Food Forest

Yarrow Gardens: Building a Food Forest From Scratch

Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

Yarrow Gardens: Manu's back yard in the Lower Blue Mountains. In this shot, you can see Tuscan kale, yarrow, mugwort, rosemary, chamomile, dandelion, statice, broccoli, nigella, french sorrel, valerian, loquat tree, dwarf avocado, carrot and sweet potato.

In this post, I wanted to speak a little bit about my process setting up Yarrow Gardens: my home food forest in Lapstone, which sits on a standard, quarter acre block. I'm hoping this post will help those of you in suburban and peri-urban environments get started growing regeneratively in your back yards.

I live in the lower Blue Mountains, which has a warm temperate/subtropical climate, very different to Lyttleton Gardens, which sits between warm temperate and cool temperate.

When we first moved into our standard quarter-acre block, the sloped back yard was composed of three tiers of impacted, eroded, sandy, shallow soil covered in couch grass. Couch grass seemed to be the only plant resilient enough to grow in this depleted, eroded soil. A beautiful, twenty meter Eucalyptus tree stands tall in the middle of the yard, and friends and family assured me I would never be able to grow anything successfully because of it. I didn't know much about growing things at the time and my dreams of a veggie patch and fruit trees seemed close to impossible.

It was then that I embarked on my Permaculture studies, learning about ecology, microbiology, climatology, soil restoration, regenerative farming, holistic management and regenerative design. I slowly gained enough of an understanding of natural systems to be able to make conscious decisions about where to plant, what to plant, when to plant it, how to regenerate my soil and care for my little patch of topsoil.

My perspective had changed. I no longer saw plants as 'good or bad,' as I could finally understand the function of each plant within an ecological system. 'Weeds' were no longer evil, annoying plants to be pulled out, but rather resilient pioneers in charge of quickly protecting and attempting to restore bare soil after a disturbance. In a natural forest ecosystem, there is no bare soil, and that is largely thanks to their hard work.

The great big majestic gum tree was no longer a nuisance, but rather a canopy tree to be incorporated as such into my design. Being a medicinal plant lover, being able to pick medicinal plants straight from the garden to chuck into my kettle was one of my goals, along with having a good continuous supply of fresh fruits, berries and vegetables.

My partner Steve and I rented a rotary hoe and used its shallowest setting to uproot the couch grass. I got hold of about ten cubic meters of good aged mushroom compost (always check the pH as it can be way too alkaline) which I generously covered the soil with (about 15cm), followed by a good layer of locally sourced wood chip. This allowed me to begin planting and kick-started the process of restoring the soil by adding some organic matter.

Stage one

Stage one

Six months later

Six months later

Twelve months later

Twelve months later

The tree you can see in the top photograph is mugwort, a medicinal bush that I shape into a tree. It was a tiny seedling when I first put it in and grew very vigorously. I also bought some dwarfed or small trees to form an understory layer such as loquat, avocado, banana and pawpaw. For shrubs, I bought seedlings of fast growing plants like golden fruit of the Andes, wormwood, native ginger, Mediterranean herbs, perennial basil, midjim berries, acacias,  native mint, lemon verbena, comfrey, yarrow, and nettle. I broadcast seeds of nigella, roman chamomile, cornflowers, brahmi, silverbeet, echinacea, parsley, valerian, parsnip, carrot, daikon, chives, wild rocket, red sorrel, radish, warrigal greens and planted bulbs of potato onion, perennial leeks, Egyptian walking onion and garlic.

I installed drip irrigation last spring to make sure the soil was always kept moist enough for fungi, bacteria and earthworms throughout dry summers. Worm castings, seaweed solution, homemade compost and wood chips we my sole inputs for about a year. I also started inoculating my seeds with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (powder mixed with a little water) just before broadcasting and inoculated all my legume seeds with the appropriate bacterial inoculant (see my previous post on Nitrogen fixation).

We finally incorporated chickens into our system in the middle tier, where they are rotated to a different area every 8 months. They are fed grains and medicine from our garden as well as some bought organic feed. Their poo feeds and accelerates my compost, their eggs are a nutrient powerhouse for us. The system is thriving with minimal external inputs. We have nuts, fruits, berries, green veggies, eggs, potatoes, sweet potatoes and much, much more, providing us with a diverse, balanced diet. I occasionally foliar spray my plants with fish emulsion (fermented fish guts) and whole cows milk to keep them strong and healthy, but barely need to add anything to my food forest soil.

I feel good knowing that all of my perennial edibles and medicinals are storing carbon in the soil for the long term, while annuals growing among them are harvested regularly. Peanuts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, herbs and veggies now pop up on their own. If anything were to happen, we would have the ingredients to a balanced diet and fresh rainwater at our doorstep. An important element in hindsight was building paths throughout our food forest and maintaining them, for easy access and harvesting. I would say the process of building a balanced, productive system takes more or less 4 years, but as you can see in the pictures above, you can do a great deal in just 12 months with careful observation.

I want everybody to experience the joy of building their own little thriving ecosystem, providing refuge for wildlife, insects and microbes, whilst harvesting a bounty of produce. I hope this little blog post will provide you with some inspiration and tools to carefully observe your site and work with its specific conditions to design a healthy little food forest of your own.

Lyttleton Gardens: a Wholistic, Productive Garden Project

Just thought we'd show you some photographs of our ongoing productive garden project in Lyttleton Gardens. A few months ago, Cam and I (Manu) embarked on a mission to turn the side garden and the little orchard behind the shop into a healthy, productive vegetable patch and food forest.

The space was very overgrown and grasses had taken over much of the side vegetable garden. The entire site is on a slope and rainwater had eroded much of the soil along paths. The mini-orchard has a wonderful variety of established fruit and nut trees, and our aim is to slowly transition from an orchard to a food forest system by incorporating a diversity of forest layers: edible or medicinal ground covers, shrubs, climbers and leguminous nitrogen-fixing plants.  

We also enriched soils with compost and covered them with thick layers of woody mulches in the orchard, and grassy mulches in the vegetable garden. We're on a very small budget, and are gathering materials from local stables (lucerne, horse manure), coffee shops (coffee grinds), and kind customers (leaves and clippings).

Grapes are in the foreground and shrubby fuchsias at the back. We have planted some pumpkins here as a seasonal ground cover, goji berry and loganberry as climbers and bush beans as nitrogen-fixing legumes. Wood shavings and compost protect the paths from erosion.

Grapes are in the foreground and shrubby fuchsias at the back. We have planted some pumpkins here as a seasonal ground cover, goji berry and loganberry as climbers and bush beans as nitrogen-fixing legumes. Wood shavings and compost protect the paths from erosion.

This is the gate from the orchard into the vegetable garden, where you can get a glimpse of some lemon balm, fennel and feijoa. Again, wood shavings from a local cabinet maker protect the paths, and we're hoping to inoculate them with mushies eventually!

This is the gate from the orchard into the vegetable garden, where you can get a glimpse of some lemon balm, fennel and feijoa. Again, wood shavings from a local cabinet maker protect the paths, and we're hoping to inoculate them with mushies eventually!

We regularly aerate our compost heap, which turns all waste from the shop into beautiful, rich, wormy black goodness for the garden.

We regularly aerate our compost heap, which turns all waste from the shop into beautiful, rich, wormy black goodness for the garden.

In the vegetable garden, we've built new raised garden beds using the no-dig method, along the contour of the slope to slow water run-off and aid infiltration. Still quite young, but here we have broadbeans, dahlias, lamb's ear, yarrow, wild rocket, chinese broccoli, endive, strawberries, lucerne, mesclun lettuce, comfrey and fennel. 

In the vegetable garden, we've built new raised garden beds using the no-dig method, along the contour of the slope to slow water run-off and aid infiltration. Still quite young, but here we have broadbeans, dahlias, lamb's ear, yarrow, wild rocket, chinese broccoli, endive, strawberries, lucerne, mesclun lettuce, comfrey and fennel. 

The garden bed we wove a few months back with Gillian from Branching Out is filled with mystery flowers from our compost as well as french tarragon and chives. Stay tuned to find out what these flowers are! They are just starting to bud.

The garden bed we wove a few months back with Gillian from Branching Out is filled with mystery flowers from our compost as well as french tarragon and chives. Stay tuned to find out what these flowers are! They are just starting to bud.