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Lessons from an Urban Back Yard Food Forest Experiment

Editor’s Note: Some of you may remember my Magic in Melbourne post, where I covered the back yard of a certain urban wizard named Angelo, and his sidekick Louie. Well, Angelo gives us a great update on his progress below. It’s a very inspiring read, as I’m sure you’ll discover.

In our modern, Western, science-centred world, proof is very highly valued. We are habitual sceptics, our minds are trained to hunger for irrefutable facts, and when these aren’t delivered, claims are met with denial, scepticism and disbelief….

When it comes to permaculture, one question that often arises from those outside of Permaculture circles is "…but does it really work?" Far too often, I’ve heard people doubting the viability of permaculture systems, I’ve even heard lukewarm responses from within our own ranks!

It’s not every day that you wake up and try to objectively prove a major system of thinking to yourself. But one morning in early 2008 I woke up like every other morning, but took that first step on a fateful journey that would change everything….

With seven years of organic gardening experience under my belt and a good understanding of biological systems from a university degree in the biological sciences as a starting point, I came across the concept of permaculture in early 2008. I undertook a few months of self-study, after which I was convinced that the principles were scientifically sound, and brilliantly innovative.

What struck me as amazing is that by observing and emulating nature itself, a system that has been successfully growing plants without human intervention since time immemorial, this would show us the best way to actually grow plants! (And yes, there’s more to permaculture than growing plants!) Why would we need to try to re-invent the wheel? With this realisation, it should be logical that permaculture is definitely the way to go! Well it was for me.

From all the demonstration Permaculture sites I read about, it looked like the "thing to do" was to purchase a farm and start digging swales, and plant up a food forest, but for me there was only one catch, I live in an inner urban area…. I had to make it work in a regular back yard.

Having scoured every source I could find of examples of permaculture backyards, I was fairly impressed with what I saw, but two things struck me — barely anyone mentioned how much their gardens produced, and too many looked like conventional gardens, not like the food forests I dearly admired.

Not willing to let go of my passion for food forests, I set my mind on designing one that would fit in a regular sized back yard.

Well, this was "proof time". Coming from a science background, my natural approach was to do what I’m trained to do, try it out, test it out for myself, see what results I get, and compare my findings to those of others to see how well they match up. My mission was set — to prove that you can put a food forest in an urban backyard!

Since I wanted this project to work, I decided to employ almost every imaginable permaculture design principle and technique. Furthermore, if it did work, it would clearly demonstrate all the permaculture principles in action.

This was a pretty ambitious undertaking, since I still hadn’t considered obtaining formal permaculture qualifications at this point in time. Don’t get me wrong though, I had been reading up on permaculture and applying the principles to my container garden for almost two years. Also, my container garden was quite extensive, consisting of over one hundred quite large (mostly 45 and 60 litre) pots, with a huge 110-point trickle irrigation system, so we’re definitely not talking balcony container gardening here.

In a short time, I designed my backyard food forest on paper, then realised the work before me when I looked at what I had to work with. The garden was not a "blank slate", nothing even remotely close. First, the soil was dried out, sun-bleached, leached of organic matter, and totally lifeless. More like something of a sandy loam to be precise. There was lawn merging into garden and vice-versa, the soil in the garden beds was far from level, and there were plants of every description everywhere. It wasn’t a pretty picture. I figured it would take some work to transform this garden into something that looked like my design.

Well, to cut a long story short, I wasn’t working at the time, so I decided to spend the next three months building it on my own, right through winter. Piece by piece, I managed to complete this momentous undertaking. As fate would have it, two weeks later I accidentally stumbled on a advertisement that Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton were running a PDC with Greg Knibbs at Trinity College, and then two weeks after that, I commenced my PDC in late 2008.

Naturally, I refined my design even further once I completed the course, and was even more inspired to "go out there and change the world!"

Fairly soon after I graduated with a PDC, Craig Mackintosh from the PRI wrote an article "Magic in Melbourne" which featured my newly built garden.

I can happily say that the “magic” continues. My garden is now nearly two and a half years old, and I’m firmly convinced Permaculture works. I now have real evidence!

The garden after its first year, thriving!

From the time the garden was first built, I have been meticulously documenting everything that I have built, writing instructional articles on how I built it, and have weighed all the produce coming out of the garden. I’ve published all this on my website, Deep Green Permaculture .

One of the biggest commitments to my research is the detailed recording of yields for two and a half years so far (and still going) — concrete, solid facts and figures showing what a backyard permaculture food forest can produce.

So, you probably want to see the results! Firstly, to put the results into some kind of context, I’ll need to provide some preliminary information on the backyard food forest.

Here are some useful specifications:

  • Total Size of back yard: 150 square metres
  • Total size of garden (including paths): 85 square meters
  • Total area of garden beds: 64 square metres (686 sq. feet)
  • Fruit trees: 30+
  • Berries: 16 different types
  • Medicinal herbs: 70+ different types

Construction Materials:

This is what the garden looked a few months after it was first built

In building this backyard food forest, the cost of materials including the irrigation, but excluding plants, was approximately $600.

The biggest cost component was the 260 linear feet of brand spanking new red gum sleepers for the garden beds. The other materials used were one cubic meter of cow manure and two and a half cubic meters of pine bark mulch (for all the 45cm-50cm (1’6” – 1’8") wide paths between the garden beds.

The main cost component, the red gum sleepers raised beds, could have been replaced with other (cheaper/recycled) materials or simply be dug as traditional “botanical edges” to reduce the cost. I felt they looked nice and therefore included them in my design.

The irrigation is the only real costly and necessary part, about 120m of pressure-compensated drip line irrigation, configured as two separate 60m circuits on a Galcon series 9000 Tap Timer fed via a Galcon Two Way Alternating Valve. With irrigation, you have to purchase all the little fittings and clips, plus a stack of landscaping or irrigation pins to hold the drip lines in place, and the cost of the small items does add up. Fortunately, many places will allow you to return unused irrigation fittings if you buy too many, so check with the retailer first if they offer such a deal.

Mind you, I didn’t have any irrigation in place for the first year and watered by hand, right through one of Melbourne’s hottest recorded summers. So, yes, watering can be done manually — if you don’t mind spending half an hour in the evening, hand watering on a sweltering hot night while being incessantly attacked by hungry bloodsucking mosquitoes! It wasn’t fun, but I had to do it to keep the garden alive!

Now that I’ve covered those points, lets get back to the results.

Water Efficiency

Homebrew water tank system made from recycled plastic drums

Firstly, the garden is very water efficient. In Melbourne, residents had been forced to restrict water usage due to drought conditions. The harshest restriction level reached was designated Stage 3a – with watering only allowed twice a week in the late evening, and for one hour only. Watering with full compliance to these restrictions, plus with the rainwater I harvested from my 30 square metre garage roof and stored in my home made water tank system (1500L capacity at the time), the garden did splendidly.

The lessons here regarding water were significant. Firstly, I realised the popular ‘wisdom’ bandied around by gardening ‘authorities’ regarding planting vegetables separately from trees because “they have different water requirements” was simply utter nonsense. Not only does this go against the basic principle of food forests, but it defies basic ecology. Trees will use what they need, the other plants will take the rest, that’s how nature works… unless you’re a conventional agribusiness-oriented farmer who gets cheap, subsidised water and flood-irrigates vegetables growing in neat monoculture rows with no cover in a wide open dustpan exposed to scorching winds, but that’s another story….

The second fact I realised was how bad the conventional advice on water-wise gardens to the general public was. Gardening organisations were drumming out the propaganda like a military campaign — xeriscaping and xerogardening was the way to go. Frankly, no it isn’t! Just to put things into perspective, some etymology first. The prefix "xero- or xeri-" means "dry" in Greek, so we’re talking dryscaping here. So what does that involve? Recreating your very own little backyard "desert-scape", and that’s precisely what they recommended. Sparsely planted succulent, strappy leaf plants with a thick layer of dry mulch.

So what’s wrong with this you might ask? For starters, it’s a purely ornamental gardening strategy, and for anything other than aesthetic value, such gardens are absolutely useless. It doesn’t create an ecosystem that supports any life, and having sparsely planted (usually monocultures) is an ideal invitation for nature to bring in some pioneer plants (aka weeds) to restore biodiversity. These dryscape plants cope with low water and nutrient levels by having very slow growth rates, and as a result, don’t take up much CO2 from the air, and produce very little biomass, so they end up playing an insignificant role in capturing carbon and alleviating the global warming issue.

So what does my garden prove in regards to water?

It proves you really can:

  • mix vegetables and trees in a garden
  • grow plants in high density stacked plantings, where they protect each other and create a microclimate
  • use sheet mulching and living ground covers to retain soil moisture
  • capture significant amounts of atmospheric CO2, by building large amounts of biomass, which also builds the soil in the garden.

And, furthermore, you can have an amazingly productive, biodiverse food forest teeming with life — all for the same water use as a trendy "water-wise" desertscape. Not to mention that it’s a hell of a lot more relaxing and aesthetically pleasant to be around too!

Pests and Diseases

Dragonfly resting on a sage plant

This is an area that really challenged my beliefs about what nature is capable of, or should I say, what nature is designed to do. I remember sitting in my PDC class, where Geoff Lawton was describing how, in an established food forest, it becomes a living ecosystem, filled with all manner of beneficial organisms, so when any pests appear, they get eaten! That simple? I thought it sounded too ideal. Could this be possible? I loved the idea, but I suspended my judgement about whether this ideal state could be achieved.

I’ve always been an organic gardener, so when it came to ‘war time’ it was Neem soap that came out first! Basically, it’s a natural organic soap with Neem oil, which is made from a tree that originates in India and is used in everything wholesome and organic, even natural toothpastes! It also disrupts the reproductive cycle of insects, which is why it’s put in there. The soap part makes it stick and does the real work by simply suffocating the insects that you spray it on. So it works by direct contact only, and washes off with rain where it works on the ground as a natural soil wetting agent. Pretty neat I thought — it worked on the pests I encountered when I first built the garden, including aphids, scale and the pesky ants that were protecting them.

If things were getting particularly difficult with the scale insects, out came the white oil. This is simple to make with organic liquid soap and olive oil and smothers the little critters very well.

When things hit crisis point, out came the natural pyrethrum — a strictly last-resort weapon, for fear of harming beneficial insects. It works for 24 hours, and then breaks down. Bees, which are the same family as ants would you believe, are also very sensitive to this insecticide, so I sprayed at sunset when the bees were safely back in their hives.

That was my usual approach to pests, but here was Geoff Lawton challenging my preconceived notions, suggesting that we can let nature do it all!

The challenge was set for me, to prove if we can dispense with all pesticides, even fairly safe organic ones! I had made a commitment that I would wait to let nature do its thing, and resort to only Neem soap as the last resort now.

A hoverfly sitting on a strawberry flower

Nature does answer its own call when we exercise patience. As the garden established itself, and with the support of all the companion plants that encourage the good bugs, it all started coming together.

  • Hover flies (small beneficial predatory wasps) moved in, attracted to the shallow open flowers like allysum and all the daisy like flowers (family Compositae).
  • The nettles were allowed to grow and the ladybirds bred like crazy (they like to live in nettle patches) and soon cleaned up any aphids they found.
  • Lots of larger predatory parasitic wasps visited too, aggressively patrolling and mercilessly hunting down any caterpillars they could find. After a year, even though there were lots of butterflies and moths flying around in the garden, there were no caterpillars in the garden to speak of.
  • Now this wasn’t coincidence, because in the first year, the only caterpillar attacks were away from the main organic garden — only on some hydroponic pots growing brassicas a few metres away, and on a grapevine growing hydroponically in a remote passageway in the backyard, which is surrounded by concrete with no other plants around. By the second year even these were cleaned up by the wasps!
  • The water gardens were visited by passing dragonflies and damselflies, which, being highly maneuverable and quick, are master aerial hunters of mosquitoes. In case you didn’t know, they fold their legs to use them like a net and intercept the mosquitoes in mid air.
  • There were also the seasonal appearances from lacewings, which are another avid aphid hunter, who lay eggs that look like lollipops (to stop the ants getting them – nature is truly amazing!), so if you ever see these tiny, quaint looking things in your garden, know it’s a good thing and leave them alone!
  • My favourite new residents are the praying mantises. These little guys are voracious predators, and even though they will even eat the good bugs, they have their part to play. I like to think of them as the ‘tigers’ of the insect world in the garden, stealthily stalking their prey as their camouflaged bodies blend into the surrounding foliage! I’ve always been fascinated with these little guys as a child, and I’m still amazed by them today.
  • Then there are the spiders, one of those garden guests we might have mixed feelings about. One spider that is fascinating to watch is the orb weaver. These spiders construct very large, strong webs just after sunset, and it’s so captivating to watch them spin their intricate webs with such artistic precision. Their dew covered webs catching the morning sunlight are truly an awesome sight to behold. They are very interesting creatures, unique looking with interesting markings. For some reason they don’t evoke the same reaction of disgust as other ‘creepy’ types of spiders. I like to think of them as the fine artists of the spider world! Normally, I’ve only seen them in rural areas or really ‘green’ suburbs before, but I can happily say there are at least three in my garden now.

So, it’s no surprise that there aren’t many pests around. What escapes is picked off by the next step up in the food chain, the birds, which also have access to high growing berries which they are allowed to get — there’s enough for everybody.

The only pests I do encounter are snails, which come in from the neighbour’s properties, and cherry slugs (sawfly larvae) which breed in the neighbour’s enormous wild plum tree. Nothing that can’t be controlled with a bit of manual picking and squashing!

So, yes, Geoff Lawton was really right about nature taking care of pest control….

The Weed Myth

Scotch Broom in early Spring

Can you imagine a garden that doesn’t need much or any weeding? Well, nobody ‘weeds’ nature, and no ‘weed monocultures’ exist in nature — well, not over any extended period of time at least. Nature maintains its own balance. We impatient humans fail to see that. We emotionalise about ‘weeds’, ascribe moral and anthropomorphic properties to them, see them as ‘invaders’ and ‘wage war’ against them.

Once again, I’ve come to understand through objective testing that a lot of popular perspectives about ‘weeds’ show our extreme ignorance in regards to the way that nature functions.

In the design of my backyard food forest, I have replicated the stacking system that occurs in nature: tree canopies with shrubs below them, herbaceous plants below those, and ground covers protecting exposed soil. Root crops fill the subterranean regions, and climbers vine and snake in the vertical plane. The natural leaf fall creates a sheet mulching/sheet composting system so there is no bare soil.

What I’ve found is that with no space or light available for fallen seeds, no seeds grow. Not even ‘weeds’. Nature abhors bare soil, and will use whatever species are present in the area to bind and cover the soil, preventing erosion, leaching, compacting, and loss of humus. Nature doesn’t discriminate between species, not having the artificial distinctions of ‘native’ and ‘exotic’. These plants that are mistakenly termed ‘weeds’ are pioneer plants — nature’s emergency soil rescue crews. If you don’t expose soil, you don’t get them growing, it’s that simple.

For the doubters, I can say that the seed suppressing capability works a bit too well. I have enough trouble getting my chosen plant seeds to grow if I plant directly to the soil, the food forest design suppresses extraneous seeding. I have to raise plants I grow from seed to a certain size, then plant them out, or dig holes and put in artificial boundaries (cut soft drink bottles) when I want to add new seedlings.

The classical case in point is my beloved Scotch Broom plant, which I rescued from a heritage bushland property while working as a gardener two years ago. If you read the nonsense on the ‘weed sites’ they make the plant out to be the source-of-all-evil invasive. What I see is a beautifully elegant plant with huge showers of stunning red and yellow flowers. Being a leguminous plant, it is nitrogen fixing and helps build the soil. It makes an excellent companion plant to fruit trees, particularly apricots. I have mine sitting next to my apricot tree, and it has grown to around three metres high. It has flowered, seeded, and… guess what happened? Absolutely nothing! It wasn’t a re-run of The Day of the Triffids like all the misinformation would suggest. And why? Simply because it is growing in a healthy, natural environment, not the unhealthy, degraded, depleted soil that passes for a “native ecosystem”. In my food forest garden, the soil is sheet mulched, both naturally from fallen leaves, and from any plant matter that I mulch and add. Over this is a thick, dense, living ground cover, which can be up to 15cm high off the ground. With this surface, a seed wont get to wet soil, and if it does, it won’t see light, so it won’t germinate.

I try to maintain constant ground cover, but sometimes there are patches that get exposed from removing annuals, and nature does what nature does, and puts something there to mend the soil. I get occasional grass seeds blowing in from the neighbour’s uncut grass (!!!) but I find that the grass roots have trouble penetrating the mulch and easily slide out with no more than a gentle pull.

Minimal Effort Gardening

Life is easy!
Louie the permaculture cat, who featured in the first PRI article about my garden
makes his return, alongside a nice harvest of fresh raspberries!

Permaculture promises that if you let nature do what nature does best, you’ll have less work to do. We’ve already discussed the benefits of the food forest design, including less watering, weeding and pest control. One other benefit is the elimination of the hardest part of traditional gardening – digging!

I have employed a no-dig design with the whole food forest. Once the beds were set up, they were never dug ever again. The garden beds separate the garden areas from the paths, because the garden beds are strict ‘no-stepping’ areas! Stepping in the garden beds compacts the soil, and this reduces both water and air penetration through the soil structure, which adversely affects plant growth (and encourages some hardy pioneer types — ‘weeds’ with strong tap roots — to appear to try to fix it).

There are several ways to increase the water and air penetration into the soil. Digging, or turning the soil, is soil vandalism, as the soil is a very complex living ecosystem — way more complex than anything that exists above the ground. Turning soil exposes the cooler, moist lower soil levels to heat and light, which kills the soil biota. The sun’s ultraviolet light sterilizes exposed soil, and the heat dries it out, effectively killing the soil.

One of the best ways to aerate the soil is to let earthworms do the job! Earthworms can dig better than people, and having a good layer of composting mulch covering the soil encourages earthworm activity. You can use plants with deep taproots to break apart compacted soil or increase water and air penetration. Plants like Fenugreek do this well, as does the humble dandelion!

One simple practice which improves the soil is to never uproot plants. If a plant dies down or needs to be removed, simply cut the stem off at soil level. As the plant decomposes, it will create an extensive and intricate network of channels that can carry water deep into the soil. Try doing that by hand….

As you can clearly see, there’s no need to fuss over garden tasks that you can’t do as well as nature. Just step aside, rest, and let nature do what nature does best — growing plants and trees.

A Living Ecosystem

An explosion of Spring growth

The most profound lesson from building a food forest is the recognition of the huge gulf that exists between the functioning of a conventional garden and a food forest. Looking back, I’m completely bewildered why anyone, especially the majority of permaculturists, persist with the former. It really is a case of chalk and cheese….

For those of us that remember our permaculture classes, we design gardens that emulate nature, and forests are truly nature’s grandest designs. The benefits of the forest design are manifold.

  • The vertical stacking of trees and plants creates an intensive planting system, which, when recreated with edible plants, produces very high yields.
  • This close arrangement of plants also creates a very distinct microclimate, which allows plants to grow in a protected space where they are not assaulted by the elements.
  • An intensive, mixed planting of various species creates a biodiverse environment which allows synergy between plants, where plants help each other grow, protect each other from pests and diseases, and increase productivity. This is the concept of companion planting.

I realised how well the forest design works to protect plants when we had a record summer a few years back, with temperatures soaring over 45 degrees Celsius here in Melbourne. The only damage to the main garden was to my blackcurrants — the leaf edges got burnt — and they were exposed to full sun because the tree canopy had not yet grown high enough at the time to offer them shade from the scorching afternoon sun. Blackcurrants are not meant to be grown in full sun of any sort. Conversely, I had hydroponic sweet corn growing, which is a plant that requires full sun, and these were two metre high plants, sitting in essentially unlimited nutrient and water. These didn’t survive the harsh weather!

What we really need to remember when comparing conventional gardens to food forests is that a food forest is a thriving, living ecosystem, teeming with life. When a many and varied collection of living organisms come together, a synergy naturally occurs between the different species. The result is a self-sustaining system that sits in a natural state of equilibrium, with no other energy inputs than the sun itself required to maintain it in its desired state.

If you look at conventional gardens, they are fighting nature all the way, trying to exist so far out of equilibrium with nature that the energy inputs required to maintain their state is immense and incredibly unsustainable. Artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and extensive irrigation is utilised to grow monocultures of plants in bare, depleted lifeless soil, in neat rows, exposed to the elements and completely unprotected. This is an arbitrary human concept that doesn’t exist in nature, so to keep plants in this state, we are required to expend unsustainable huge amounts of effort and energy. In the process, the soil is destroyed, the surrounding environment poisoned, and sub-standard food is produced for all this trouble.

Ultimately, we have the choice to design and build living ecosystems with all their benefits, or the aberrations of nature that we call conventional gardens, with all their disadvantages. The choice should be easy…

Yields and Produce

A good harvest of tasty mandarins!

Ultimately, the success of a food forest is gauged by its productivity, since its primary purpose is food production.

By recording the productivity from year to year, I’ve been able to determine how successful the garden design is, and clearly see the increase in productivity as the food forest matures and establishes itself. The conclusions about productivity are not subjective; I have solid facts and figures so people can see how well it works.

To get some perspective on these yield statistics, we see that production is commonly measured in terms of yield/acre.

  • One acre is approximately 4047 sq. meters

Now, if we look at my garden, still in its infancy at two years of age, its production is:

  • 202kg/64 square metres

To convert this to acres, we do some simple maths:

  • 4047/64 = 63.23 (so you can squeeze just over 63 of my whole gardens into one acre – yes it is that small and has over 30 fruit trees in there!)

Now, a bit more math to get the yield per acre:

  • 202×63.23 = 12,773kg/acre

So, my 2 year old fledgling garden that is just getting started is producing the equivalent of 12,773 kg/acre, or in other words, close to 12.77 metric tonnes per acre!

That is a respectable figure for a young, water-wise, pest free garden where only 10 of the thirty fruit trees have actually started producing yet.

Here are some more statistics:

  • Average produce per month (1st year): 11kg
  • Average produce per month (2nd year): 16kg

Fruit harvest

  • Total 1st year: 54kg
  • Total 2nd year: 127kg

Berry harvest

  • Total 1st year: 2.6kg
  • Total 2nd year: 4.0kg

Vegetable harvest

  • Total 1st year: 75kg
  • Total 2nd year: 70kg

As you can see, as the fruit trees and berries get established, their productivity increases. With my style of annual vegetable gardening, the yields just sit somewhere just over the 70kg mark, unless I put more effort in to get seeds and seedlings in on time!

For those who fuss over figures, let me add a few qualifiers. I don’t try to run this garden as a record breaking maximum productivity garden to generate impressive statistics. My attitude towards annual vegetable planting and harvesting is what I would described as relaxed. I often forget to plant annuals in season, sometimes forget to harvest some annuals (onion, garlic, potatoes), and generally let them self-seed.

I make some effort to plant annual seedlings, but not really for the purpose of maximising my yields. Incidentally, since my garden is a demonstration permaculture garden, I run many garden tours, and I’ve had hundreds of people come and visit in the last two years. One of the strangest observations I’ve often had is “I can’t see much/any vegetables!”

I actually produce more veggies than many urban gardens (how does 70-75kg sound?), but because I use an over-stacked food forest design, there aren’t neat rows of any vegetables anywhere, and not surprisingly, I don’t have pest problems or crop rotation problems with any vegetables. Yes, you read right, no crop rotation either! There are no annual intensive beds, it’s all mixed through with perennials, trees and everything else, so there’s nothing to rotate anywhere. If you still doubt this, try to remember the last time you saw the fairies in the forests rotating annuals!

Lots of Kipfler potatoes!

If I really wanted to crank up the statistics, I could grow lots of potatoes, pumpkins, cucumbers, etc, but I don’t. I’m growing the garden realistically, casually, and enjoyably! I put in around two hours a week to maintain it, while working a full time job. I could also remove all the ornamental plants (yes, there are plenty in the garden, including ornamental trees) and replace them with edibles too, but this is not a production farm, but a permaculture food forest. It is a productive living ecosystem that is also a relaxing, calming, peaceful oasis of nature in an urban concrete jungle — less that 10km from the city centre in a fairly small back yard.

Mind you, the garden is so intensively planted and productive that it produces a lot of spare plants, which I don’t count in my figures. Just to clarify, we’re talking serious garden nursery production here. In my garden tours, I give away lots of food plants – berries, fruit trees, herbs, you name it. I have literally filled people’s cars with plants, and often too. The surplus plants either get mulched, or given away. I prefer the latter. Remember the permaculture ethics folks – share the surplus! Over two years, I have probably given away thousands of plants worth many thousands of dollars. Just with raspberries plants alone, I have given away well over a hundred, and yes, they retail for close to ten dollars a plant. You can do the math….

The whole point of my permaculture back yard food forest is that it provides tangible, undeniable proof that you can create a rich, functional, biodiverse living ecosystem in the heart of the city that can provide a heck of a lot of food for minimal work and effort by applying permaculture principles. Even more importantly, I have discovered that it provides inspiration for people to look into permaculture and dare to try it out.

Lavender in bloom

In conclusion, I can only say that it’s only by daring to try something new and different that you get the opportunity to really achieve something notable. The information is there for those willing to learn. There are permaculture courses out there, and for those who have studied permaculture, I can only say that your PDC is too valuable a resource to not put into practice. I freely share everything that I have done and happily teach others, sharing the surplus is about sharing knowledge, skill and experience too.

Through my need for ‘proof’ I have designed and built what I can justifiably claim to be Melbourne’s first urban back yard demonstration permaculture food forest, backed up with objective facts and figures, and open to the public for all to see.

The whole point of permaculture is cooperation, not competition. It’s not about bragging rights, it’s about pioneering a system that is shown to work, after which it can be shared, so others can create their own versions. Personally, I would be happier if my backyard food forest was the norm rather than the exception, and with the hundreds of people who have come through to see the garden on the regular tours and information sessions I run, I sincerely hope they have been inspired to go out and build a food forest in their own back yard!

If you’ve had that plan in the back of your mind, that you’ve told yourself you’ll create ‘one day’, I recommend that you stop procrastinating and just dive into it! You won’t be disappointed when you build something truly wonderful in cooperation with Nature!

Happy planting!


  1. Hello,

    A friend of mine shared a link on facebook which brought me here to your article. I have enjoyed reading your article as I have always wanted to grow my own vegetable garden so I just wanted you to know that I have added the website and your article to my favourites list so that I can continue research on learning how to create my own food forest.

    Thank you.

  2. I love it. If we can achieve this in our permaculture community garden in Leichhardt we shall be amazed. It’s looking very good already, but this back garden is beyond all expectations.

    Lots of congratulations and solidarity.


  3. Thanks for writing this. A couple of questions:

    1. You mention having a hard time getting seedlings to grow. Is that because of predation by pill bugs? I too have resorted to only planting out transplants (of considerable size) and using plastic cylinders pressed into the soil to guard them.

    2. So that comes out to about 3sq m per fruit tree? I know you can do a lot with pruning, but that seems extremely tight. What’s the plant as these trees mature?

    3. Ten pounds of potatoes are worth about $10, but 10 pounds of lettuce is worth about $60. Do you have figures for the retail value of your produce, rather than just weight? I would love to hear an estimate of the “wage” you earn for the time spent in the garden (leaving aside for the moment all the pleasant unaccountable benefits you enjoy).

    1. I don’t know about your location, but where I live organic potatoes are $2-$4/lb. The nasty, pesticide laden that won’t sprout roots for months is what’s cheap.

  4. Thank you for this inspiring article! In order to help me interpret your yeilds a bit better: about what percentage of your diet would you say your food forest supplies?

  5. Great article Angelo and congratulations on the results of your hard work and wonderful data gathering. Inspiring urban farming indeed. Highly recommend your website. Thanks for the post.

  6. Thanks for sharing Angelo. A well written piece that is both informative and inspiring. I also have bookmarked your website page. Thanks.

  7. Absolutely amazing, inspiring, superlatives fail me.
    I just couldn’t read this fast enough, ill read it again.
    Thank you for continuously being a source of inspiration for me.

  8. Great work Angelo, can’t wait to get back to Melbourne for another visit to you and your food forest paradise. You’re going to be a true Permaculture legend!

  9. Hi Everyone, thanks for the questions and positive comments!

    To answer a few questions, firstly JBob

    1. Neither seedlings nor seeds grow here that aren’t supposed to, simply because of the fantastic ‘weed’ suppressing ability of a thick sheet composting mulch and living ground cover plants. They do work exceedingly well. The pill bugs have plenty of decomposing organic matter to feed on in the sheet composting mulch layer that they don’t touch the plants!

    2. Trees are planted very closely, and they slow down each others growth, reducing pruning. With regular pruning of new growth in Spring, Summer and Winter, the trees stay the height that you choose.

    3. I don’t consider the retail value because the cost we attribute to food is arbitrary. You can’t put a price on having fresh organic produce all year round, including many fruit, vegetables and berries that you simply can’t buy at shops! Some things you just wouldn’t buy too – I’ve harvested over 31 punnets of raspberries this year and haven’t finished just yet,and they sell for around $6 a punnet – who buys over $180 of raspberries? Or nearly 50kg of pomegranates, what would that cost? You need a range of garden produce in your diet, from the ones we pay very little for to the ones we pay a lot, they all have their place in a healthy diet! If it was about all money, I’d simply fill the garden with the most expensive produce on the market, I’ve seen fruit like persimmons sell for over $2 a fruit in the supermarket, and saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, worth many thousands of dollars a kilo, but this kind of growing does nothing to address food security, it simply isn’t what Permaculture is about. No doubt, if I did the costings, they would be impressive, but only to those who see the dollars, but that’s not the focus of my work.

    Charlie H – I give away a lot of produce away to relatives, friends and even workmates, (i live by the Permaculture ethical principles, including ‘share the surplus’) so while I don’t buy fruit, vegies berries or herbs ever, I honestly can’t really say how much of my diet my garden would provide if I kept all my produce and tried to supply my food needs. My project’s primary concern has been how much food can be produced from a small space in an urban backyard. The question of how much naturally grown food is required to feed an individual or a family would really be the subject of a quite different study, one which I’m curious to see the figures for myself.

  10. I wouldn’t say prices are arbitrary. I’d say they are signals that transmit an extremely large amount of information very conveniently. All the innumerable factors that go into costs of production and distribution, as well as buyers’ preferences and availability of alternative goods are neatly conveyed by price. Prices tell you whether you’re producing something others value or just indulging in a hobby for yourself.

    I’m sure I’m not the only who thinks profitability is a core criterion in answering the question “does permaculture work?” If the dollar figures would be impressive, then I would encourage you to consider going ahead and impressing us. ;)

  11. Hi JBob,

    Thanks for the reply. I do realize the complexities of supply and demand as determinants of price in a modern consumer society, and that’s fine in this context.

    I’m really trying to let people know that Permaculture engenders a completely different set of values and way of looking at the world. It challenges the consumerist paradigm, where profitability is the prime motive. It is about designing cooperative communities where human habitation integrates harmoniously with food production areas and nature and which use resources sustainably.

    In commercially grown food, there are many hidden costs that aren’t always apparent. A lot of prices are dictated by mass production agribusiness methods. You can’t buy a lot of soft berries because they simply can’t be transported efficiently. Ever seen mulberries in a shop? the cost of packaging them for transit would be astronomical. Are mulberries worth that much? No, a mature tree will produce more than all the children in the neighborhood can eat! In a Permaculture design, if the tree is in a public space, everyone eats for free! So, what are mulberries really worth? Food is grown locally, so the concept of “food miles” no longer becomes an issue. No diesel is burnt bringing oranges from California, USA to Melbourne, oil you have to eventually pay for.

    Ethical food production means that unripe fruit is not harvested, put into cold storage for nearly a year, then chemically ripened like most supermarket ‘fresh’ fruit – which results in tasteless, low nutrient, low food value produce.

    I don’t disagree with you, we’re looking at the same thing from the perspective of two very different systems. I’m more than happy to give you all my raw data for my harvests over the last two and a half years if you want to do the costings based on current market prices. Actually, I should publish the raw data on my website so people can use it for research purposes.

    The point I’m really trying to emphasize is that is we take a step back from our cultural perspective, that is, industrialized society, which in the context of total human history is an unproven but highly destructive 200 year experiment in a 200,000 year history, which, in such a time-line, is an insignificant ‘blip’ in the time-line (approximately 0.1% of human existence), we realize that the only reason food has any monetary value is simply because people can use it to profit financially. If we look at it from a historical, ecological or anthropological perspective, nature has provided all food to our species for free for more than 99% of our recorded existence.

    Our present cultural idiosyncrasies will probably appear completely irrational to future society, as they would have to ones in the past. If you mentioned selling drinking water thirty years ago, you would have been laughed out of town. Now, look at our sad state of affairs, plastic bottles clogging up our ocean beaches…

    With this in mind, why accept ‘what is’ and why pay anything for food, when, ultimately, it’s something that nature provides freely, and always has, for as long as humanity has existed.

    Nature will happily ignore financial trends and fluctuations, matters like the global financial crisis, balance of trade, inflation, commodities prices, foreign exchange rates and other such human abstractions that don’t have a real world existence, and consistently supply you with food to keep you alive.

    If we change our perspectives to healthier, more sustainable ones, to ones that aren’t so divorced from nature and aren’t so centered on accumulation of assets, like our modern lifestyles promote, the only cost of food is the cost of some of our time and labour, and this is the perspective I would like to encourage.

    When we practice Permaculture, we really adopt a completely different value system, I can’t emphasis this strongly enough. I hope that helps clarify my position, if I push the ‘dollars’ side of things, I’m not being true to my values, so I hope you understand my intentional emphasis.

    In answering this question, I’m getting a bit off the topic of the article, this is almost becoming a separate article on Permaculture values, so I’d better stop there, hope I’ve clarified things though. I appreciate your questions, much appreciated.


  12. Angelo,

    You make many good points and, as you say, I think we agree for the most part. With well designed perennial systems of food production I think it would be possible to provide a large portion of our food needs with much less labor.

    Less labor, but not none. Nature doesn’t provide food “freely.” At minimum, you must walk to find it, pick it up, chew it, etc. This is a “price” just like a dollars and cents price, just measured in different units (e.g., distance, time). Cost to benefit ratio is going to guide human action no matter what, no matter which units you measure with.

    You say that with a mulberry tree in a public space everybody eats for free. Tell that to the kid who set up the tarp under the tree, shook the branches, picked the bugs out of the fallen fruit, washed them, refrigerated them, then came back 10 minutes later to find you eating his fruit. Do you think “but they’re FREE?” is going to convince him to calm down?

    If want to grow food for yourself, it’s more simple to make choices. Do I want another mulberry tree? No, I already have one that makes more than we can eat. Should I use the fruit for pies or dry them? I like pies more. How much should I fertilize it? Not at all, I already have too much fruit. Etc.

    If you want to sell food to others it’s far more complicated. All people aren’t going to become food self-sufficient anytime soon, or ever. Some people don’t like growing food, others do. Division of labor is born. So when deciding what kind of food to grow for sale, you need info that only dollar prices can convey.

    And even putting all this aside, even if measuring the value of the food solely to yourself and family, kilograms as a measure is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. A lot of garden writers use weight because it’s easy to do. Put it on a scale, done. But anyone who’s grown squash can tell you that the first kg of squash of the season is worth infinitely more than the last kg. Nobody wants to look at the 54th squash, much less eat it!

    Nutritionally, weight is also not terribly useful. A pound of potatoes or a pound of collard greens? Apples and oranges – except apples and oranges are probably actually more similar nutritionally. ;)

    So if you really don’t want to use dollars, then maybe you could use “Percent of Household Diet Supplied by Garden.”

    But enough nit-picking. Nice article, and a great example of a garden!

  13. Hi JBob,

    Thanks for the thought provoking comments, constructive discussion really helps a lot of other readers work through their own ideas too, so it’s great to have this dialogue.

    Agreed with what you point out food being ‘free’, that’s why I earlier qualified the statement about ‘nature giving freely’ with “…the only cost of food is the cost of some of our time and labour”. You make an excellent point, it’s all about LESS labour. The realization I have come to, comparing various food production practices, is that the closer a food production system resembles a natural ecosystem, the less work it requires. The more it deviates from nature, such as in the case of a commercial monoculture farm, the more labour and energy input is required to keep it out of a natural equilibrium state.

    With trees in public space, the Permaculture ethical principle of ‘Fair Share’ which talks of taking only what you need and so everyone has their fair share comes to light here, cooperation, not competition for resources creates harmonious communities!

    I totally agree with your point on self-sufficiency. While studying my PDC with Bill Mollison, he emphatically stressed that the point is NOT to try to achieve ‘complete self sufficiency’. As Bill said, “I may be a skilled gardener, and I grow food, but I may need a pair of shoes. I don’t want to learn to make shoes, as I’m a gardener, so find someone who makes shoes and exchange some food I’ve grown for a pair of shoes.”

    Bill the explained, “No man is an island…”, humans by their nature are social creatures, and co-exist in supportive communities, in interdependent (not dependent, not independent) relationships with each other. We also have an interdependent relationship with nature and all other living things, as they all have to each other in a complex web of life. The aim is to become more self-sufficient, and to live more sustainably and and less wastefully

    Thanks for highlighting this point, it hopefully clears some common misconceptions for people about Permaculture’s aims.

    I must admit I still don’t understand your concern with harvest weight. Unlike commercial farmers who intentionally over-irrigate to pump chemically fertilized crops full of water, mine get irrigated on Melbourne’s tightest water restriction schedule (3a) bacause that is all the water I need alongside the rainwater, and are grown organically, so I have the highest nutrient levels per unit weight that I can achieve without fudging the figures like commercial conventional growers do when they compare their yields to organic farms.

    I must make a point about weighing produce though! If you think weighing everything you grow for over two yeras is easy, you should try it, it takes a lot of time, effort, and discipline. To illustrate my point, how many demonstration Permaculture sites that you know of continually publish harvest statistics for public scrutiny? ( :

    I personally think that the weight of the harvest is a useful measure if no ‘statistical rigging’ of growing high weigh, low nutrient produce is engaged in. If I were a vegan, I could probably supply a fair portion of my food from my garden, but I’m not, so you can see how that could be a dubious criteria… There is no issue with the different nutrient values, as I break down my statistics by produce type, I even break down my figures as far as each type of fruit, berry and vegetable, as you can see in the tables in the lower half of this page, see here

    I even give separate startistics for apples and oranges, so what more could you ask for! ( :

    Thanks JBob!

  14. Thanks Angelo!
    I’m looking forward to seeing your Food Forest on National Permaculture Day!

    Thanks for the statistics you’ve diligently recorded: a very useful piece of info for both the home gardener and someone like me who wants to start a permaculture market garden. Impressive how many kilos you’ve harvested (espeically given you didn’t get to harvest all the potatoes and the fruit trees are only just starting to produce). It really is worth the effort of transforming a backyard, and for many reasons of enjoyment, higher nutrition, cleaner food and dollars saved purchasing food to name a few.
    I’m yet to harvest the yacon you gave me: I hear after a few frosts these tubers taste sweeter. I shouldn’t have to wait long in the King Valley!

  15. I had the pleasure of visiting Angelo’s garden at the weekend – it was open for National permaculture day – I hung around til everyone left so I could talk about one of my passions with a another devotee. Forest gardening is THE WAY to grow huge amounts of food – mimicking nature is the way to go!

  16. How incredibly inspiring. I am often overwhelmed by the prospect of having to have 3 acres of land to create any sort of significant permaculture haven. You make it seem so doable.

    I am by no means a very social person. I prefer to keep to myself a lot, which is the downfall of a lot of permaculture to me. You -must- emerge yourself in the community, or you get nowhere.

    I assume you got most of your plants through sharing? Purchasing the trees alone would be impossibly expensive, and I don’t think you’d find many heirlooms that way. It’s amusing to me, for me to embrace nature, I must address my own nature first.

    A gorgeous garden and an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story!

  17. I saw your garden on the video and was impressed. I’m in Canberra so I think its a little cooler than Melbourne, but I’m going to be using some of your ideas and tips in my garden. We are in the process of pulling out a lot of weedy trees from our yard for my fruit trees. I have plans for extending our corner block for growing more food and even more trees and vines to create an enclosed space. Thank you for sharing your tory with us. I’m ready to get outside and dig up some old roots.

  18. Very interesting, but I nearly stopped reading after the incredibly ignorant comments re: xeriscapes and their associated ecological value, biodiversity, and water usage. The objections are based on some narrow stereotype bearing all the hallmarks of xeriscaping done wrong (or at least without those three objectives in mind). Misleading, faulty generalization. Poor form.

    Otherwise, great article.

  19. Hi JRigs, I understand what you’re saying. Unfortunately, here in Australia, which is quite a hot dry continent, the ‘xeriscaping’ we see here far too often in the cities is the cliché ‘waterwise garden’ that usually consist of nothing more than a monoculture row of yuccas or cordylines spaced a metre apart with nothing in between them.

    The strategy to reduce water consumption seems to be all about using fewer plants, further apart. Typically these plants are quite uninteresting and ecologically insignificant in terms of the ecosystem services they deliver. Basically widely spaced strappy leaf plants and succulents. The native plant gardens are a step in the right direction, but they usually omit all edibles, even edible natives. The message is always “ornamentals, ornamentals and ornamentals…” Soil, which is the most critical factor, is basically ignored and a thick layer of pine bark mulch as an afterthought or obligatory token of a ‘waterwise garden’ completes what you see mostly in cities, this is the majority of the xeriscape gardens we see here, hence my protestations!

    We can do better. Correct, you can do xeriscaping properly, as a productive xeriscape, a Mediterranean produce garden mimicking what grows on the sides of hot mountains of southern Europe would constitute a proper biodiverse ecosystem with significant biomass, and “tick all the boxes” of a sustainable dryland productive garden.

  20. First, let me apologize for my less-than-diplomatic comment above and say I much appreciate your reply above that level :-).

    I still think you are making a false dichotomy between edible gardening and gardening with other objectives in mind. For instance, I converted my entire urban front yard (dry climate of Colorado, USA) to native grasses, forbs, and shrubs, including one apple and one peach tree incidentally. The ecological value (native habitat replacement) and the water usage after establishment (no irrigation whatsoever excepting the fruit trees) can’t be beat. Aesthetically it’s fantastic as nearly everything flowers throughout the spring and summer, and it provides the feeling of being outside the city (since it’s what grows out there). Food grows in my backyard, where the objectives are much the same as the ones you have so nicely achieved in your backyard. Both gardens have their benefits.

    I’m somewhat of a native botany nerd and a big fan of native gardening anywhere (particularly xeric climates, ie xeriscaping), so I feel rustled when I get the impression that it’s being presented as if it has little value. Done properly it has tremendous value.

    Sorry to derail the comment section on this topic. I see your point regarding the poor strategy of some ‘water-wise’ gardening – I run into many instances of that here too.

    Finally, since I have your ear, thanks for such a great article and keeping people inspired. IT IS POSSIBLE, even in the city!

  21. I agree with you completely! The dichotomy you mention between edibles and gardens with other purposes unfortunately is the status quo with many different schools of gardening, permies included! It’s an approach I actually don’t necessarily agree disagree with. People either do ‘mini farms’ or ‘food-free zone gardens’. In terms of permaculture design I believe neither of these approaches achieve the maximum benefits or outputs possible from a garden.

    If you look at my article here at PRI on “Wellbeing Gardening – Gardening for the Body, Mind & Spirit”, in the second half I discuss and advocate multi-sensory gardens and food forests, that combine edibles, ornamentals, medicinals and other useful plants to benefit all our senses, our higher psychological needs (aesthetics are important too!) and also benefit Nature –

    This kind of design would be suitable in a Zone One region of a permaculture garden, and has a lot to offer, but maybe it’s just too radical a concept for even some permies, as permaculture gardens push the boundaries from what regular horticulture does, and this pushes the boundary yet again to achieve even more than either of the previous approaches…

    I also grow edible native plants in the garden where possible, or in pots where they need special conditions, in Australia we call them ‘bush foods’!

    1. In the permy rubric, my native front yard would fit into zone 5 (I hardly even use my front door). The main goal of that space is to create low/zero maintenance, beautiful, native habitat – and to be an icon among all the neighboring heavily irrigated bluegrass turf yards (no wonder I get defensive).

      On the other hand, my lower zones are behind my house. That’s where my focus is that allows for food production and other higher maintenance garden goals, including especially well-being. I’ve got some work to do to get where you are with your backyard though. Thanks for the link – another great article!

  22. Thanks for highlighting the importance of wild native zone 5 regions – as they teach in permaculture, that’s where we go to rest, reflect, and observe Nature. It’s an important part of our wellbeing and it supports a lot of native wildlife and creatures. Better than irrigated turf by a long shot!

  23. Hello,
    Thank you for this article; I really enjoyed it. My husband and I have started looking into permaculture and find it fascinating, but are unsure if it is possible to do in our little (about 20 feet by 40 feet) fenced in backyard in a suburb in the US Pacific Northwest. Our neighborhood has a Home Owners Association which means that in our case the front yard is basically off-limits and the backyard fencing must stay. Our backyard is mostly shaded, although around the edges by the fence (opposite the house) each area does get some sun during the summer months (ranges from an hour-ish to a couple of hours, depending on the spot). Since this is the Pacific Northwest the summers are pretty short and not super-warm. We are in USDA hardiness zone 8a, if that helps any. I know we can certainly grow things, because it’s so green around here, but we would like to grow edibles to help feed our family as part of it. I realize you are not from this area, but you are one of the few people I can find doing permaculture in a backyard setting and so I would really appreciate any thoughts you might have.
    Thanks so much!

  24. good day am just starting my research in pot culture or growing crops in artificial containers or in contolled enviroment mostly when you dont have enough land or in extreme deserts but when you can afford to have water.funish me with all the khowledge neccessary in this reaserch. thanks

  25. Thank you for the amazing post

    Especially with your 64m2 of garden bed for only 600$!
    I bought 18 pines to do 3 nos of 400mm high 2.4×1.2 beds (8-9m2 total only) and it already cost me 270$ in 2017
    Not sure if material price was much different in 2011.

  26. I really love what you have working here. I have been looking into food and fruit forests for years but my home was a rental. I have an obsession with plants and about 6 years ago started vegetable gardening. It was about 30″ x 20″. It produced really high yeilds, I was highly impressed…. but my family didn’t eat most of the things I grew.. I was growing whatever seeds were available at the local stores which were typically boring foods I found difficult to convince toddlers to eat. I was giving a lot of it away.. my landscapers and neighbors were constantly out in the garden eating everything they could find and I was greatful for them. I did it for fun.

    In 2017 I purchased a home.. very small yard in a neighborhood backing a deer populated protected state forest in NE Florida coast. I immediately started planting.. but I planted perinials.. things we love .. I don’t have to deal with.. and I don’t have to replant every year. All fruits. Citrus, tropicals, berries.. I have so far packed over 40 edible fruit trees and bushes into my tiny little yard. Pineapple guava, starfruit , passion fruit, rasperries, mulberries, blueberries, figs, bananas, strawberries… everything I could find that I know we will eat and enjoy.

    I wish more people did this. I don’t want a pretty, flat boring green grassy yard. I want to walk out of my house and see beautiful trees and colors.. with birds and bees…… Nature! … people in my neighborhood don’t agree with what I am doing.. it is “tacky” .. doesn’t fit the perfect landscaping of the other homes… but they don’t have hummingbirds .. They don’t have every fruit imaginable.. organically.. readily available at anytime. My kids are happy, I’m happy. Everyone else needs to just jump on board already.

  27. Wow! So glad to find this article. I have an area by my barrels that was full of black raspberries (lots of thorns) and some nuisance tree, that I just finished clearing. It is much higher than the rest of the yard, which slopes down, so it get more sun than most of my yard. This is the perfect project for there. I have some raised beds in a different area, that I never use, that I can move there. No need to buy the two biggest expenses: the wood and the barrels. Even have some scattered bricks.

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