My Suburban Food Forest

Part 1 – An Overview

By Megan Cassidy

The second lockdown in Melbourne in 2020 was a difficult experience for myself, and pretty much everyone else in the city. It was a different, novel, harsh, new reality, with so many limitations, and new rules all the time. It was a time of great anxiety and stress.

One thing that helped me enormously during lockdown though, was my garden. In particular, the 10 year old food forest in my front yard. It has been a source of joy, distraction, exercise, and abundant nature to surround myself with.

It has taken me a while to get to this point though, and I’d like to share my story with you here, so that perhaps you can think differently about your front yard, and the amount of food it is possible to grow on a suburban block.  

Starting Out

I completed a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) in 2011 and have slowly been taking over every available bit of earth to grow food for my family and neighbours ever since.  Our 580sqm suburban block of land in Greensborough, Melbourne, has a modest 3 bedroom 1960s house on it, and about 200 sqm of space for growing food.  It is a mix of annuals, perennials and trees, with about 120+ different plant varieties, at last count. Roughly two thirds of the varieties are edible. 

My shift towards sustainability at home actually started with the surprise ending of our big liquid amber tree in the front yard (it’s to the right of the sign).  It seemed healthy, but one day it just fell over (thankfully towards the road and not the house).  It was a shock at first, but I soon realised it was a big opportunity to completely reinvent our front yard. 

In the two summers since we’d moved in, it had been dominated by a brown, dead ‘lawn’, with dead dirt underneath that was hydrophobic, clay-dominant, and only showing 1cm or so of topsoil.  This, I thought, was something I could fix, and since there weren’t many spots for veggie beds out the back, why not use the front?

How it evolved

First, we tried digging up the grass, and putting new soil down.  This worked ok, but it wasn’t a huge success in terms of the produce we were able to grow.  After doing my PDC, we put down no-dig-beds, and this was very successful in creating more friable and alive soil (as opposed to dead dirt), and we were able to grow more produce than before.  Each season we expanded the beds, planted fruit trees, and observed closely as things grew and died. 

We brought our chickens from the back yard out to the front.  They ate all the leaves off my apricot tree and killed it – I wasn’t happy!  We upgraded their coop and the fencing to make it permanent, and protected the trees so they could get big enough.  The topsoil grew to 15-25cm deep and the microclimate changed – under our trees on the hottest days we’ve had, it was full 5-10 degrees cooler.  We’ve noticed that our house doesn’t need as much cooling with the extra shading it receives now. The soil also absorbs all the rain that falls on it now, instead of it running off.

The food forest concept is one that appealed to me because it becomes somewhat self-sustaining after reaching maturity at 10 years or so (which is this year in fact).  It also means you can pack a lot into a small space through the techniques of stacking in space (there’s 7 ‘levels’ to a food forest from root plants to upper canopy and climbers), and in time (choosing your plants carefully so that you have different fruits and vegetables maturing at different times of the year).

Collecting data

About 2 years ago, I decided to record all the produce I harvested from my garden, so I could have a good idea of its productivity, and hard data on what works best in our particular situation and climate.  It also allows me to understand when things ripen, so I can plant them at the appropriate time next year. 

Since then, I have been (almost obsessively, it must be admitted) harvesting, counting and weighing almost everything I’ve picked.  So, I can tell you that from December 2019 to March 2021 (15 months), I picked over 312kg, or nearly 20,000 items, that would be worth around $5000 in an organic produce store.  In each season, we have around 40 varieties or edible plants available for our use.  Highlights from this spring/summer season of 2020/21 include:

  • 11kg of lemons (still heaps I haven’t picked yet this season),
  • 16.5kg of zucchini (green and yellow),
  • 16kg of cherry tomatoes (4 varieties),
  • 1.75kg of strawberries,
  • 358 raspberries,
  • 425 blueberries,
  • 13kg of blackberries (thornless, non-spreading variety),
  • 69 passionfruit, and
  • 5.5kg plums.

Other benefits

What my garden has meant to me in terms of my mental health through the last year, however, cannot be quantified.  It became my place to retreat to when I needed a moment away from the family. It was also a reminder that life goes on, and having a source of beauty and wonder was invaluable for my whole family. 

My almost daily harvesting walk around all the different beds forced me to observe and focus on the needs of beings other than myself.  Even when I didn’t feel like engaging with my garden, its needs required that I did, dragging me out of my funk and giving me purpose.  It was a comfort to me, that if things got really bad, I knew we wouldn’t starve. 

I shared excess with my neighbours, placing greens, beans and berries on property boundaries and then retreating to message them so they’d collect it.  I preserved and froze the rest. 

I realise now, just how important it was to have had these daily tasks to do, to get through each day and out the other side of lockdown.  I also value how many new skills and pieces of knowledge I accumulated through this experience, that will help me and my kids in the future.  There was so much about lockdown that was challenging and overwhelming, and there were many times that I found it very difficult to put energy into my garden.  But I did, and our harvest has been bountiful, to say the least.

The wisdom of plants

Further, over the summer I read a few books that have changed how I engage with my plants even more.  I am now even more grateful to them for their gifts of energy, in the form of food, and I tell them so.  My passionfruit vines in particular, seem to respond well to this attention.  Instead of picking the fruit, I hold it gently and ask “is this one ready yet?”  If it is, it just drops off in my hand, if it isn’t, it will not drop, and I leave it and come back the next day to ask again.  This experience happened dozens of times, and each time I quietly thank the vine.

I can’t really describe the sense of connection that I get from this interaction.  I feel like I am truly part of nature and listening to it deeply.  Part of me is hesitant to share this story, because I know the reaction I get from my kids and husband when I relate it to them. 

But I’ve decided that I want to challenge the idea that plants have nothing to say to us.   I feel that we are perhaps ignoring their messages because they don’t communicate in the same way as us.  If we listen, we might find they have a lot to tell and teach us.  Make of it what you will, but there is a lot of studies out there that prove plants respond to encouragement vs. derogatory comments, if you want to read up on it.

What I’ve learned

What I have come to realise (and to some this may sound obvious), is that my garden will continue to evolve, challenge and provide opportunities for me to grow, as it too rises to meet the challenges of extreme weather events and our changing climate.  If we help each other by noticing what’s going on for the other, providing support, shelter and sustenance to each other, and caring for one another, we will be ok.

If you want to experience this connection too, you can.  Start with whatever space you have available to you.  If you are in a flat, get some indoor plants in pots.  They will improve your indoor air quality, your mood, and give you a sense of connection to nature.  If you have some outdoor space, don’t put down fake grass and concrete to avoid maintenance issues.   You will still have issues (usually with excess water run-off during flooding events and excess heat storage during summer), and you get no real benefits from these interventions. 

If you want to look at growing your own food, there are so many resources out there for you.  Start now, before another disaster happens.  Choose plants.  Respect them, and they will provide for you.

Lockdown had many downsides, but this feeling of belonging and connectedness to my little patch of Earth is not something that I would give up.  I hope you find your connection to nature too, in whatever form it takes, and wish you well on your journey.  🙂

This is Part 1 of a series of posts about my garden.  Later posts will explore more details of the food forest, and will dive into the data that I have collected. 

If you would like to continue reading the journey, Part 2: 3 key observations to make before you start your food forest is now available.