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.

blackforestgarden

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

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Growing Food in Your Front Yard is Illegal

I feel for Sean Law. He thought he was doing the right thing putting his front yard to productive use. He started to turn it into a prolific forest of edible perennial and annual plants. Not planted in rows but a mélange of stacking and companion planting that would rule out the need for chemicals to keep unwanted weeds and pests at bay. Instead he found himself in trouble with the council and now has over $100,000 in fines to his name. You see, Law’s neighbours didn’t recognise his statement–political or ecological as it may be. They saw it as an infringement on their rights. It attracts wildlife they say. Writes Charlene Sakoda on Yahoo! News:

“His next-door neighbor Bobbie Corbitt told WOFL Fox 35, “We have all kind of weird animals, rodents and stuff, and bugs. I have bugs that I’ve never seen before come in my house.” To which Mr. Law responded, “There are ants in the world. I’m not God I didn’t put ants in the world.” Another neighbor Kathy Ettman said, “If he wishes to live that way, which is his choice, go to an area that accepts that. That means you go out to ranch land.”

Growing your own produce in your own front yard is ranch land behaviour? Please. If I am to accept that I  insist that lawns are for golf courses and sporting fields.

I think this story, and all the others similar to it—there have been a few—shows how touchy middle-class suburbanites can be. Further, it seems to be a very American phenomenon. Front yard vegetable gardens and fruit orchards are common here in Australia. Irrespective of their chaos, they seem to elicit curiosity and inspiration rather than hostility and vengeance.

In fact, I have a hodge-podge of pots and plants, at various stages of fertility, bolt, and heat exhaustion, in the front corner of my front yard (if you can call it that, it’s so small). It’s a bit chaotic—helped along by a veritable psychedelic rainbow of different coloured pots. Neighbours and fellow community members wander past every day—walking dogs, taking kids to school, heading to the tram to commute to white-collar desk jobs. They look—it’s hard not to—and ooh-and-aah, poke and prod, and marvel at the stuff that looks just like—arguably better—the stuff they see in the supermarket. “Growing food in pots in your front yard? How cool is that? How natural. Must try that at home!” their smiles and curious eyes suggest. I can’t even fathom, in my neighbourhood at least—very much your leafy, middle-middle to upper-middle class inner suburb where late-model leather-interior sedans and high-spec renovations are the norm—somebody dobbing me in; complaining that my little corner ‘o’ chaos is ‘unsightly’ or ‘immoral’ or ‘disruptive’. Maybe I am lucky. But it seems to be forgivable in this country.

Law has created a Change.org campaign that aims to “grant relief to Sean Law from all orders and fines from the special magistrate; and begin a city food forest initiative to live in greater harmony with nature and greatly increase food security.” (Grammar edited by me.) Do sign it if you want to help set a positive precedent.

The Morality of Lawn

This article was originally published at The Kind Little Blog, titled “The Absurdity of Lawn”.

Lawn. It’s wretched stuff. To maintain a lawn, to the standards expected of most suburbanites, requires so much water, fertiliser and pesticide, that you wonder why people even bother. Do most people get use out of their lawn? Or is it something that sits there and looks nice? It doesn’t seem justified.

Lawn is “boastful and bourgeois” says my friend Erina. She is right and it is meant to be. In her 2008 New Yorker piece, “Turf Wars”, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that lawn is about communitarianism: it’s about “fitting in”[1]. Lawn is an indicator of a moral citizen. He whose lawn is overgrown and unkept should be treated with caution, therefore. Edward Scissorhands and Pleasantville present many of the gender, racial and societal norms that the lawn gives rise to. Who would have thought a patch of green out the front of your house could be such a study in sociology? Lawn says more about society than it does the individual. Hence, he who has no lawn is considered an oddball by society.

Green field developments are all about keeping up appearances. I’ve lived in a few in my time–Seaford Rise and Golden Grove in South Australia–and they were Meccas for that green stuff. The developers of these estates impose stringent landscaping guidelines. Actually, the guidelines aren’t all that stringent–provided that you do landscape your yard within the timeframe specified. Lawn is cheap, so is the obvious option for many people. I can understand why, when they have just built the cookie-cutter home of their dreams, with its formal and informal living areas, chef’s kitchen and double garage. There isn’t much budget left for a fancy landscaping job. Lawn will have to do.

But what does lawn mean in a broader context? Well for a start, we are constantly being told that there are food shortages and security issues across the globe. There isn’t enough land to grow sustenance crops. This is especially the case when much fertile land is being used to grow biofuel crops instead. The GM companies assure us that they have a solution in the bag, as they steam ahead trying to control a greater percentage of the world’s food supply. All this is happening whilst people starve, both in the Global South and North. It’s a pretty dire scenario isn’t it?

In a 2005 article entitled, “Food Crisis Feared as Fertile Land Runs Out”, the authors show that “40% of Earth’s land is used for agriculture” and that this growing “footprint” will be of consequence to the environment [2]. Meanwhile, in the USA at least, over 2 million acres of land are taken up by golf courses and around 40 million by other–domestic and commercial–lawns. That’s a fair chunk of land. Imagine how much food could be grown on it?

I’m intrigued by the Dervaes family of Pasadena, Los Angeles. They grow over 6000lbs of food each year on their 1/10 acre block. They keep 60% of it for themselves, sell 30%–and derive a decent income from it–and use the remainder to feed their animals [3]. An adult human eats around 800lb of food per year. So they grow enough to feed over 7 people.

My interest in this topic came about through a YouTube video I saw of a chap in Western Australia who established a market garden in his backyard. He was the first person I heard to say that a lack of land to grow food is nonsense. There is plenty of land, it’s just that we don’t use it effectively.

So, the morality of digging up our lawn and planting food. Well if people are starving, and by growing our own food, we free up land to grow crops to feed the starving, then it seems like the right thing to do, right?

Before I broach into the moral argument against lawn and for the solution, I wish to set a few things straight. The argument rests on the assumption that the science that claims that there isn’t enough land to feed people is sound. There seems to be compelling evidence that suggests that this is the case, hence my decision to expand upon it. Also, the argument I use is basic. I didn’t want this post to turn into some purely academic, fuddy-duddy philosophical piece. Instead, I wanted to outline a problem and propose a practical if interesting solution. I also think that the moral argument posited by Singer is strong and compelling. Some may disagree with me on this and I ask those people to come forward and share their argument. Without further ado…

In his book, “The Life You Can Save” [4], philosopher Peter Singer argues that we, as individuals, ought to save a child from drowning, even if it is of some expense to us. For the expenses that we may consider are arbitrary and incomparable to the value of a human life. And it’s true: we would. If you were walking through the park on your lunch break and a child had fallen into a pond, and by jumping in after her you ruined your new shoes and would be soaking wet, would you jump in after the child? Of course you would. You would consider this your moral responsibility. To look on and do nothing would be wrong.

Therefore, we have a responsibility to feed those that are starving. This is especially true if the cost to us, as individuals, is nil or very low. Singer presents his argument by first postulating two premises:

1. “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad”.
2. “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it”.
Do you agree with these premises? I am sure many people do. I do. And I am willing to make, what would seem to some, great sacrifices to alleviate the suffering. If you agree with the premises you must accept the conclusion:
… One has a responsibility to help feed those in need even if it means sacrificing something of less moral importance.

Hence, lawn. By taking matters into our own hands, crops can be grown to feed the starving rather than us. Of course this rests on the fact that the crops would be used to feed the starving. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But what we are being told is that a lack of fertile land is impacting on the ability to supply those in need. I am making this argument on the basis that this is the case. That by freeing up land we would be able to produce food to feed the poor–without resorting to GMOs etc. Another thing, I think it’s just commonsense to use land for worthwhile things rather than as arbitrary symbols of moral superiority or cultural cliches. To do otherwise fosters inequalities; unfair and unfounded ones. I feel for the man with the uncontrolled front lawn; being looked at by his neighbours as some sort of perverse fiend.

We lose our lawn but instead gain a yard full of fresh fruit and vegetables, food that is fresher than what we buy in the supermarket and, if grown organically, is free of many of the pesticides and other nasties common in commercial production. Not only is it a moral thing to do, it is good for our well-being. Research by Loughborough University shows that gardening offers opportunities for self-reflection and relaxation, and has a positive effect on physical and mental health [5].

Produce gardening is also better for the environment. As I said earlier in this piece, lawn requires large quantities of water, fertiliser and pesticides–the latter two have a “detrimental effect on groundwater, rivers, lakes, and harbours”. Lawn is also a mono crop meaning it zaps nutrients from the soil–hence the need for fertilisers–and leads to pests and diseases–hence the need for pesticides, to keep these at bay. Whereas, fruit and vegetables, using reputable organic gardening practices, require little watering, no pesticides, natural fertilising techniques–mulching, manure, etc–and put nutrients back into the soil. Not to mention, cutting down on transport miles.

I yearn for a day when lawns are outnumbered by vegetable gardens. And we’re experiencing a zeitgeist where this may just catch on. More and more people I know are trying their hand at growing some herbs or a few tomatoes at least. After their first crop, they’re transformed. Growing produce may just be better for the mind than gardening in general.

So what do you think? Do you think lawns are a waste? Do you think people should switch to growing their own produce to alleviate their reliance on the industrialised food?

Update:

When this article was first published it elicited a fair amount of debate. Following, I shall summarise the common criticisms it received along with my responses:

“We have a lawn and don’t apply any fertiliser or pesticides or herbicides at all.”

In Australia the use of pesticide for domestic lawns applications isn’t practiced as commonly as it is in the USA. One of the reasons given is that we’re not as finicky about the aesthetic of a lawn. Even so, Australian’s buy thousands of tonnes of pesticides to keep their lawns looking pretty. One only has to take a walk down the relevant aisle at Bunnings to see that the products are in demand. Then there are the golf courses, sports fields, parklands and reserves maintained by councils and governments who, habitually, do use chemicals as part of their maintenance regime.

Things are different in the USA where a man’s lawn is his pride and joy and, as I argue in the blog, a measure of his moral character. According to the NWF [6] and Steinberg [7], suburban lawns require over 32 tonne of active pesticide ingredients each year. With a higher per acre usage than in the industrial farming system.

“Kids need lawn to play on.”

Lawn and kids. I partially agree. Whilst it may be useful for them, they don’t need it. If you have a good reason for lawn, you should have one. I love sitting on the lawn with a book and glass of wine. Or going for picnics and spreading out a rug over some lush greenery. However, most lawn goes to waste. It isn’t used for anything worthwhile. Especially in frontyards. Most play tends to happen in backyards in Australia.

“You’re just jealous.”

I don’t know why I would ever be jealous of a lawn when instead I can have fresh home-grown produce for my investment in time and water. Water is in short supply in this country. I have trouble reconciling its use to produce something of mere aesthetically value. That said, I don’t enjoy the appearance of lawn.

[1] Kolbert, E. (2008). “Turf War”. New Yorker. See: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/21/080721crbo_books_kolbert

[2] Ravilious, K. (2005). “Food Crisis Feared as Fertile Land Runs Out”. The Guardian. See: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/dec/06/agriculture.food

[3] Path To Freedom. “The Urban Homestead at a Glance”. See: http://urbanhomestead.org/urban-homestead

[4] Singer, P. (2009). “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty”. Random House.

[5] Aldridge, J., Baldwin, H., Sempik, J. & Spurgeon, T. (2011). “Research Shows Gardening is Good for Health and Well-Being”. Loughborough University: News. See: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/service/publicity/news-releases/2005/38_thrive.html

[6] National Wildlife Federation (n.d.). “Cut Your Lawn in Half”. See: http://www.nwf.org/Get-Outside/Outdoor-Activities/Garden-for-Wildlife/Gardening-Tips/Cut-Your-Lawn-In-Half.aspx

[7] Steinberg, T. (2006). “American Green, The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn”. W.W. Norton & Co.