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City Kids Move to the Country – Part I

Pit-falls, projects and laughs from our Permaculture journey

“How does a tree make a mango? I’ve never thought about it like that before, but isn’t that crazy? A tree can make a mango!”

“Yes, dear,” says Chris.

We’re driving around the back streets of Cooroy, getting to know our new extended neighbourhood, and we just passed a grove of mango trees.

“No one’s mangos have fruited this season. I’ve heard it’s due to too much rain,” I say.

“So we could get some on our tree next year?”

“Isn’t that amazing? A tree can make a mango…” I’m aware my realisation sounds like someone who’s just tried smoking pot for the first time.

“I’m taking you home. You’re freaking me out today. You’re a bit hyper,” jokes Chris, glancing at me side-ways.

He’s right. I am hyper today. I’m totally fixated on looking at garden edging. Other people’s garden edging. I’ve never really thought about garden edging before, but since buying our first home and designing our first Permaculture garden, it’s one more thing I find myself staring at as we drive past people’s houses. Rocks, timber, grass, bricks, concrete. Those seem to be the options. I like rocks or timber, and surprisingly bricks can look quite good too, if you dig them into the ground at a 45 degree angle.

Our garden is in its infant stages. Actually, it looks more like a kamikaze Permaculture rocket has tried to launch in our backyard. Half finished projects, empty buckets, wheel-barrows, bags of manure and garden tools lay strewn in the ever growing grass. Amongst the chaos is an empty two by two metre frog pond with dirt piles surrounding the edges, waiting for the pond lining to arrive; six no-dig gardens, laying somewhat haphazardly in our zone one, literally right outside our back-door (where we can keep an eye on the capsicum, lettuce and gooseberries from our bed-room window, seeing how much they’ve grown before even getting out of bed); one herb spiral that has already flavoured numerous cups of peppermint and lemon balm tea, conveniently located under a sensor light so I can avoid stepping on the hoards of cane toads who have taken up residence in the new hay-covered garden-beds; a shade-house using the Permaculture design Rosina Buckman showed us with star pickets, bamboo from Tania Coppel, agricultural pipe, and shade-cloth from Fernland Nambour; and about sixteen new fruit trees planted in the already partly established orchard we inherited with the house. Almost all of which we are going to replant next week after we invited Dee & Ian Humphreys over and they graciously showed us a better design integrating lemon-grass, bush basil, pigeon pea and other support species, orientated on swales running north to south along our block’s contour.

Back-yard chaos!

Chris constructing the shade house

I still have to enclose the back with shade cloth

Around the time Dee and Ian left we had a mini-meeting.

“You know, I think it’s time we re-think some things and come up with a proper design. We know all those principles they mentioned, but we just haven’t put them into practice,” said Chris.

He was right. During the PDC with Geoff Lawton and Bill Mollison in Melbourne last month, Geoff said ‘Whatever you do, don’t go home and design your own garden. Do a bunch of other people’s and make your mistakes there first!’ Instead, Chris and I came home, decided we didn’t have anyone else’s garden to practice on and what the heck, we’d dive on in and learn in our own back-yard.

First we wrote a brief, pretending to be the clients, and outlined what we wanted to achieve on the property. It included growing most of our own organic fruit and vegetables, having some chooks, worm farms and irrigation for the veggies, a fire circle and cob oven for outdoor living, and down the track more costly alterations to the house to achieve passive heating and cooling, harnessing solar power and rainfall with panels and tanks, and eventually building an art studio and additional dam lower on the block.

Enthusiastic, we set about drawing on the Google Maps print-out of our property. But we hit some visual and practical brick walls. Quite simply, we didn’t know what we were doing. We knew how to read landforms to tell the difference between arid or humid climates, what plants to put along a grey-water trench, how to think about scale, utilise zones and visualise patterns. But there were gaping holes in our knowledge. How big should the vegetable garden be? How much sun does a shade house need? Can we dig swales by hand and if not, how much does it cost to hire the machine that will? What will happen to the northern sun when we build the new deck? Where exactly IS north? How can you grow vines on the house without damaging the weatherboards?

My way to resolve these issues was to borrow more books from the library covering organic gardening, fence building, fruit tree growing and plant propagation. They piled on top of the Permaculture Designer’s Manual in the middle of the coffee table. Chris said the sight of all those books was too much and all he wanted to do was dig a hole, put a fruit tree in and see what happened.

“Let’s just start. We can do the design later, after we’ve done a few things,” he said.

So, just one day after returning from Melbourne, we made our first no-dig garden outside our bedroom window. We sprinkled horse manure from a friend’s stable on the bare ground, then layered cardboard boxes from our recent move, followed by weeds which had literally grown five foot tall while we were in Melbourne, compost we had started six weeks before using Sonya Wallace’s method, hay from Pomona Ag Supplies, mushroom compost, more hay and a few handfuls of Natramin and McCleod’s Soil Conditioner. We watered each layer in with the hose and completed the process by watering in a dash of molasses to satisfy the microbes’ sweet-tooth, encouraging them to work up an appetite.

No-dig gardening begins!

Resources need to be brought in for the initial stage of our no-dig gardens

That same day we pilled dug dirt from the pond to form a large mound, right by the back-door, making sure it wasn’t wider than two meters so we could reach the centre without trampling the edges. Our herb spiral was completed the next day. We were well under way and we had energy to burn.

Four weeks later, and I’ve put my back out, not from gardening but from coughing (yes, coughing! I had a nasty flu for two solid weeks which included non-stop, tickle-the-back-of-your-throat, dry-retch water-in-your-eyes coughing, pulling a muscle in my ribs making it difficult to breathe, laugh and God help me, cough), and I’m taking a moment to assess the amount of energy I have to put into the garden. Another Permaculture principle: take stock of resources available. Our wish-list is percolating in the background and while that’s going on, seeds are germinating in the shade-house, the plants are growing in the no-dig gardens (much to our astonishment!), we’ve decided to keep hand-watering while we look into installing irrigation ourselves, and tonight Chris filled the frog pond. Although the yard’s chaotic, we think it’s looking great.

“Let’s plant the fruit trees today!” I say, worried they’ll be damaged where they are, getting blown over in our shade house, and the sooner we plant them the sooner we’ll have fruit.

“Ok. Where should we put them?” asks Chris.

This is a complicated question — one I don’t have the answer to. We know they are going in the orchard, our zone two, which is still close to the house but not somewhere we visit every day. The question is, in what configuration and what order? This needs some knowledge of heights the trees will grow to, how much water each species needs, requirements for full sun, shade or protection from sunburn on their trunks. Things I have a vague knowledge of but am feeling overwhelmed by when combined with advice from Jackie French’s book “Backyard Self-sufficiency,” where she suggests planting fruit trees along all your fences, no more than 2m apart. They may grow tall to reach the sunlight, she says, but it means the branches will intermingle and protect the fruit from birds, meaning less work netting and pruning. I want to plant the trees in lines running east-west, thinking this means they are ‘facing north’ like a house should be to get the best sun, and plant them close together like Jackie suggests.

“I love my bright red tractor,” says Chris, quoting a poem Geoff recited in the PDC talent night about farmers planting crops in ‘incredibly straight lines.’

“That’s cheeky,” I reply.

“Well, I think it’s silly to plant trees in rows. It looks terrible. They’re just begging to go between the trees that are already there, in the middle so they have room to grow.”

He’s placing them like the fifth dot on a dice that’s rolled a five. I can’t argue because it does look better and there’s so many answers and too many questions and I’m too tired to dig the holes myself so I concede and say ok. The result is an orchard that looks like the trees have been planted where a handful of seeds were scattered to the wind. We’ve forgotten about pattern and design and water management and instead relapsed to seeing the world with artists’ eyes. Aesthetics. It’s a constant battle for us, between the practical and the aesthetic. Just when we think we’re cured of aesthetic values, one of us becomes self-conscious of the garden edging looking so ramshackle (me, imagining our first PET day and hoping the plants have grown to hide the rough job we did of recycling materials left on the property: logs butted up adjacent to bricks, gapes filled in with sticks and still with yellowing newspaper poking across the paths: not very pretty) or of fruit trees in rows instead of dotted like a meadow.

It was soon after our tree planting that Dee came over with a hand-drawn design listing support species, distance between swales and orientation. It answered all our questions and pointed us in the right direction. The weak points in Chris’ design were to do with practicalities of irrigation. It would be easier to run pipe from the dam in straight lines along trees banked up on swales than curving around trees planted in isolation, plus swales will capture the runoff from the hill above our property. And the other point was lawn mowing. Something we hadn’t put much thought into, but Dee and Ian said mowing around single trees, speaking from experience, is terribly time consuming: you’re always left with a little triangle that requires going back and forth, back and forth. My design had the sun angles all wrong. North facing rows would have only shaded the trees behind, and as Dee said, fruit trees need sun. We’re still unsure about how closely to plant, but it won’t be the end of the world if we get it wrong. Just another opportunity to learn and maybe get the shovel out.

“How’s the garden?” asks Ian, our ex-housemate from Brisbane who introduced me to Permaculture.

“Yeah, it’s going well, thanks.”

“Have you done a design?”

“No, we decided that was too hard so we thought we’d just get started.”

“But isn’t that what it’s all about? A Permaculture Design Course?” He’s not being facetious. He’s genuinely surprised.

So far, the list of transplants, re-digging, shifting and alterations include replanting a young comfry plant well away from the septic tank, as we thought it may break through the concrete using it’s almighty tap-root (we didn’t want to underestimate it’s strength – not with such a potentially costly experiment!); digging a swale by eye and filling it in again as it wasn’t level, then moving (ie. re-digging) it down the slope; planting and then replanting an avocado into a mound of soil, heaping it up 40cm high in hope of giving it a chance of survival (we’ve been told avos keel over and die once their tap-root hits clay); removing the seedlings we’d planted in pure mushroom compost and mixing in topsoil after I tested the mushroom compost and found it’s PH was 9, meaning no matter how much worm juice or seaweed we fed them their leaves were turning yellow as they couldn’t absorb the nutrients; planting and soon replanting six citrus, one jaboticaba, one mango, one tropical apple, one macadamia and one nectarine into the design Dee shared with us; making a pond and lining it with cheap black plastic, only to find the top wasn’t level on our gently slopping block, so emptying the pond, making it larger and deeper to aid the biotrope (water health) process and buying proper pond liner from Pumps Plus in Cooroy, this time deciding to do the job right. I suppose it’s not too bad for a couple of city kids.

Tomorrow we’re going to take a day off and draw up a proper design, taking into account the needs and products of all the things we want, including chooks and ducks, swales and trees. I’m sure there will be plenty of things we do and then decide to do again in a different place, using a different method or getting rid of completely. But they say the hardest part is getting started, and we’ve well and truly done that. Keeping us motivated is the anticipation of next season when we can hopefully taste the magic of how our very own tree can make a mango!

Note: using the level this time!

Proper pond liner costs more but works a treat

No leaks!

So far so good


  1. ‘Whatever you do, don’t go home and design your own garden. Do a bunch of other people’s and make your mistakes there first!’

    LOL! I distinctly remember the afternoon tea after Geoff said that and EVERYONE was justifying why they would be going home to design their own place!

    I am sure your garden will be amazing!

  2. Hi Darren and Tegan!
    Thanks for your comments. How amazing to share our journey and find people are actually reading about it online! Thanks heaps.

    Darren, our block is one and a half acres: well and truly more than enough for us. We don’t plan on keeping any four-legged friends, so we may actually sub-divide in future. I’ll check out your Green Change site to see what you’re up to too :)

    I’ll keep posting our projects for sure. I enjoy writing about them – it makes me laugh!
    Stay tuned, as they say.

  3. Well done, Nicola and Chris! :)
    A very thorough and engaging story, keep going guys! Remember our plan for 1 acre? We fit loads of stuff into to, including winged ones and four-legged ones, so yeah, plenty of room to play around.


  4. Hi Nicola,

    I have had so much fun today, going through all my saved seeds and packing them up for you to try. Have fun….

    I would sprinkle all the old seeds (Say:- Asians for a start) on your no dig gardens for green manure, if you have any space to spare. Fork it in when it gets about 20cm tall to give a great green manure boost to your new garden.

    I think you are both wonderful. What an adventure for two ‘city kids’.

    Good luck. Rosina.

  5. Hi Nicola and Chris,
    That’s not an article, that’s half a book! Keep it up. So wonderful to read about your adventures so far. I am looking forward to getting into the dirt in Maleny. Hope your are feeling better. Love from Anna

  6. Hi Nicola,
    What an amazing job you’ve both done in such a short time – congratulations!
    It makes my recent planting of lettuce, basil and tarragon in the courtyard seem rather limited.
    Grandpa would be so proud of you – green fingers are in the genes.
    Annabel, Adam & Alex

  7. Geoff here on the laptop at dawn in chilly Istanbul, Turkey where Nadia and I are teaching a PDC course with Bill and Lisa. We are moulding 120 new permaculture terminal recruits for release on the world.

    I love your article, I have just had time to read it right through, please keep reporting in, it is exactly the style of article we need, honest, full of reality lessons, mass appeal and a great humorous writing style. I wish more of our students would do the same, it all has significance and great way to return your surplus, the third ethic of permaculture.

    Mount Cooroy in background of the “no leaks” photo makes me feel home sick for the beautiful Australian subtropics.

  8. Agreed Geoff – this kind of ‘real’ reporting about learning curves is just what’s needed to inspire yet more people to get out there, learning and sharing their experiences – which, in turn, inspires yet more.

  9. Wow – I am overwhelmed by everyone’s comments. We don’t have the internet at home so logging on at the library to find such wonderful responses all in one go is very moving.

    Thanks Tatyana! You’re right, we did fit loads of diversity, animals included(!) into our design. I keep telling people about your recycled business card idea. ~ cardboard packaging cut to size and stamped with a beautiful stamp giving your details. Genius. I must check out your blog again… :)

    Rosina, I planted some of your sunflower seeds yesterday. Fingers crossed they like our newest no-dig garden. Tomorrow I’ll be in the shade-house with your boxes of seeds and we’ll see what comes up! Thanks for your amazing generosity.

    Annabel, Adam and Alex, the three As. So, so lovely to hear from you. It made me a bit teary (in a good way) when I read that Grandpa would be proud. He was and is my hero and inspiration. That’s great you’ve planted out the court-yard! Those are much adored and useful crops.

    And Geoff, thanks so much for your encouragement and generosity. I was thinking in the garden yesterday how much I wanted to thank Nadia too, for sharing you with us all in Melbourne during such a difficult time.

    I’ve loved writing about our experiences. And with all your resounding support I’m most enthusiastic to continue recording and sharing as we go along. Thanks everyone for commenting! You’ve made my day!

  10. Oh! And Anna! Sorry, I was dazed by all the ‘A’s in my cousins email.

    Ha! Half a book… just maybe…. :) Can’t wait to hear how Maleny is going. We missed you at the last Permaculture Noosa meeting. Do you know about the Christmas party/quizz on the 16th? We could form a team for the night! xx

  11. Hi Nicola & Chris, I have just found time to read your wonderful journey so far,looks like you two are really ‘digging it’:). I look forward to watching your vision take form,so please don’t leave my in box alone nicola & hope you are feeling well now. love Robyn pdc2010

  12. Nicola, you are a treasure, and so its your writing. Its real and its generative, it will solve other people’s actual problems. It will get them started, and keep them going, and they will pay to buy your books.

    This I loved:

    “Have you done a design?”

    “No, we decided that was too hard so we thought we’d just get started.”

    We are all possums in the headlights when faced with our first blank garden.

    Our brains cannot even SEE something they haven’t creatively grappled with. Try drawing your husbands face. Or your own… teeth. Its even better than Trees Make Mango’s.

    You have to waste your time and money and be wrong on your first garden. Most permies don’t like this. Thinking of it as a semsester at uni helps. If you do enough semesters, you have a skill and, and can save the world. Professionally. You will just be able to look at land, and an ecosystem garden will design itself in your brain.

    Nicola, Im wondering if you can get to the library enough to help me with something? I’m planning a series of articles on Permaculture for Creating beauty…Its a challenging topic, making my life interesting every day. Could you help me look at the drafts? If “yes’, come visit my blog, I would just love to hear from you.

    I had the cough injury a while back. Keeping away from excitement, not talking, warm weatbag compresses helped. Get Well Soon,

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