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!

Follow me on Instagram @oliveonblonde

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;

Sunshine

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.

Recycled Ladder Shelf

My love of all things old continues, my latest obsession being vintage wooden ladders! I find old, worn, loved-up ladders so charming – they transport me to a realm of nostalgia in the same way that teapots do. When I look at them I think about all the excited feet that could have stood on them before… young couples painting their first home together, an excited daddy-to-be preparing a nursery or the father that is always there to help out his kids (now adults) with any renovations. Maybe this pregnancy is making me more emotional than I first thought but either way it is a symbol that warms the cockles of me heart and I wanted to use a ladder in my home. All the better that it is an old unloved material that completely cancels out the need to chop down a new tree. Check vintage stores, gumtree, Ebay, opshops, the local tip and roadside collections. And remember… the more paint stains the better!

What You’ll Need

  • An old ladder
  • Spirit level
  • Brackets – the amount will depend on the ladder size. For one this size I used two along the bottom and one to stabilise at the top.
  • Wall plugs
  • Screws
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Pencil
  • Extra pair of hands is useful in this project… maybe two if you have a longer ladder!

Method

1)   After you have found your ladder you need to pick the perfect spot for it!

2)   If your ladder is a step ladder then you will need to take the two rails apart. Once apart choose which part of the ladder you will use… you may even want to use both!

3)   Hold your ladder up against the wall to measure whereabouts you want your shelf.

4)   Measure with spirit level to ensure the ladder is level.

5)   Borrow the spare set of hands and slide the brackets into place (where they will need to be to hold the ladder up) behind the ladder and quickly pencil in the holes. You want the brackets to be as hidden as possible which means the outside/underside of your ladder will sit on the bracket like a shelf, rather than being supported like a perch. If that doesn’t make sense just look at the third picture in the below sequence.

6)   Drill the holes into the walls. Hammer  in the wall plugs and then screw in your brackets.

7)   Once your brackets are drilled in, rest your ladder upon them. Put a bracket on the top of your ladder to secure and stabilize it and repeat the bracket drilling process.

8)   Once all your brackets are drilled in and your ladder feels securely ‘wedged’ you will need to screw the brackets into the ladder. Very gently drill screws into the ladder… you must be careful so as not to split the ladder.

9)   The amount of brackets you need and the way in which you organise them will vary depending on what size and shape ladder you find. Just make sure it is secure and supported. Then, the fun bit…

10)   Time to decorate! I had so much fun choosing what goodies to put on my ladder. Bobert (my leaf-tailed Gekko made from scrap metal) has pride of place and every time I look over at him walking up his little hill it makes me smile. Then I have the champagne glasses that Mark and I left our wedding venue still holding (completely accidental theft, I promise!) and I filled them with pebbles and shells that I collected the day after I met him. It is so lovely to be able to honor those little things that make your heart sing every time you look at them!

And here it is from one more angle… just because pride is bursting out my eyes like little sunbeams…

 

If you like this sort of quirky shelving you may also like my DIY Tutorial for “Book Shelves” wink wink. See that here.

I will leave you with this beautiful quote about… what else?… ladders!

One only gets to the top rung of the ladder by steadily climbing up one at a time, and suddenly all sorts of powers, all sorts of abilities which you thought never belonged to you — suddenly become within your own possibility and you think, “Well, I’ll have a go, too.”

Margaret Thatcher

How To Make “Book Shelves”

Honestly, is there anything more beautiful than an old, tattered book? I often lose hours in vintage stores; running my finger along the frayed cloth spines, peeking inside the cover to try find a bygone message filled with love or the occasional long-lost bookmark.

With this fascination in mind, it is no surprise that I have always loved using books around my home as whimsical design features. So as soon as I spied Pinterest pictures (follow me here) using books themselves as book shelves (Say whaaaat?!)  I was hooked. Not only that but I had the perfectly drab wall just screaming for some upcycled decoration!

What You’ll Need

  • Old Books (1 book = 1 shelf)
  • 3 brackets per book – 2 for the base, 1 for the top (Aim for a bracket length that is about half the width of the book so that it will be stable and load-bearing. I am sure if you want a smaller bracket for aesthetic reasons you could manage it. In retrospect the brackets I used would be smaller… these are slightly too prominent).
  • Screws
  • Wall plugs
  • Drill
  • Hammer
  • Pencil
  • Spirit Level
  • If you have a spare set of hands/muscles it will make this project a hell of a lot easier!

Method

First part is the best bit. You need to get yourself to a vintage store and find yourselves some books. Take into account the size, the spine, how the combination looks together and the book subject. I found the perfect little green book but then realised it was a book about war weapons – not a subject I really want in my house. I wanted books that reflected interests and personalities in my life. I ended up with a rare book from 1930 about sheep (my parents have 21 pet sheep), The Statutes of Western Australia (where I live) and The Generous Earth (about the beauty of living simply). Score!

Old books are so undervalued!

The thing I love the most about this method of fixing the books to the wall is that you don’t ruin the books! If you ever want to you can take your ‘shelf’ out of the brackets and have a flick through before putting it back. Even though I have seen super cool designs using books as the material I just feel wrong about damaging an old book. They are noble beasts… we must love them.

1).   Measure whereabouts you want the books on your wall and hold the base brackets underneath the book in a way that will support them. Mark a pencil line along the bottom of the book.

2).   Measure that the brackets are flat and level with your spirit level

3).   Mark the bracket holes where you will need to drill with a pencil.

4).   Line your book up with the pencil line and then draw a line along the top of the book so that you can see how thick  it is. Put your top bracket on top of the book and make sure it is completely vertical (with your spirit level). Mark the holes where you are going to drill.

5).   Shove lots of material into your ears and drill holes into the wall.  Hammer wall plugs into the wall.

6).   Screw your brackets into the wall.

7).   Slide your books into place and decorate the hell out of them with all your most loved knick knacks. I filled mine with some vintage bottles that were found in the ocean, my collection of owls (the big guy was my Grandpa’s, is 60 years old and his name is Costa) and my rolled magazine plant in an upcycled old vase (tutorial here).

So I wish you luck in your shelving!!! I will leave you with a beautiful passage that is at the beginning of what is now my top shelf. I think it is a gorgeous sentiment and I love that I have such a sweet message hidden away in my wall fittings!