From Lawn To Habitat

When I Googled ‘how many acres of lawn in Australia?’, I found what seemed like hundreds of websites dedicated to lawn love; what kind of grass makes the best lawn, how to make your lawn drought tolerant / weed-free / spectacular, how to lay turf – and even, disturbingly, the glorious wonders of fake lawn. Everything but how many acres of lawn there are in Australia.

In the end I made a rough calculation by taking the square kilometerage of each capital city, plus fifteen of the biggest regional towns and adding them all together: the total was 64,283 square kilometres – almost 16 million acres.

Obviously there are many parts of a city with no lawn, but as I did not include a vast number of smaller towns across the country I figure it’s probably fairly close. So let’s be conservative and say there are somewhere between 10 and 15 million acres of lawn in backyards, nature strips and parks across the country. That is a lot of lawn.

Think of the enormous potential for food production and native habitat that exists in our back (and front) yards and public areas. This valuable resource – land where most of our rain falls – could easily be used to grow healthy, unpolluted food for more people and mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change; increasing food security for us and food and habitat for the ever growing numbers of threatened and endangered species we share the world with.

With our land and farmers under enormous pressure, with precious forests being lost at an alarming rate, and with the current massive extinction crisis of birds, mammals and insects, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless to do anything. But we have the capacity to take matters into our own hands and regenerate the small patches of Earth that we are the custodians of.

Most of us do not have access to land or acreage where we can let our fantasies of self-sufficiency run wild, but many of us who live in cities, suburbia and regional towns would have access to small blocks of land that can grow a surprising variety of foods. Imagine living in a street where everyone grows fruit and vegetables, or keeps chickens or goats – the whole street would produce an abundance of food that could be swapped between neighbours. And imagine what an empowered, self sufficient community that could lead to.

In the era of COVID the whole world is going through a much needed shake-up, and now is the time to change the things that need changing. Backyard food foresting has the potential to transform the way we think about food production – and about what kind of places we want to live in.

Perennials: Food For No Work

I am finally starting to produce food in my garden with absolutely no labour required – thanks to the beauty of perennials.

Perennials are the staples of the food forest – you plant them once, then harvest them year after year with a minimal of effort required. As long as the soil is healthy, full of organic matter and plenty of nutrients for your plants, there will be virtually no work needed. They need far less water than their annual counterparts because their roots are established; which means they can take up more and search further for a supply.

It can take a little while to get them self sufficient; for example the herbs have struggled through some very hot, dry times and been a bit spindly and sparse – but after a wet year and gradually adding more mulch and compost they are now quite lush. There is a constant supply of marjoram, oregano, chives, mint, parsley and thyme, lemon verbena in summer, spinach and silverbeet, rocket, and the ubiquitous and indestructible sweet potatoes. This year I have added asparagus, strawberries and mulberries to the list of ‘no work’ harvestables.

I planted a strawberry plant almost five years ago and, neglectfully, left it to its own devices. It has spread widely and been the source of many runners, but I don’t usually get anything from them; the berries are not only tiny but get eaten by critters before I get to them.

But this year, for some reason, they are mostly being left alone and the strawberries are much bigger! The latter is likely due to the soil being improved over time, and perhaps more mature plants produce bigger fruit? But the former is something of a mystery; although sadly it could be that having cats deters birds from coming to the ground outside my back door.

I have been picking a colander full of strawberries every two or three days and the same of mulberries, from a tree I put in last autumn, less than a year ago.

Banana & strawberry smoothie

This is the first year I have harvested asparagus and now that I have started picking them they are coming up a few at a time, so a side dish more than a munching snack. And it is true – asparagus makes your pee smell rank – but I can live with that for the joy of eating them!

A Toilet Wicking Bed

A few weeks ago I sowed some spinach seeds in a sheltered corner of the garden. The results show how different conditions produce very different results.

Greens thrive when the soil is constantly moist. Although this is a relatively sheltered corner it still gets a good dose of hot sun in the late afternoon, not to mention the crazy winds we’ve had lately. But the toilet with its terrible drainage holds water, protecting the seedlings from drying out. The same principle as a wicking bed – but I didn’t have to make it 😉

Toilet ‘wicking bed’

Rejuvenating a Raised Bed

This morning it was cloudy and cool – we don’t get many of those so today was the day for some hard physical labour clearing out one of the water tank beds. I had left it to go its own way, having more pressing things to take care of, but now I needed somewhere to sow spring seeds and I was running out of room.

I pulled out the nasturtiums that were covering virtually everything in the bed. (I am experimenting with these as mulch – when you pull them out the result is an enormous volume of plant matter which, if placed strategically on areas where grass is growing, should effectively cut out the light. I’ll see whether it works, or whether the grass just grows through it!). This revealed what was left underneath – some still alive chilies, a bedraggled perpetual silverbeet, and a bumper crop of warrigal greens that were growing all over the bed underneath the nasturtiums.

Since these things had done so well in this spot, I decided to leave them where they were. After pulling the warrigal greens to the side out of the way, I mulched with a thick layer of lucerne hay and shovelled three barrow-loads of garden mix from the local nursery on top. Then added a sprinkling of 5 in 1 before watering in (I am still not managing to produce enough compost quickly enough to use abundantly in the garden – another challenge to add to the list).

A quick trim of the warrigal greens, silverbeet and chillies and they will get a new lease of life. And I now have plenty of space to sow some beans and peas!

Trimmed silverbeet
Warrigal greens

Pruned chilies

Of course the bonus of rejuvenation is harvesting the stuff that’s in the bed – although harvesting is always a little fraught as I have to rescue and re-patriate the little critters that inevitably come in with the produce!

Looks like a bit of fluff, but it’s a bug! And a very cute one at that.

The Mid-Winter Garden

Winter is my absolute favourite time of the year. In the subtropics it is a time when you can get lots of things done because it’s cool enough to work outside all day. At least it was – there haven’t been many days this year that stayed cool for long; the effects of climate change are making themselves felt, reinforcing the need to grow food differently.

This winter, my garden has finally reached the stage where there are no bits left that I am too scared to tackle, that I have ignored for months (or years) pretending they would go away if I just didn’t look at them. Like the three aging compost bins I was afraid to start digging in for fear of unleashing a monster, the dead acacia I could not get down due to a mortal dread of chainsaws (as well as not having one), the water tank pad that finally got built, and two old fences I knew needed to be replaced sooner rather than later so that I didn’t want to plant anything next to them.

The final one of these procrastination corners was an area under one of the mango trees – it had become a bit of a dumping ground of things for which I had nowhere else and was littered with old pots, black plastic sheets, a pile of gravel and who knows what else – all overgrown with weeds and grass. I finally sorted it out, and now I have a pleasant, shady place to sit while pondering my next move.

Taken from a different angle, but you get the picture

So this prompted me to finally take the plunge and make my first video. On first impressions you may think it is just a mess, and it is in some places, but a natural environment, which a food forest tries to emulate, is messy. Nature is messy, and the more mess and chaos, the more life and biodiversity. But amongst the black plastic, bits of tin, discarded pots and wood, there is a definite hint of something more wondrous to come. In some areas it is starting to have that ‘established ecosystem’ feel about it, especially where it has been left to its own devices for a little while – no surprises there. But if I wait until the garden is perfect before showing it, it will never happen.

So here it is in all its ‘warts and all’ splendour.