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A Year in a Strange Suburban Backyard

  • November 14, 2018
  • 11 min read
A Year in a Strange Suburban Backyard

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I’ve been in my suburban property for over a year now. Sometimes I wish I could clone myself so I could work on many things at the same time, but thankfully there’s only one of me. I have had help from housemates and my first Workaway person. This is where I was up to in about September 2018.

Partly because I choose to live on a low income and partly because I believe in keeping stuff in circulation rather than buying new, I hadn’t spent much money on the backyard in the first year. I bought new hoses, a new rotary mower, a secondhand garden bed, a secondhand spade and axe, the shopping trolleys, two quail (they didn’t last long), five silkies and one rabbit. I swapped soap for another rabbit. I bought animal cages and homewares at the tip shop. I scavenged a lot of stuff from the side of the road, building skips, friends and even requested gifts like pallets at my gift economy garage sale. My housemates turned the pallets into a pretty little chook shed, and my son spent many happy days hammering in nails to build a grand cubby.

I took the first set of photos here in June 2017, just before I moved in. The backyard was a wide expanse of kikuyu, with one fig tree. The garden beds contained sleeping rose bushes, a palm tree and some ornamentals. I began weeding and planting before I owned the property, beginning my relationship with the land here. I’ve observed every season now, moved my fruit trees around in pots to find the best place to plant them, found the soggy patches, where the sheltered nooks are and how the water flows through the land.

I tried really hard to curb my impulse to plant trees or build permanent structures until I’d spent a year here, following the permaculture design principle ‘observe and interact’ and trying to get a good base map with lived information on all seasons first. We did plant a chocolate sapote tree in one of the existing garden beds, sheltered from winter winds by a huge waterfall of mirror bush. The sapote is still small, but it’s put out a lot of growth since it was planted with only two large leaves on it! I planted this strip as a tiny food forest, and have been adding day lilies and comfrey.

I’ve been slowly mulching out the lawn in the backyard. I’ll just retain some small areas. I expected that the chickens would scratch up all the grass in their pen, but the grass and clover is thick and lush in there still! The chook and duck pens take up large sections of the lawn, so I don’t have to mow those. There aren’t any ducks yet, but I broadcast field peas in this area and they have suppressed the kikuyu over the winter and provided me with fresh peas, peas for podding and pea straw. I haven’t mowed the lawn next to the shed in the last three months, either. The guinea pigs are keeping it down. My housemates helped me to mulch behind the shed and restack building materials here. Nasturtiums are unfurling across the mulch like a green and orange wave. You can see the chook pen, aviary and some rabbit pens, as well as the original woodchip pile that was unloaded at the back of the yard before the structures blocked the truck access. Plus a escapee black chicken, before I clipped their wings.

Pink bulbs sprang up in the chook pen, revelling in the extra nitrogen. I planted two wormwood bushes for the poultry to nibble as needed. I didn’t want to plant vegies next to the palm tree, only to be disturbed when the palm is dug out, so I tucked some at the bottom of the chook pen instead and temporarily fenced the chooks out. I’ve scattered sunflower seeds (from bird seed) all over this corner, and will plant forage crops for the chooks before I let them back in again. The pics above are all this year. My son’s cubby area is the narrow strip below the chook pen, and I’ve been mulching the grass out here so he can plant useful things instead. So far there’s a sugar cane, and a punnet of celosia that he chose because they were called ‘Ice Cream’. There’ll be a blueberry hedge here, so some of the cardboard strip has sulphur sprinkled underneath to make the soil acidic. It currently has a pH of 4.5, which is good for blueberries.

The future duck pen has the apples placed out, ready to plant. Like most of the backyard, this area is very wet in winter time with periodic waterlogging. So I’m glad I didn’t rush and plant the trees straight into the ground. First, I need to drill holes down through the layer of rock, then plant the trees into small mounds. Then I’ll also dig some drains across the slope, to direct water to the front yard. You can see the rabbit hutch, the chook pen, my son’s cubby, apple trees, a crop of field peas sowed directly into the grass and the iron bath waiting for the goddess garden to be built around it.

The existing vegie bed alongside the shed has had a few crops in it, although it is very sandy and mulching to retain water just caused a baby boom in the slater population. The last of the rocket went to seed and is planting itself again. The rabbit cage spent some time moving along the lush grass here, which attracted the free-range guinea pigs and they also did some mowing along the sleepers. Eventually I’ll mulch all this grass out because it’s constantly invading and has wound itself inside the decaying sleepers.

I tried to grow kiwiberry, passionfruit and jasmine up the patio, but only the jasmine is taking off and that took six months to do anything. I emptied the dead pots that were here when I bought the house and replanted them with a cumquat and a bay tree. We chopped down the bleeding heart tree and pruned the roses. I set up a worm farm and planted a lemon tree here in the lawn, just visible. It is looking sad over winter, but it’s starting to shoot again. This cage is the spare rabbit cage.

The beds in front of the patio have been built up with straw, manure, worm castings and wood chips. They’ve cropped lettuce, silverbeet, rocket, tomatoes, broccoli, stevia, sage, thyme, oregano, parsley, strawberries and sour grass as well as roses, tulips, bluebells and spring stars. I haven’t bought shop lettuce since a few months after we moved in, having staggered plantings of seedlings and self-sown crops. There are lots of slaters and snails in this garden too, but the soil is richer. They are currently growing herbs, garlic, seeding rocket, strawberries, silverbeet and I have just sown lettuce over one bed by banging a seedhead of lettuce above it.

South of the patio are two raised vegie beds and the trampoline mat with the shopping trolley beds and circle beds. These beds have been there since late summer, and are now a riot of flowers and leafy veg with broad beans sprawling everywhere. I can reach them without getting my socks wet if I lean over, so there’s also lots of parsley for last-minute garnishes. I had coriander and dill in these earlier in the year, and a whole bed self-seeded with cos lettuce that has been growing slowly over winter. I just pulled out baby lettuce as I needed them, instead of thinning. I’m not sure what to put here in the long term, but it’s certainly handy having plucking beds right next to the patio.

My housemates helped to dig up the agapanthus clumps about six months ago. I gave some away, and some have survived being hauled around the verge and backyard with intent to kill. This little corner is a sun trap and right next to the tap, so the potted banana has been thriving while I decide where to plant it permanently. My largest potted roses, blueberries and pear trees live here too. We installed a gate to stop the joey getting out; she’s no longer living here but it reassures me to be able to shut out stray dogs. One of the circle beds holds a mixed lot of perennials – asparagus, raspberries, cardoon, sweet potato and a couple of yacon that I harvested and replanted in autumn. The chooks dug one up, but the rest are sprouting nicely in various garden beds.

Inside the patio, I’ve kept the old-lady begonia and the aloe vera, and added peppermint- and apple-scented geranium, cardamom and chocolate mint. My potted pineapple is doing very well here and there are gnome houses sprouting amongst the greenery. I have a large blue pot with saffron bulbs in it, but I think reeds have magically replaced the saffron while I wasn’t looking. This area is less useful than it looks, because the rain comes in over most of it. I’d like to turn this whole thing into a greenhouse and make the garden beds bigger so I can plant out the banana and pineapple here, with tea, coffee and guava shrubs.

The other side of the patio has a trellis on which I am trying to coax a passionfruit to grow, the repurposed bbq seedling bench and a strip of flowers: violets, lemon grass, ice cream bean, ferns, fuschia, impatiens and geraniums. The worm bin can be reached easily, and it overflows onto the passionfruit. The trellis and table came from the side of the road and the granny shopping cart from the tip shop. Empty pots and liquid fertilisers are stored under the seedling bench. Dry chook mash mix is in the white bucket. Tools are stored in various trays on the shelf.

The shed is now very full and untidy with all my kerbside finds. Over summer I’ll empty it, lay sand and pavers inside to reduce the groundwater seepage in winter, and repack everything with a better layout. It needs to neatly store firewood, bikes, lawnmower, animal feed, surfboards, tools, paint, building materials and a compost toilet.

So I have spent very little money, and reaped lettuce, herbs, eggs, figs, roses, yacon, silverbeet, carrots, tomatoes and a smattering of other vegetables. It feels like very slow progress to me, but I’m building resilient systems and the soil is improving. Already the mowing work has been vastly reduced. Mulching the kikuyu out is an investment. Including chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs means manure to feed the microorganisms in the soil as well as eggs and meat to feed the humans. Most of our organic wastes are returned to the garden in some way; this requires very little infrastructure to set up.

Another yield is human relationships – we learnt a lot sharing this suburban space with housemates, neighours and guests over the last year. You can see the changes to visible structures in these photos. You can’t see the work that went on to nurture the human relationships in the house! This invisible and valuable work is fundamental to all other projects. Without good communication, conflict resolution and group governance skills, practical action doesn’t happen. Sharing my house taught me about myself and showed up some things I need to work on. I’m sure my housemates learnt a lot too.

I’m enjoying watching the yard evolve. I’m looking forward to more suburban adventures with housemates, hatching chickens, getting ducks and maybe bees, starting a free library and public compost bin in the front yard, planting all the fruit trees and increasing our weekly vegetable production over the next year.

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  • Its always invigorating and exciting to read one of your posts. You are incredibly motivated and constantly moving towards your goals. Its great to see how far your home and garden have come in a year. It gives us all hope that with a bit of effort and a view to the future we can all arrive somewhere that we want to be in time. Thank you for sharing 🙂

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