. Surplus food is given away to her family and friends.

This is an example to show that not a lot of space is needed to grow your own food, you can do it very easily as long as you keep it close to your house and follow the basic patterns of establishment so that you avoid most problems.

Noela’s donkeys creating manure for the garden.

The garden now 4 years old.

The birdbath to attract birds, i.e. favouring predators.

The established 4 year old garden.

The tap timer that controls the irrigation.

The low pressure sprinkler head.

The donkey stable that supplies the manure and urinated straw for
the garden and worm farms.

The 3 worm farms that are fed on the donkey straw and manure, vegetable
and fruit scraps from Noela’s kitchen. The buckets below collect the
worm juice – which is part of the fertilising process.

View of the worm farms with the donkey stables behind.

Noela’s deep litter chook yard, which adds some fertility to the garden.
The chickens scratch through the straw and pull up the weeds, de-seed it,
take out any pest larvae, and manure it.

Noela’s 2 water tanks that supply all the water for the garden,
caught from her roof.

Please share your garden progressions with the world – email text and photos in coherent organised form to editor (at)

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.


  1. Fantastic garden. Just wondering where i can get the 7year bean? sounds like its a perennial, and looks quite tough, almost weed-like. The sort of indestructible thing i want to eat and use as mulch.

  2. Thank you! Now we just have to integrate permaculture design systems with Christopher Alexander’s organic design theory (because permaculture is in its core organic), and we can design our way back to the Garden of Eden.

  3. I’ve trawled this website looking for this very garden ever since Geoff showed it to us in our PDC, and was so pleased to wake up this morning to find it here! It’s an absolutely fantastic garden. Noela must be the envy of her neighbours.. :)

  4. love the design! economic movement,when things dont travel far they are where they’re going to be applied adding to an already sustainable house & garden …

  5. This is awesome! This really shows what is capable for most people to achieve, and inspires me to take the next step in my back garden. Thanks very much.

  6. This is soooooooooo helpful. We are moving to Haiti in less than two weeks. I really wanted to see a good step-by-step simple garden how to before we leave, and this was exactly it. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Great garden, but for a small space there’s too much area taken up by paths. A mandala garden of keyholes would maximize planting area in relation to path area.

  8. I hope some on can answer this!

    What is the cover crop used in this garden?

    Is there a book that explains how to do this garden with a plot or design so one can get started WITHOUT leaning the entire philosophy of permaculture?

    Live in harrietville at base of mt hotham, cool climate.

  9. hi anna and paul there is a place called green harvest that sell cover crops with innoculants and also the 7 year bean, they will also help you with what you are trying to achieve. There website is http://www.greenharvest

  10. Thank you for sharing the pictures. I learned from there a lot. I just wonder if the area is really just 98 m2. How about the area used for the livestock and vermiworms plus that of the vegetable area?
    May I know the actual area covered please.

  11. That was superb. I learned so much. I will happily pass this on. Thank you and thanks to Cassidy Fry who worked on that garden and shared this story with me.

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