Food In Suburban Backyard

Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of Permaculture, wrote in 1976;

People frequently ask how much land they need for self-sufficiency. The answer is, “As much as you can control”.  Any more and you lose self-sufficiency, let alone the ability to produce an excess. If people ask “Where do I start?” then the answer is always “At your doorstep”.

I agree with Bill, because my place is proof that you don’t need acreage to begin to grow your own food.  Start with what you have.  I grow as much as I can, with the space that I have, and I try and keep the costs down by saving my own seed, making my own compost, and making my own liquid fertilizers and reusing outside inputs few times over.

Let me give you a few examples of some gardening that has needed minimal outside inputs.  Take this leek for instance.

Leeks are just amazing little producers if you let a few go to seed.  A few months later it produces two little bulblets at the base that grow roots and sprout.

Some even grow into mini leeks which are I consider pre-grown seedlings.

You gently dig up the flower stem, split off the bulblets and re-plant them for this years crop.

I find that you get a massive head start and do not have to sew seed.  At the end of the season, leeks planted this way are usually twice as big as the ones that I grew from seed.

Now onto my jungle, or the triffids as Kim calls them.  Pumpkins and climbing beans.

This year I tried the three sisters method of inter-planting, which didn’t quite work out as planned.  Last year I saved seed from my best Australian Butter pumpkin and from the Lazy Housewife and Scarlet runner beans that I grew.  I planted them in this narrow garden bed, with a hybrid sweet corn.

I planted the sweet corn then the beans two weeks later, then the pumpkin two weeks after that.  Even though the sweet corn was bought from a seed catalogue, the saved seeds over took them in no time, and in fact smothered the smaller corn of which only 4 plants survived and burst through the pack.  The combination of the beans and pumpkins have been a hit.  These are third generation saved seeds, and have really adapted to my climate.  There are beans everywhere, which I will let dry for soups, and meals that need dried beans.  There are about 5-7 fertilised pumpkins so far with a few more on the way if the weather remains mild.  It just goes to prove that saving your own seeds has benefits of low cost, and adaptation to your local zone.

The next example is one of minimal effort and reuse.

The garden bed that I recovered all of the leek seedlings from and pulled all of the remaining zucchini plants that were no longer producing, the bed needed to be prepared for an autumn planting of broad beans.  It had minimal weeds because of the zucchini shading the entire bed and acting as a weed suppressant.

To give the bed with a little more fertility, and instead of using some of my precious compost from the compost bins, I headed over to the chook house asked for their assistance.  Around the path that skirts the fence line of the chicken run are mounds of compost that the chooks made for me by flicking dirt that is mixed with rotted manure and straw through the wire when scratching.  It is rich in fine organic matter and as good as any compost that I make myself.  I collected a whole wheelbarrow full of this compost and laid it on the top of the weeded garden bed and sprinkled over a couple of handfuls of garden lime to sweeten it.  Then I collected their bedding from their house which is sugar cane mulch filled with dried chook manure and used it as a thick 7-10 cm layer as mulch/fertilizer.

Here is the finished bed.  No digging, not much effort and all the inputs are made by the chooks!  Ready in a few weeks for the broad bean seeds that I collected off of last years harvest.  By then it should be filled with worms.

I realise that the straw is an input, however I begun to start growing lots more Lucerne (Alfalfa) which is a perennial legume that can cut over and over and can be used as straw and chook feed, and I will start to use more shredded office paper in their nesting boxes, which can both be used again in the garden.  A little bit more self sufficient than buying bales of sugar cane mulch each month.

So instead of dreaming for that big block of land to grow food on, start with what you have now.  You may find that it is probably just enough, and will take up enough of you time until you become more proficient in the garden.  I started off small, with just 4 raised beds, then added a few fruit trees, and built up from there.  Once I got the hang of a few beds, I just kept adding then until I knew my limit.  I am nearly at it now except for a few vertical beds that I will be making soon.

Has anyone ever dreamed of growing food on a larger block of land, only to find that you finally decided to give the smaller parcel you had a try, and who else tries to minimise inputs and let an adhoc and unintentional permaculture design do most of the work for you?


  1. Anonymous says

    Although I have dreamt of acres, I have come to the conclusion we don’t have the time to have a larger area. I think our block is about 780ish. I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, it is enough to keep us busy with gardening, chooks, worm farm, small fish ponds, waterbath garden, fruit trees, berries etc.


  2. Penny D says

    Firstly thanks for all the work that you put into your blog, cannot believe how many postings you get around to!! I have had great success with corn this year (organic seed), zuccini’s loved to death by fruit flies, BUT more beds added and more plans for yet more for the front garden – wicking beds are really the best invention. Little by little we have doubled the beds and just reading your blog to get inspiration on what to plan next..winter, in Qld, gotta love it!!!

  3. says

    Yes! We were looking for a much bigger house and a large backyard too, for just this reason. A 1/4 acre would have been what we were after, more of less. Didn’t happen. So I started where we are now, 1/8 acre.

    Now we have 4 bantams, a worm farm, a compost bin, veggie garden and fruit trees in pots and in the ground. So glad we didn’t go for the big house/land option. Less upkeep of the land and less cleaning in the house.

  4. says

    I have been dreaming of a large block or acreage for growing foods…but in reality…I just couldn’t handle the workload. What I am doing with my yard is very rewarding with a suburban back and front yard. I am planning and planting for the future. It’s all an investment. I even have fruit trees sprouting from seed which is exciting in itself. Great post Gavin…well done. I have triffids too and also save my own seed for the following year. But I can’t resist buying newly discovered seed purple Brussel Sprouts.

  5. says

    I tried the three sisters this year and had the same problem. I started the corn and zucchinis from seed around the same time, but the corn seeds weren’t fertile, so I ended up buying seedlings, but they were still too slow and the zucchinis took over before I could even add the beans! I think the corn has to really get established before anything else goes in with them. I’m going to try one more time next summer….. Some great examples of what can be done on a small block, but we have found that even on 8 acres we can’t be totally self-sufficient, we are still buying hay to feed our animals. With a bit of creativity its interesting to see how close you can get though.

  6. says

    I live on two acres. Lovely yes – time consuming definitely. Having said that we wouldn’t move anywhere smaller as hubby needs the room for his work and “treasures”. I had a huge vegie garden for many years. It was nice but sooo much work and I couldn’t keep up with it. Such a waste of good food as I didn’t harvest as much as I should have and certainly couldn’t keep up the maintenance of it. So I down scaled to a much more manageable vegetable area. Wicking beds made from old cast iron baths (with more to come), big pots and wine barrels and two raised beds that will eventually (when I get more baths) be turned into wicking beds as well. The vegetable garden now works so much more efficiently in regards to my time, water and the harvest is so much better. Weeding I have found is nearly non existent which is another benefit.

    Now I find my biggest problem is working out how much to grow of each vegetable so we have some to eat and some to preserve. I find myself reluctant to over plant in case I can’t keep up with it – which is silly as I know that I can – good heavens I bottle and jam boxes of fruit that hubby brings home from the fruit growers that he works for. Any suggestions on working out how much of anything to plant and how did you work out the quantities of what you wanted to plant?

  7. says

    I’ve thought about saving seed but I like to grow several varieties w/in the same family so I can’t figure out how I’d get them to breed true – i.e., not hybridize. For example, how do you prevent your zucchini from crossing with your Butter pumpkins and getting a second generation that’s not true to either?

    Last year I grew climbing Italian beans up the porch; their seeds when I planted them were small and white. About 70′ away, I grew a row of bush shell beans (Tongue of Fire) whose seeds have red striping. When I tried to collect the seed from the Italian beans, most of them had the red mottling of the shell beans. So I think they were cross pollinated. I probably should have saved them to see what I’d get but didn’t. Would they have been climbers? Bush? Something in between?

    Have you found this to be a problem?

    • Anonymous says

      Kathy, I had the same question a couple of years ago and asked my brother who is a PhD plant geneticist breeding new vegetable varieties, and he assured me that zucchini and squash/pumpkins are not compatible. Same for cucumbers and squash or cucumbers and zucchini.

  8. says

    Good advice…my planting area is containers on my patio…the space looked so small…yet even with containered flowers and shrubs I’ve used only about half the patio…I’ve got to be more creative about containers! Right now some of what I’m using are baskets that I found at the thrift store…lined and filled with bagged soil. Maybe I’ll just plant in the bags from now on…finding inexpensive containers isn’t always easy or I’m probably not being creative enough or looking in the right place.

  9. says

    Shredded office paper in the nesting boxes – Gav, you’re a genius!

    I’m only on 500m2 (obviously) and that’s enough for me. I occasionally find myself lusting over a bit more room (particularly for fruit trees), but it is amazing now much can be achieved in a small space.

    If only my backyard wasn’t shaded but my neighbour’s massive tree!

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