Our Garden

We moved into our Victorian terraced house in Rayleigh Avenue, Westcliff in May 94, and armed with inspiration from a newly purchased copies of The Permaculture Plot, Graham Bell’s ‘Permaculture Garden’ and leaflets from Plants For A Future  almost immediately set about developing the fairly typical north facing 17′ x 27′ lawn, concrete path and drab flower bed we had inherited. Our ‘wants’ from the garden included fruits, herbs and veggies to supplement our allotment’s produce, as well as being somewhere relaxing, aesthetically pleasing and attractive to wildlife.

Thus within 18 months, the path had been broken up and used to make stepping stones and a rockery; we’d planted dwarfing fruit tree and bushes; established vegetable, herb and flower beds; built a greenhouse from recycled wood and glass with help from the local LETS scheme; dug a wildlife pond; made a worm bin and built a fence/climbing trellis to keep the children from the pond and more fragile crops.

Early yields included lettuces, carrots, beans, brassicas, tomatoes, sweetcorn and quinoa(!). However such annuals became supplanted by top and soft fruit and permanent ‘sallets’ like lovage, sorrel, sea beet, Welsh onions, 3 cornered leek, dandelions, Turkish and wild rocket, lemon balm and so on as the trees and bushes matured into a forest garden over the years. The greenhouse has now been replaced by the garden office of Spiralseed, my small publishing and permaculture teaching business, and if the ‘children’ fall in the pond now they are big and ugly enough to look after themselves…

The ethics and design principles of permaculture play an important part in our garden, but over the years I’ve also formulated these 3 ‘golden rules’ for the would-be edible landscaper or transition horticulturist;

1) Don’t overdo it – Keep within your physical and financial limitations. It’s better to thoroughly develop a small area – probably not more than a few square feet for a beginner – than take on too much and simply exhaust yourself and your enthusiasm.

2) Take it easy – Observe, learn to fit in with the rhythms of the seasons, and take time to listen to the experience and advice of others. But don’t let a lack of confidence or experience intimidate you into indefinite procrastination. You won’t always get things right first time, but that’s fine. Remember that the person who never made a mistake never learned anything either, and we’ve made our fair share – A grey water harvesting system was abandoned when it became clear that the smell of stored static bathwater is intolerable in the summer, whilst an innocuous-looking 8” cherry plum whip planted ‘to fill up a space’ grew to over 25′ within 4 or 5 years and was a major headache to remove (although on the plus side I now know much more about the growth habits of cherry plums, and it made a lovely rustic table and stool set!)

3) Enjoy yourself – If creating a sustainable garden feels more like a chore than a pleasure, it’s probably not worth doing in the first place!

In terms of transition, I’d stress that we are by no means self sufficient from either garden or allotment, but neither is that our goal. Instead we prefer to think of ourselves as part of a self RELIANT community by also supporting local shops, farmers markets, box schemes, etc, contributing to local economic resilience just as much as reducing food miles. And it’s nice to be able to step outside the backdoor at almost any time of the year and be able to rustle up an armful of fruit or the ingredients for a tasty salad…

More photos of our garden

This article originally appeared in ‘Local Food – How To Make It Happen In Your Community’ edited by Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins (Transition Books)

Graham Burnett, 2009