It’s six months since we settled here on Gunung Willam Balluk country just outside Macedon, and many hours have been passed blissfully imagining the garden paradise we’ll co-create here with Mama Nature. My explorations have taken me on a fascinating journey of discovery about the nature of this land before white colonists wrested it out from under the people who had cared for it for countless millennia. How might I find the right balance between allowing the land to return to it’s natural state and creating a productive garden that can feed and support my family and community? The people of the Gunung Willam Balluk who lived here at the foot of Mt Macedon certainly found that balance, but they were operating within a like minded community of widely dispersed clans that worked together to protect and gently influence an ecosystem that covered all of the surrounding land; in fact the entire country from coast to coast. I can only influence what happens on my two acres. There’s no hope of me recreating that kind of balance. So what’s the next best thing?
I’ve read that, left to its own devices, land will always return to forest. It’s a nice idea. But in a changing climate, with bushfires a real and frightening risk out here, I’m not sure this is a good thing. Not for us certainly, and perhaps not even for the land. There are many who argue for the planting of mostly indigenous species, and I don’t disagree, in principle. But as we step into the unknown, facing an uncertain climate and the inevitability of energy descent, I have to question if two more acres of indigenous forest is in anyone’s best interests. Possibly I would think differently if I knew more about indigenous plants, particularly edible and medicinal ones. This is something I definitely want to learn more about, but I know it will take time and experimentation. Ultimately I keep returning to permaculture; a sustainable system that produces food and supports people while simultaneously regenerating the land. Permaculture allows for native species and habitat regeneration, but also makes space for food gardens that are predominantly European. Most importantly, a permaculture system is designed to mimic nature, being self-sustaining and requiring minimal human intervention or external inputs, especially once established.
What would Ningulabul, the last head man of the Gunung Willam Balluk clan think of permaculture, I wonder? Would he and his family consider it a worthy compromise, given the limitations we face as caretakers of this small patch of fenced, degraded land? I’d like to think that our attempts to create a self-supporting system that can feed a family while regenerating the soil would earn a nod of encouragement at the very least. And if we can create a small, flourishing ecosystem on our two acres, perhaps that might inspire others around us to try it out. It’s certainly worth a try.
I still love the idea of a forest, but in our case we’ll be moving away from indigenous species for around 80% of the canopy. Our forest will be a little more fire retardant, deciduous to a large extent, and a lot more edible. My garden folder is overflowing with sketches that range from highly structured kitchen garden to barely managed food forest. The end result, I think, will be something in between. The vision is a lush, productive garden with winding mulched paths and surprises at every turn. Fruit trees will be planted in guilds, not straight lines. Each tree will have it’s own little ecosystem of species that attract bees, improve the soil, provide nutrients and mulch and offer protection from the sun and wind. The result will look more like it was designed by nature than by humans.
A more traditional gardener might deem it messy, but nature doesn’t do straight lines or bare earth. In my vision, fruit trees drip with plums, apples, pears and peaches, nasturtiums wind up their trunks and bees hum around clumps of lemon balm gone to seed. Next to the house a fenced, potager garden will be more structured, with vegetable beds lined up around a central lemon tree. This space will be more intensively worked, with vegetables and herbs on seasonal rotation, and espaliered fruit trees and berries providing an edible border. It won’t be as tidy as a traditional kitchen garden, because well, that sounds like a lot of work! We’ll be using the guild philosophy here too, focussing on companion plants and allowing nature to creep in and do what it needs to. But ultimately this is a food garden with a job to do, so it will take a little more oversight than the food forest. Between the kitchen garden and the food forest, a giant mulberry tree shades a lush green clearing surrounded by edible hedges that explode with berries of every variety. Pergolas dangle grapes and kiwi fruit, vines wind up posts and tangle with pumpkins, and culinary and medicinal herbs flow over the edges of paths. Down the back, hazelnut trees encircle a lily pad strewn pond that supports a thriving ecosystem of wetland plants and animals. Beyond that a shady pocket of indigenous woodland supports local wildlife and the return of delicate native orchids that used to grow wild in the area.
Of course, at some point one has to land back on solid ground, and with my health placing significant limitations on what’s possible right now, we decided to start small. Funny that! First we had to prioritise a few things that would make living here more comfortable. This included clearing the stormwater drain that overflows and threatens to flood right through our front door every time it rains. We also needed to block up breezy drafts, install a slow combustion wood fire and fit window coverings that insulate from Macedon’s frosty winter. After many hours of research and investigation, we installed a Nectre wood heater (SOOO good) but are still procrastinating on window coverings and other matters of insulation. Breezy drafts will be addressed in the next few weeks. The stormwater drain was partially unblocked but now we need the guy with the expensive high pressure hose solution to help us out; currently pending budget allocation!
Meanwhile I’ve been scribbling away on a garden plan and figuring out what our priorities for year one would be. The plan is a work in progress, and will probably continue to be indefinitely, but the main sectors have emerged and it’s starting to look like something we can work towards. Here’s a picture of what my planning process looks like.
It’s pretty fluid, and I’m not quite ready to firm up those pencil scribbles. It would be great to have a fairly locked in plan by the end of the year, at least in terms of the main sectors, though of course things will continue to shift. There were a few things we knew we wanted quite early on, so here is what made the Year One wish list:
Year One Wishlist
- Plan the Garden (will this ever end..?)
- Clear trees that pose a fire risk close to and overhanging the house
- Clear trees that block winter sun to the northern house aspect
- Clear blackberries from around the house and cut back the giant bush that we’ll keep to harvest from
- Burn the enormous piles of branches and pruning that we inherited with the house
- Prune the ornamental grape on the northern pergola and train it to block hot summer sun
- Create a composting system
- Build a chook pen and get chooks!
- Build a fence for the Kitchen Garden and create four no-dig winter vegie beds
- Build supports for espaliered fruit trees in the Kitchen Garden and plant bare rooted stone fruit
- Plant a lemon tree, a fig and a mulberry
- Make a start on the food forest with bare rooted apple, plum and pear trees over winter
- Remove a Honeysuckle Grevillea and Limelight Acacia from the proposed herb garden space
- Cultivate the herb garden for potted herbs that moved with us from the city
- Dig swales (trenches) to capture storm water that currently runs off the sloping block
- Have beds and soil ready for Spring vegies and herbs in the Kitchen Garden
- Plant hazelnut trees around the dam
- Plant reeds and other filtering water plants in the dam and establish a fish species that will eat the yabbies
So how did we go?
Halfway into year one, we’re mostly on track with what we wanted to have done by this point. A lot of the jobs are not much fun in winter, so we’re mostly hibernating til the warmer days of Spring. The garden plan is partly done and will continue to evolve. We’ll probably have to let go of a few winter jobs that we’re running out of time on. I don’t think the dam improvements will happen this year, and hazelnuts are looking like missing the cut for now. The espaliered stone fruit might also come in year two. But all things considered, I think we’ve done alright!
In the very first days on the property Scott and our new neighbours made short work of the two 6 metre high pencil pines that completely blocked sunlight from the main living areas. Scott gradually hacked his way through the blackberries and a variety of scruffy trees overhanging the north side of the house. It was slow work with a succession of secateurs, handsaws and borrowed chainsaws. Finally Scott’s dad come to visit and immediately went out and bought us a proper chainsaw of our own. Thanks Vince! That said, it’s massive, terrifying and I will never use it. More than happy for that to be a man tool..
We got Rhett the Tree Man out and spent an enlightening few hours discussing the relative merits of every tree on the block with him. What an incredible source of knowledge he was, and so generous with his time. Rhett’s most valuable advice was, with the exception of dangerous or fire risk trees, to wait a full year before deciding what to clear. Within weeks, a tree that I had been planning to sacrifice in favour of a promising deciduous sapling, burst into colour with the most incredible display of bright orange flowers I’ve seen. Thankfully that fella will be staying on! We still haven’t had Rhett back to lop the 6 – 8 big eucalypts that overhang the house, but that will definitely be done before Summer, along with a couple of giant pines that block light and retard growth underneath their canopy. That will leave us with a good supply of mulch ready for making paths and a bit of firewood to supplement next winter’s biggest expense. Luckily local regulations allow us to remove pines, as well as any trees within 10 metres of the house.
As soon as fire restrictions eased up we had a giant bonfire and worked our way through all the branches and prunings that had been left behind by the previous owners, as well as all the prunings we’d already accumulated ourselves. A lot of smaller garden waste is in a giant compost pile in the utility area behind a shed, but I wouldn’t technically call it a composting system. We still use our black plastic compost bin for kitchen scraps, but when the weather improves I hope we can set up some proper bays and start producing compost a bit more effectively for our pretty significant garden needs. As for chooks, the jury’s still out on on whether they’ll be here in Year One. We really want them and their yummy eggs, but we need to find time to build a chook house and pen, or convert an existing shed (currently the preferred option). With Scott working full time, and me not so handy with a hammer – yet – it might have to wait it until it reaches the top of the list.
I’d almost given up on the kitchen garden for year one, but over a couple of big weekends in Autumn we managed to throw together four no-dig garden beds and get in seedlings of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and beetroot. A few weeks later I popped some garlic in the ends of the beds, around a potted lime tree and anywhere else I could find good soil! Scott pulled out the ugly acacia that was gracing the sunniest spot in the garden, and we got a delivery of compost and planted parsley, garlic chives, lavender, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram and thyme.
When the leaves had all dropped on the grape vine Scott got to work on pruning and I’d say it’s about halfway done. The massive overgrown blackberry by the dam still needs pruning. This will be a huge, not so much fun job. With luck we’ll get that and the grape vine done before Spring overtakes us with new growth – quickly approaching!
A few weeks ago we picked up our bare-rooted fruit trees; 2 apples, 2 plums, a crab apple and a fig. It’s a small start, but we didn’t want to bite off more than we could manage right now. As it turns out, it’s just as well we didn’t get more as the weather has been awful ever since. Eventually we bit the bullet and went out in the freezing rain to dig the holes. When I say ‘we’ I really mean Scott. I shovelled a bit of soil and gave instructions, but I am nowhere near being able to dig holes just yet! Next year maybe.
Alexa though, pulled on her gumboots and got stuck in, digging more than her bodyweight in heavy clay and jumping in the holes which rapidly filled with water. We crossed our fingers that the trees wouldn’t drown and got them in, and then went back out the next weekend and hauled them out of the quagmire; just like quicksand to the kids’ delight! Most of our mini orchard has now been replanted a good 30cm higher and hopefully will stay above the water line.
While we were out there, Scott got started on digging a swale that sits just above the food forest to capture storm water and hold it there while it soaks into the soil, rather than running off. We’ll observe it in this week’s rain to see how it works before filling with mulch.
I’ve been recording all our progress and will share more stories and pictures soon. With the slim, windswept forms of our baby fruit trees visible out the window, a real productive food garden is starting to feel like a real possibility at last. I’m so excited to see the vision emerge and I think I may burst with joy the day we harvest the actual fruits of our labours. Can’t wait to share it all with you.