Backyard Self Sufficiency
Once upon a time.....
When I was a child we lived in a new subdivision. Around us were neat gardens with shrubs and lawns, a small vegie garden or a few fruit trees. Except next door.
Mr Doo lived next door. He was one of the last Chinese market gardeners of the area. Like us, he had only a quarter acre. Unlike us, he used it all.
Thick clipped rows of trees and wide banks of vegetables, so closely planted it was hard to tell the celery from the cabbages; banks of edible chrysanthemums and tall red flowered vines on poles that dripped with beans. Mr Doo made his living on the same ground that provided us with lawn to mow on Sundays, a few roses and a sandpit, and had enough to give away as well.
Years later I learnt the old Australian ideal of self sufficiency from our next door neighbour. Jean learnt self sufficiency many decades ago - but it wasn't called self sufficiency then. It was just what everyone did in the depression, when money was short, supermarkets never thought of - and the nearest shop a day's journey away.
I remember my first dinner at Jean’s. A roast chook- and indian game, small and sweet, with the chicken taste I'd forgotten from my childhood (today’s frozen birds and even most free range ones don't taste of much at all). Potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, two sorts of beans and a small golden beetroot, all from the garden. Raspberries and cream for dessert - and through the window you could see the cow that gave the cream, chomping up the hill. It was sponge cake for supper, made with duck eggs and more of Sally's cream, and home grown passionfruit on top and home made raspberry jam.
Of the whole meal only a little flour and sugar were brought in.
Lunch was salad from the garden, fulfilled life.
A self sufficient garden needn't mean digging up the dahlias and putting the lawn down to potatoes. It just needs planning.
Almost Self Sufficient
I grow things because I enjoy it. The garden bulges with too many lettuce, radishes, parsnips, the apples are crowded into the mulberries and the strawberries are rambling through everything so it’s lucky the birds and wombats like them too.
I like having too much of everything. Maybe it’s a leftover siege mentality from my ancestors - when you never knew if you had to survive war or plague - or just a winter with no supermarkets, cans or freeze dried peas.
There's a difference, though, between growing most of what you eat and growing everything. It's easy to grow most of your fruit and vegetables on about a quarter acre- at least once you get into the swing of it. Its almost as easy to grow most of your own tea, mustard, herbs and spices. It's much much harder to produce everything.
For a while my son and I were almost completely self sufficient in food and a few other staples. This was from necessity, not choice. My income paid for petrol, preschool and not much else. We lived, and ate quite well. But I was glad when it was over.
Self sufficiency is as insular as it is exhausting. You turn in on yourself. And there is little leeway for a crisis.
During that time I got pneumonia. It's hard to be self sufficient when you're ill. Friends may be willing to help - but while neighbours a hundred years ago might have harvested your apple trees and collected your eggs, now adays they are more likely to expect to pick up your groceries for you. Neither the vegetable garden or the orchard need much work - but we had to pick the food, prepare it.
I began to long for canned tomatoes, lettuce that didn't have to be washed, potatoes ready washed, not in the ground. It's harvesting that's the most work in self sufficiency.
Growing nearly everything is easy. It's the final jump that is the trouble.
I'll probably never make our own soap again. But I'm glad to know I can do it. You can buy lovely home made soap in Braidwood, and I'll cherish that instead. I'll buy Sandy's pots and Robyn's rugs and Peter's honey, and let some one else do the milking. The knowledge is still there to do those things if they are needed. But now I choose the jobs with which I fill my life.
This book is not for those who want to be totally self sufficient. For those I have just this advice - don't do it. This book outlines the basic areas of self sufficiency. It is up to you which ones you want to practice.
How Much Work is 'Almost Self Sufficiency'?
The Urban Hunter Gatherer
Most of us don't have time to tend a garden - nurture it and coax it along. Luckily you don't have to break your back or dedicate your Sunday afternoons to be able to grow most of your own food.
Our garden provides most of our fruit and vegetables. Apart from the picking, it gets roughly half an hour a week, including lawn mowing. Through most of winter it doesn't even get this - and many weeks will go by when we don't do any work in the garden at all.
Of course it’s a mess. But it's a productive mess. (And I think a beautiful one.) If we came back in a hundred years it would still be providing food. It is a system that has been set up to feed us - and many other species - with a minimum of work and a maximum of productivity and beauty.
How do we do it?
Firstly it is planted - thickly - with productive perennial species- and many annuals that reseed themselves. Most gardens are badly underplanted. Thicker planting not only means you fit more in - it means that weeds can't enter, the ground is covered with greenery and doesn't dry out as fast; accumulated weeds and 'wastes' add organic matter to the soil - as do the bacteria associated with nitrogen fixers like clover, broom, wattles, lupins, casaurinas and the sweet peas that clamber through the trees.
We've got strawberries under fruit trees, 'wild' potato beds, garlic patches that grow themselves, indestructable providers like chokoes and Jerusalem artichokes and foliage turnips and hops and banana passionfruit. They are healthy plants in healthy fertile soil.
This is the second point. Healthy plants need less work. To have healthy plants you need healthy soil. Ours used not to be - it was so worked out that even grass wouldn't grow. but we mulched - and grew green mnaure crops (plants grown just to be slashed to add to the soil) and added hen manure and other organic matter - and now the soil is rich and black.
We don't use pesticides either. Why bother? We grow flowering shrubs and let vegetables go to seed to attract predators to do our pest control for us- and so much is growing that a little loss doesn't matter. We don't use herbicides either (except for testing). Every plant has a use - even if it’s just to be dug up to make compost or liquid manure.
Thirdly, we use 'no dig', low work gardens that need the minimum of maintenance from year to year.
The more you interfere with nature the more you have to maintain. A wombat track doesn't need maintaining - a bitumen road does. The more you weed your garden, the more weeds appear in the bare ground. the more you prune your trees the more you have to prune the lush new growth - and the more you have to feed them to make up for the prunings you've taken.
No one maintains the bush, but it keeps on feeding countless species. Once you establish a self sufficient system it should keep feeding you... and feeding you... and keep growing in productivity and beauty.
Why Grow Your Own?
I like growing our own food. It makes life richer. If you buy potatoes from the supermarket that's all you get - potatoes. This evening's spuds give memories too - grubbing them up with Edward this morning and listening to the lyrebird sing and smelling the soft damp soil. I remember Bryan mulching them with the wild oats he'd mown in the asparagus patch (and accidentally mowing the asparagus too). I remember when the spuds were first planted, years ago, and Mrs Hobbins down the road showed me how to bandicoot them so you always had a crop. There are a million memories in those potatoes.
There is something deeply satisfying in working with life's necessities - crops and shelter, children, other species.
There are other reasons, too, for growing your own. There is the knowledge that we as a household did not contribute to the Bhopal disaster, or any other of the tragedies that go to making pesticides for the wealthy. We don't support the fertilizer industry - our fertility is home grown or scavenged. And if it relied on people like us the food processing industry would go bust.
Every one of us, I think, has a little of our ancestors’ 'siege mentality' - a need to fill the cupboards and bolt the door. Growing your own is the best security you can have. It means your food is always fresh and unpolluted. It means you never have to worry about the cost of fruit and vegetables. (This year we fed most of our late peaches to the chooks - our friends were sick of them, and so were we. Strawberries? I haven't bothered picking them for weeks. As for beans - I think my family would go on strike if they were given the hard stringy things you buy in shops - or worse, watery frozen slips of green plastic. They like butter beans, or young five penny beans, or new Purple Kings.)
For us it's true wealth to give away the kiwi fruit, press limes on satiated friends, take armfuls of daffodils up to town to celebrate the spring and baskets of roses all through summer. Our standard of living is far higher than anyone on our income could expect - because we produce things ourselves that we would otherwise have to buy - and because any of the joys in our lives, from flowers to watching the birds splutter in the fountain, are things we don't have to pay for.
Anyone who has ever watched a child's face as they fill a basket of oranges or as they disappear to spend an hour in the raspberry beds, or let a child watch the progress of a seed as it becomes a vine and sprouts large melons - then let them pick it, all their own work - will know there is something very basic and very good about growing your own. This is after all what life's about - food and shelter, life and death and growing things. There is no better way to contact this than in a garden.
I, like all humans, am part of the earth. To work it, watch it, live within its rhythms - for me, that is the deepest satisfaction.
Planning the Self Sufficient Garden
Knowing What to Plant
Getting to Know Yourself
Few of us today really know what we eat. This is because most of the food we eat is bought on impulse- or near impulse- weekly or even daily as we need it.
How many people know how many potatoes they eat a year- or even a week? How many apples, how much parsley, how many bunches of grapes?
Even adding together what you buy now won't necessarily tell you what you may decide to eat home grown. Peaches are expensive- but we feed the surplus to our geese. That means we don't buy goose food- or any number of 'cheaper' alternatives to peaches and cream for dessert.
Leftover avocados go into the compost, the harder bits of asparagus, beetroot that get a bit shrivelled. In the self sufficient garden nothing is wasted- because everything is recycled. What you don't eat goes to growing more, via the compost bin.
Home grown means you can indulge your taste for luxury.
It's taken me many years to work out what our family eats- how many brocolli plants we like, or brussel sprouts, how many artichokes, how many late peaches or early apricots..I've learnt what veg to plant near the kitchen door to grab when its raining or I want to prepare a meal quickly. I've leant when to expect visitors (like at Christmas and school holidays) and to plant my garden accordingly.
Looking at Your Garden
If you want a 'self sufficient ' garden you need to be able to look at your garden. Work out different ways of using space. I'm not advocating you dig up your roses or plant the kids sandpit. But nearly every garden has large areas that aren't used- the shady bit along the side, the awkward corner of the lawn where no one plays, the unused ground below the trees- even the strips of lawn beneath the clothes line or up the drive.
Start from the outside and work in.
Most fences don't grow anything. I hate naked fences - they look better green. Try -
. perennial climbing beans- they'll come up every year and give you thick wide beans you can eat young and tender or keep till they are old for 'dried' beans. They'll also cover your fence with greenery and bright red flowers
. chokos- eat the shoots as well as the fruit
. hops- hops die down in winter and ramble all over the place in summer. Eat the young shoots in early spring; make beer from the flowers or use them to stuff hop pillows.
. passionfruit in frost free places; banana passionfruit in cold areas
. loganberries, marionberries, boysenberries and other climbing berries, trained up wire stapled to the fence
. grapes - there are hundreds of grape varieties in Australia - suitable for any area, from snowy winters to tropical summers
. flowering climbers like clematis, wonga vine, perennial sweet peas bougainvillea, jasmine, rambling roses - to attract birds, predaceous insects and for pleasure
. edible Chinese convulvulus
. sweet potatoes (temperate areas only)
. or use your fence to stake up tomatoes, peas, broad beans.
The area next to the fence is the best for large fruit trees. Hedge your garden boundaries with tall fruit trees. Plant them 2 metres apart. They'll grow tall to reach the sun and the branches will tangle - but this means birds won't find most of the fruit (though you will) and tall trees bear as much fruit as wide ones - you just have to climb the tree or use a fruit picker on a tall stick to get the crop. This way you'll be able to have a far greater variety of fruit than you would with a normally planted orchard.
With close planting a normal backyard block will have at least twenty fruit trees. The selection is up to you- what grows best in your area and what you like to eat. As a basic rule I'd suggest three apples (late early and medium) one valencia and one navel orange if frost permits; one lemon (in cold areas try bush lemons or citronelles- the other trees will help shelter them from the frost); a loquat for earliest of all fruit, and the rest according to preference. Remember that early and late varieties may be separated by three months or more- two plums of the same variety may be too may for you to use if they cropped at the same time; but a January ripener will be finished by the time late season ones come in.
Plant dwarf fruit trees along paths as a hedge - dwarf apples, dawf peaches, pomegranates or nectarines - or trees like hazelnuts that can be trimmed to a neat hedge.
Next to the trees plant 'small fruit' - raspberries, blueberries tamarilloes, pepinoes, pineapples, tamarilloes, elder trees for flowers and berries, kumquats, guavas strawberry guavas, chilean hazelnuts.
Most 'small fruit' is naturally an understory crop anyway- they accept shade for at least part of the day. They will also cast much less shade over the next part of your garden. You can also plant 'small fruit' among the 'permanent' beds.
These are the crops you plant once and harvest for the rest of your life. I think they're wonderful - a bit of mulching and they keep rewarding you.
This is the first spring crop - fat tender spears that will keep shooting for months. We eat asparagus twice a day from September to December. Modern varieties crop in two years. Don't be put off by its reputation as hard to grow - asparagus just needs feeding. Ours has survived scratching lyrebirds, drought, fire and flooding - but with a bit of mulch it's good as new.
Artichokes are a form of thistle. Once established they crop every spring, tolerate drought and heavy frost and keep multiplying. Their foliage is grey and pretty. Eat them small.
Eat the young spring greens as a salad or like silver beet- they are bitter in summer heat but can be blanched in boiling water. Eat the roots like parsnip or bake and grind for coffee.
Some rhubarbs are small and red; some fat and green; some produce through winter but most die down. All are hardy once established. the more you feed and mulch them the more you'll get.
This is a peppery salad green; it reseeds itself after flowering and spreads. Very hardy.
Once you have sorrel you'll always have it. It's perennial but seeds and spreads. A bit bitter but makes a good soup, sauce for fish or addition to salads.
Eat the leaves; dig up the root in autumn and eat like parsnip.
These are frost tender. Plant a sprouting sweet potato and let it ramble. The tubers you don't dig up will shoot next year.
for warm areas only. Grow like sweet potatoes.
These are really an annual but will come up every year from bits left from last year. They are 'New Zealand sweet potato'- really a form of oxalis- and tolerate frost. Keep them weed free. Buy the tubers from a good greengrocer.
Plants for out of the Way Corners
This is a good 'under tree' crop. Plant a piece of root and it will ramble all over the moist ground. The leaves are also edible (like silverbeet) but a bit hot for most tastes.
These are a form of sunflower - wonderful tall colour in late summer. Plant a few and they'll multiply like the loaves and fishes and you'll never be rid of them. Dig up the tubers in autumn and bake them, boil, them, fry them or make soup. Tasty but gas producing.
You can eat this like sweet potato, or grate it and wash out the starch for arrowroot thickener. It looks like a canna lily - it is, canna edulis, high as you waist and pretty.
Eat the shoots in spring- these fresh 'bamboo shoots' taste better than any out of a can. Slice them into boiling water and leave for ten minutes or till they are no lgh to keep us in most vegetables for most meals with very little work. Then if I have time I plant the 'luxuries'. Basic crops include silverbeet (a dozen plants will give you most of your greens for a year), tomatoes because they grow themselves, as do pumpkins. Broccoli can be planted once and harvested for the next year, as long as you pick it every day.Vegetable gardens don't have to be a lot of work. (In a later article I'll talk about 'ten minute' gardens- gardens that take ten minutes to make and plant, and only ten minutes of work a week.)
Consider 'indestructables' like Chinese mustard, Chinese cabbage, Chinese celery and collards. These are all frost, heat and drought hardy greens, slightly tougher than their Aussie counterparts. Collards are like cabbage leaves - eat them the same way. They are slightly tougher but very, very hardy and prolific.
If you really enjoy growing your own there's no reason why you shouldn't have a bed of rice or wheat. I've grown both in the backyard - a square metre will give you a bucketful. The taste is wonderful.
This is one of the most valuable areas of your garden. House walls store a lot of heat - and you can use them as a microclimate to grow fruit that may not survive in the open garden. We grow passionfruit on a pergola next to the walls here, bananas up the walls and sweet potatoes, cardamom and other frost tender plants in a garden below them.
Plant espaliered fruit trees - heat loving ones - next to the heat absorbing wall of your house. Put frost tender ones like avocados and oranges facing north. (This way even many Tasmanian gardens can grow sub tropical fruit - walled gardens are good too).
Pergolas cool the house in summer.Look for deciduous bearers like grapes, kiwi fruit, perennial peas, chokos or hops. Consider passionfruit or pepper in hot areas.
Look at your lawn - work out how much of it is used - then plant the rest. Let pumpkins wander over it; plant potatoes; fill up the edges with small fruit like pepinoes, brambleberries, raspberries, kumquats, blueberries.
Under the clothes line
This is a low use area - trodden on only when you hang out the washing or bring it in. Surround the base of your clothes line with a couple of rosemary bushes or lavender (it'll make the clothes smell all the sweeter); pave underneath it, leaving lots of spaces for herbs like marjoram, oregano, chamomile and mints that don't mind being trodden on.
Under the Trees, Round the Back and Under the Pergola -
Edible Plants for Shady Areas
Many plants need shade or semi shade - especially those that originated as understorey plants in forests. Make use of shady spots with a ground cover of:
Asparagus tolerates semi-shade from a pergola above it - but not deep shade. I grow asparagus under the kiwi fruit - the asparagus bears before the kiwi fruit comes into leaf in spring.
Blueberries tolerate light but not deep shade. You can also plant them where they get morning sun but afternoon shade.
These grow well under trees - especially in frosty areas where the trees give some protection.
In hot areas lettuce grows best under a pergola; even in temperate area lettuce tolerate light shade and will grow under trees such as peach or almond that don't shade the ground completely.
See lettuce. We grow parsley under the kiwi fruit - or rather it grows itself, reseeding every year.
This is a leafy, slightly bitter green. Grow it under trees.
These are forest plants and grow best under trees. They are shallow rooted and won't compete with tree roots. Make sure they have plenty of phosphorus.
Don't grow grass in your shady areas - it'll choke out the fruit. I grow violets instead.
Even in a very small garden you can 'borrow space' - by growing upward. Put up trellises and grow vegetables vertically instead of horizontally. Wherever possible I grow climbing varieties. They take up less room- and you only need to weed the small area at the base of the trellis. We grow climbing tomatoes, beans, peas as well as the standard cucumbers and melons.
Consider window boxes. Stick poles in the middle of the garden for grapes to wander up - they don't have to be spread out - a ten foot pole give a lot of grapes and takes almost no room - or chokos or passionfruit. Grow passionfruit or grape vines through your trees.
Make terraces for flowers, vegetables and small fruits like gooseberries and raspberries. Terraces give you much more planting space than flat ground. You can make terraces with railway sleepers or bricks or rocks, or even old tyres scavenged from the local garage. Build them as high as you can be bothered- the more tiers the more space.
Three Tier Planting
What I've described above is a classic peasant garden. Peasant gardens are 'three tier' gardens' - a framework of trees with small bushes and low crops between them. The third tier is animals - chooks, ducks, rabbits,guinea pigs, geese, guinea fowl.
Rethink all waste space. Plant the drive with strawberries - you'll squash a few berries sometimes - but that's better than no harvest at all. Plant out the nature strip - preferably with plants that passers by won't recognise are edible and pinch - tea camellias, loquats, medlars, pomegranates, japonica (make jam or stew the fruit), Irish strawberries, guavas, hibiscus, kurrajong, elderberries, oaks for acorns for hen food, jojoba, white mulberries, bamboo for shoots.
Even a small backyard should be able to grow about 40 trees, thousands of strawberry plants, several dozen berry bushes and climbing berries and a good number of fruiting shrubs.
Self sufficient gardens are beautiful - a ramble of productivity, a profusion of smells and colour. We've forgotten how beautiful edible plants can be: fat red apples and tendrils of grapes, bountiful chokos and soft feathery fennel, the wide bright blooms of passionfruit, the scent of orange blossom on a summer night. It's like a Garden of Eden in your own backyard.