Sarah Anderson, a one-woman market gardener in Sydney’s Illawarra region, could have wished for a two-hectare plot of land to start her permaculture dream.
But with only an 800 square meter of land in suburban Wonoona (about 10 kilometres away from Wollongong) she proved that even with less than a hectare of backyard land, you can have a productive permaculture plot.
“I found out about permaculture when we traveled overseas as a family in 2010. We stayed in an off-grid permaculture farm in Vancouver Island. The farm was run on the principles of people care and making do with what you have,” Sarah said.
When they came back to Sydney, they were fortunate enough to get access to a property with a small backyard that she converted into a market garden.
“We hit the jackpot when we found an old family block in suburban Wonoona. It’s an 800 square meter block that has been turned into a productive permaculture plot,” Sarah said.
They bought a piece of land that’s been with the original owners for over 100 years. It’s a small parcel of land that’s been used for mixed vegetables, fruits and animal farming before.
“We were lucky that we found this property. Though it is quite small compared to other market gardens, it is sufficient for what I wanted to start,” Sarah said.
Today, Popes Produce has 75 beds (measuring 0.75 X 3 metres) for fresh veggies. The market garden produces an average of 23 different crops every spring/ summer and then autumn/ winter seasons.
Sarah’s garden beds are prepared with local compost usually a combination of straw, sugarcane mulch, comfrey, rock dust and seasol when the seedlings first go in. Then a hint of Charlie Carp is used to boost the plant and soil nutrition now and again.
An ardent permaculturist, Sarah is proud that her market garden thrives in a minimum till and chemical-free system.
“Everything here is hand-built. I use a broad fork on the rare occasion – no machinery and certainly no herbicides/ pesticides or anything that may potentially have a detrimental impact on the web of life in our garden,” Sarah said.
Observe and interact with nature
As a novice permaculture farmer, Sarah is guided by some of the most basic but important principles like observe and interact with nature (with what’s around me).
“Observing and learning about our environment over the years gives me valuable insights into soil type, weather patterns, rainfall and sunshine in our garden,” she said.
The market garden is located in a temperate to subtropical climate which means Sarah can successfully plant brassicas in winter. She also grows bananas, figs and olives.
Some sections of the fresh produce garden have a micro-climate for many things – even edible flowers. Sarah also has two beehives. And some chickens help with the market garden’s diversity and composting process.
Given the relatively small size of the property and the land for farming and food production, Sarah said she started by using small and slow solutions as she learned how to grow food.
Producing food for her local community
Sarah has trialled several ways of selling her produce but has found the most efficient and productive model is to follow a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) inspired scheme.
This model allows customers to put in their orders for the season. They can pay on a weekly or monthly basis. Using this model, Sarah only plants and grows what’s been ordered. This means produce is only harvested to order. And this minimises waste and oversupply of produce.
She has opted out of doing the pop-up markets and fresh produce markets for good reason.
“Fresh produce markets can be touch and go when you’re really small scale and just starting up. If it rains and no one shows up at the markets, I can’t put back the veggies that I harvested back into the garden,” she said.
At the moment the CSA model is turning out to be the best business model for her. She has a small loyal following, but a growing number of regular customers.
With her local community in mind, Sarah wants to be able to produce a diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables for her immediate community.
“Obtain a yield and use and value diversity is also a key guiding principle for all my farm production,” Sarah said. “The produce combination for our Veggie Wraps (our weekly orders are wrapped in a cloth for reuse) has been worked out and inspired by what I like to eat during the week.”
So there’s salad mix – cooking greens – something from the onion family – a root crop – fruit and herbs when available. High rotation crops and a few super slow ones that we know will also be valued (garlic takes 8 months!)
Sharing through teaching
Aside from her market garden, Sarah also shares her edible gardening knowledge through teaching in two (primary) schools in the Illawarra area.
“I started as a volunteer at my daughter’s school. And as I got more involved and the school management saw my enthusiasm and my dedication, which further down the track, returned to me in a job offer as garden coordinator.”
Now she’s not only teaching the students but the teachers as well.
It is another vehicle for Sarah to propagate and grow sustainable and healthy food awareness in her community.
At Tarrawanna Public School, Sarah assists in the Outdoor Living Classroom Program.
While at Kemblawarra Public School she is spearheading the building of an edible and perennial garden landscape as a learning environment for staff to implement their classroom programs.
“From a volunteer gardener, I’ve seen how the schools – both students and teachers alike – have embraced the edible garden idea. And I am so pleased and privileged to be part of this local food production program,” Sarah said