Planning A Sustainable Garden (for dummies)

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.

Hear, hear Lao Tzu! Up until a few months ago I had been blankly staring at my backyard with my feet firmly planted… stubbornly refusing to take that first step. I would then retire into my lounge, read a bit more about permaculture, then return to the garden to stare at it a bit longer. This had been going on for 3 years! But at 5 months pregnant I got a serious bee in my bonnet and decided that enough was enough – I needed to just jump in. But wouldn’t you be stumped too? Look at the space I had to contend with!…

My dad once described it as a “desolate and despairing garden”. He was then integral in getting it started on its way to productive, zen zone. Now that I have slapped that first splodge of colour onto the canvas all the other strokes are just flowing which is why I decided to write this post. It is for all those out there, like me, who have been rendered useless by the endless possibilities of your patch of paradise. Here is my completely amateur advice on how to avoid getting bogged down and get started on planning your sustainable garden!

Step 1 – Be informed but don’t go overboard!

This is where I fell down. Determined to be a prodigious green thumb I set about reading every single book I could get my hands on about sustainable gardening. I studied up on different styles of gardening, growing in plots, hydroponics, crop rotation and companion planting. I took OCD style notes and every time I came across a new term I would note it down and then go look for information on that particular technique. It was tiring and endless and from it I learnt two things;

  1. You will never know everything there is to know about gardening. No one will. And those that think they do would probably have very heated debates with other green gurus. This leads me to my next point…
  2. There are a hundred different opinions on how best to create a sustainable garden and a lot of them clash!!!

So with those two bits of information in your hot little hands it is time for step 2.

Step 2 – Pick Your Gardening Style and Run With It!

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To avoid getting completely flummoxed by the endless possibilities and theories just pick a style and stick to it. From very early on I had decided on some set principles for my garden. Some things you may want to consider when setting your own rules are;

  • What do you want to use your garden for? For example do you want room to relax out there or is it primarily a productive space? Do you want a space for kids to run in? Do you want a meandering garden path? Dream big but be realistic.
  • Are you going to commit to a chemical-free garden?
  • Do you want your area to be food producing or decorative or a mix of the two?
  • Do you want your garden to be water wise? This may mean turfing the turf and choosing particular plants (see next point).
  • What sort of plants do you want? This will really be governed by your location. If you live (like I do) in a very hot climate you may want to look into drought resistant plants. I live coastally so they also need to be hardy little suckers. I also want them to be bird and bug attracting which means I lean towards natives.

Once I had figured out the ‘premise’ of my yard it was a lot easier to step forward. I decided on a very productive space where most of the plants have a purpose be they edible or medicinal. I want lots of bird and bee attracting natives. I do not want to use chemicals and I would like it to be water wise… this means saying goodbye to our massive patch of lawn.

I also picked out some ‘heroes’. These were gardeners that gave advice that resonated with me and seemed practical. If I needed information I would then Google them. For the record my personal heroes are Don Burke and Josh Byrne.

Step 3 –Know Your Site…

How do you know how much paint you are going to need if you don’t know the size of the canvas? There are a few basic things you need to know before you start and this is why I suggest you create a site plan.  Whether you have a patio or a large plot of land mark out the following;

  • Perimeter of your space
  • Any garden beds
  • Any large established plants/trees
  • Any structures (paving, sheds etc)
  • Fences (and get an approximate height so you can think about the shadows they cast)
  • Orientation (this is important re; sun direction)

Here is one of my original site plans:

Once you have this basic site plan you need to add the next layer of information. This is where you need to…

Step 4 – …Know the Site Basics

I have created a gardening file which is my bible. This is where I have recorded the site plan and all these other details. I recommend starting one. Things to add to it are;


These guys love the sun!

What is the suns path across your garden?  Some people (like my husband) will know the path the sun follows just based on the orientation of the garden however it always seems to boggle me. If you can’t figure out just by N-S-E-W logic be archaic like me and go into your yard every few hours and note where the sun is at that time (on your site map).

Another sneaky trick I used (so I could get an idea of how the sun behaves in different seasons) was using Near Map. This is like Google Maps with the added advantage of you being able to look back at the site over different points of time. I looked back over the seasons and good see that a garden bed of ours that gets lots of sun in summer gets absolutely zilch in winter. This greatly affected what plants we choose for this location.

Which areas get morning sun and which bear the brunt of the afternoon sun? In Perth (where the summers are hot) veggie patches loooove morning sun and hate the afternoon.

Soil Type

There are three main soil types – clay, loam and sand. We all want Loam Soil to pick us to be on their team but this is rare. Here is a good guide from my mate Don Burke on testing your soil type. Once you know your soil you will know exactly what you need to do to ‘work it up’ – i.e. make it nice and hospitable for the plants you want.

A lot of people fall for the ‘easy’ option of just buying soil for their yard. It was the number one suggestion I was given by family, friends and (unsurprisingly) landscape supply companies.  It is important to note is that  getting nice soil in Australia is extremely hard – even those that claim “organic premium soil”. Most soils sold are alluvial silts which have been mined from riverbeds. Not only is this damaging to the river systems but the materials don’t work well. Don Burke says (in his awesome book Organic: Don Burke’s Guide to Growing Organic Food);

“Don’t be fooled… Your own soil is good, It is the best soil that you can ever get. Work that soil up with compost, manures, gypsum etc and it will be perfect. So many people said their soil is no good…. Never ever let any of your soil leave your property. Is is pure gold.”

It was this advice that made me persevere with my sandy sandy soil and now – after many tonnes of cow and sheep manure – I have beautiful soil to plant in. It is amazing how excited one can be from dirt when you pour the amount of love into it that we have.

Soil Acidity

Knowing your soil acidity is really important! It sounds like you need a science degree to do this but you do not. Go to your local gardening/home improvements store and get a tester (they range from $10 – $30). Here’s some great information about what to do once you know your soil acidity level.

I live coastally so I have very sandy soil which calls for lots of manure and compost to be added. Here is where I would suggest also talking to a local nursery and asking what type of manure you need. I was offered a few free trailer loads of horse manure which I was a few seconds away from snapping up. After a quick chat to my new best friend at the nursery he told me that horse manure would actually make my soil even more alkaline and completely ruin my chances for growing vegetables successfully. I specifically needed cow/sheep manure. Use the local knowledge available to you!!!

Climate Zone

When you are purchasing seeds/seedlings you will also be told what Climate Zones they are appropriate for e.g. temperate, tropical. Also if you are like me and are reading millions of books and choosing your plants then you will need to know this as it will (sadly) eliminate some choices. I know that I can’t grow apples because I don’t like in an area that gets frost! Boo. Find out your zone here.

Step 5 – Get Planning

Our little herb garden!

So. Hopefully that gives you a good idea on what you need to consider before you get started. Now it’s time for a bit of research so you can get together a plan (which will include a budget) for your yard.

An example of the research you can do: when choosing plants you should now have an idea of what you want i.e. I need a tree here for shade, I need a bush here for hedging. Investigate plants that tick all your boxes via your local nurseries and websites. A great tool for people in Perth is the Water Corporations database of WaterWise plants. I couldn’t recommend it more – see here.  Below is a peek at our WaterWise native trees (Golden Peppermints and Kings Park Callistemons). Since planting them I’ve noticed so many different birds that we hadn’t seen before  in our garden. Goal 1 – achieved!

I really hope that the post was helpful for those that were like me and got lost in all the choices. I just wanted to highlight the need-to-know information and really get across that the best thing you can do is get started. when I get a moment next I will go for a little guided tour through our budding garden. It isn’t pretty yet… but we have got started and that is the main thing.

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