Extremely Small Scale Urban Permaculture: Stacking and Companion Planting

This article lends itself to the permaculture principle, “Use & Value Diversity”

I live in a tiny two-bedroom unit near Adelaide, South Australia. It’s single story. It has a backyard featuring a paved outdoor living area, lawn, large shrubs along the perimeter, and a token pear and mandarin tree. (The former of which got absolutely molested by parrots before we could cover it in netting.) The shrubs are placed as such to provide shade to the western aspect of the house from the hot afternoon sun. This has proven ineffectual and the house heats up breathtakingly during the height of summer. The front is adorned with a large, shade-affirming hibiscus, which attracts a plethora of bees and insects with its beautiful, pink satellite-like flowers. The ground is covered in pine chips and is dotted with a mix of shade-tolerant shrubs, mostly native understory plants. The only bit of the front yard that gets good sun is the north-eastern corner, an area of about three-square-metres which comprises blank, pine chip-covered soil and a brick planter. This is where we established our small vegetable patch. Stacking and companion planting has ensured good yields and that the ‘pests’ don’t take over. When I designed our little patch–there wasn’t so much a process, but trial and error–I had to work within certain conditions. Namely, the garden had to be raised or in pots, and had to be easily removable for when we moved house, to leave as little impact on the property as possible–the joys of renting.


According to Mollison [1] “We can construct our own variation of the forest by establishing an intercrop of taller and shorter species, climbing plants, and herbs, placed according to their heights, spade tolerance, and water requirements”. Forests, of course, are self-regulating and therefore don’t need inputs like fertiliser and pesticides to encourage growth and deter pests respectively. Mollison suggests using biological resources instead: “Umbelliferous [plants of the parsley family] and composite plants such as dill, fennel, daisies, and marigolds placed around garden beds… attract predator insects”. Angelo Eliades from Deep Green Permaculture [2] describes companion planting:

“Many pests identify their food sources through scent or the physical outline (shape) of the plant. Pests can be confused by planting companion plants which release scents which masks that of their neighbouring plants. Companion plants can also be interplanted amongst the crop plant to mask their shape, making them harder to locate, so that pests miss them altogether.”

We stacked and companioned our plants very tightly into the north-east corner of the front yard by necessity, and this had the added benefits as described by Mollison and Eliades above. Foremost, the necessity was to optimise the use of space–we wanted to get as big a yield and capture as much of the sparse sun as possible. We used a little of the ground–into which we planted a couple of species of tomato–as it could easily be made good by covering over with pine chips when we moved. Tightly surrounding the tomato plants, and to provide shelter from the wind and additional support, is a hodgepodge of brightly coloured pots containing all manners of shallow-rooted species–radish, spring onion, several varieties of lettuce, dill, and basil. Due to the height of these potted plants and the stunted growth of our tomatoes–it was a tricky season in Australia, with summer arriving late–everything is at a similar level, so in the eyes of an insect, one might expect that they are very confused indeed. Short and tall plants are all on the same level. We have created some height by planting leggy varieties of cherry tomatoes in the brick planter box. These provide shade for the delicate leaf plants on hot summer days. These plants got off to a better start in spring, due to the heat radiated by the bricks. On top of this bed is some old coconut husk hanging baskets we have planted strawberries. The strawberries are left to shoot off as they please, and when watered, the excess water drains straight onto the tomatoes. What we have created here is a veritable mishmash of complementary plants. We ensured, when we chose the species, that they indeed would compliment each other.

The stacking and companionship has paid off and seems to support Mollison’s and Eliades’s theory–we haven’t had any issues whatsoever with pests this season and not even one of the worst heat waves in the history of South Australia has killed everything off, or seriously spoilt the plants. Everyday when I got out to pick a few leaves for a side salad, I’m surprised to see them all completely intact, with not a sign of pesky intervention or wilted leaves. Further, due to the shade and support provided by each plant, moisture retention in the soil has been tremendous. The great thing about this experiment, is that it is applicable for people with the smallest of spaces. The number one reason I hear for people not planting vegetables is a lack of space.

[1] Mollison, B. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture”. Tagari Publishing, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

[2] Eliades, A. (unknown). “Companion Planting: Camouflage”. See: http://www.deepgreenpermaculture.com/companion-planting

4 thoughts on “Extremely Small Scale Urban Permaculture: Stacking and Companion Planting

  1. I think smaller scaled applications is where permaculture shines most. It’s very easy to maintain self sufficiency in foods homestead on 20 acres, or 10 acres or even 5 acres. You can have your cows, chickens and roosters, a pig and sheep too if you fancy. A large dam with yabbies or fish and still have an acre or 2 leftover for gardens and the house of course. The more land the more forests you can have for firewood and that all fits in nice and easily into a conventional view. Conventional wood fire. Conventional sized house etc.
    Smaller areas of land, an acre, half an acre (as we have) and even much smaller and you have to employ permaculture principles at every turn. At risk of sounding like a corporation, efficiency and maximum output is required from every square foot. There is insufficient room for a cow without bringing in food although a goat may be manageable (we’re trying). There isn’t acres of land that can be left for forests for firewood which means either buying in wood or using a rocket stove, and you’d need very good grass year round for sheep as rotating paddocks isn’t an option.

    With thinking outside the box, as permaculture encourages, you can stack the plants as you say and a half acre can realise almost true self sufficiency. Maybe not with corn or wheat (we don’t eat wheat which makes things easier) but surely with fruits, vegetables, some grains or pseudograins, and as you say, even a couple of metres can provide for a salad every day. It involves thinking outside the box on how to plant but also what you eat or how to access arbs or proteins etc.
    One of Geoff Lawton’s videos was about small scale permaculture and it truly blew my mind. Angelo who lives in Melbourne is truly fruit and veg self sufficient on a very small amount of land and he only uses the back garden!!! His house fits the street profile for conventional! http://deepgreenpermaculture.com/my-garden/ is his blog relevant to the garden I mention (the rest of the blog is awesome too). I think the garden is something insanely small like under 700 square feet!
    I love just how much thought you’ve put into your pot gardens and I’m truly amazed at your productivity. Enough for a daily salad is impressive. 🙂
    Sorry to hijack your post with such a long comment but like you, I love permaculture and all it can offer. 😀

  2. After studying horticulture to Diploma level (twice 😉 ) it never ceases to amaze me how very little I know. I had never kept a vegetable garden before moving out to Serendipity Farm and although my mum kept on at me about it that just made me dig my heels in more. When she died we created a small patch of veggie garden in her honour and I was soon hooked but what a learning curve! It is like going back to kindergarten and is completely humbling. I am learning about hugels and companion planting and integrated pest and weed management and so many other things its almost like what I have already learned about plants is negligible. People might think of Tassie as a cold wet place but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
    Hobart is second only to Adelaide as the driest capital city and knowing how dry and hot it gets in South Australia you have my admiration for attempting to garden in those hot climes. I have been delving into perennial vegetable gardening via the amazing and most worthwhile read “Perennial vegetables: from artichoke to ‘zuiki’ taro, a gardener’s guide to over 100 delicious, easy-to-grow edibles” by Eric Toensmeier I was on the hunt for Chinese artichokes (Stachys affinis) at the time but soon realised that there is an amazing array of food right under our noses. Where we think most perennials are “pretty”, many drought tolerant and hardy perennials are also food sources. I discovered that canna lilies, day lilies and dahlias are all edible in their own right and all of them are hardy and drought tolerant. I think it’s a matter of learning what will grow in your climate and leaving the less hardy plants until you develop a microclimate that will encompass them. I am loving your blog and enjoying reading about someone else who gardens in the “Dry”. Where we live gets, on average, 3 rain events over the 3 month summer season and learning how to plant waterwise food crops is essential rather than an option here.

    I am having a ball creating all kinds of experiments. I am currently trying to get potatoes to seed, to allow a large heap of compost to grow what it will and to see what happens when a corn cob that has had its corn kernels removed but the germ remains and is sprouting will actually generate. I am learning so MUCH from my garden space! It’s exciting to go out there (and a little scary as it gets bigger and wilder every day).

    I am with you on the soil moisture retention and discovered that my daily watering has actually harmed rather than helped my little ecosystem. My zukes rotted thanks to too much water! I have discovered frogs and lizards and a large huntsman spider all predating my pest species and although my summer veggie garden was an afterthought it is going great guns. Permaculture is the bomb! 🙂

  3. I did not know that about Hobart, Narf! I always thought Hobart was the most climactically different out of the Australian cities. You learn something new everyday.

    What I have loved most about this blog project is the feedback and advice I have received. I feel my understanding of permaculture has been quite ‘marco’ in nature–I understand well the bigger picture, and how permaculture may affect behaviours, psychology and social change. It’s the ‘micro’ stuff–plant section, soil biology, etc, that I feel I have a long way to go. The plant suggestions that have been made here are a tremendous help. There’s been talk of purslane, warrigal greens, amaranth, goosefoot, boab, and moringa–plants I hadn’t even heard of, let alone considered. And now you have made a very good suggestion of establishing the microclimate before introducing more delicate species. Tremendous tip.

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