Can you be self-sufficient from the average-sized suburban garden? I don’t know, but the owner of this one is definitely trying – and she has such an awesome garden that I think half of you will be itching to plant sweet potatoes or peaches this weekend.
I was introduced to home owner Kate Reading by my friend Heather Robbins, whose name you might recognise from lots of the photography you see on House Nerd. “You have to see Kate’s garden!” Heather said to me. “In two years she has turned this ordinary suburban front garden into this permaculture garden with all kinds of plants and trees where you can eat almost EVERYTHING in it and she designed it so that it is basically its own ecosystem and it keeps sustaining itself. It is amazing.”
I couldn’t describe it any better than that. Kate’s garden is something special. It gives her and her family - husband Nick and three daughters Eva, 5, Addie, 3, and Maeve, 21 months - loads of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs - and Kate started her garden only two years ago.
AND it is surprisingly low-maintenance - because with three little girls under five, time to garden is not easy to come by, says Kate.
“An edible garden doesn’t have to be high-maintenance, like a lot of people think,” she reveals. “I reckon the front yard takes less work now than before when it was a lawn, but now we get a lot more out of it. I’m definitely not out there every day slaving away! I love having edible plants in the garden. To me, if you’ve got an outdoor space you may as well make the most of it.”
Kate and her husband bought their 90s-built single level brick Perth house three years ago. The garden, then, was nothing special. “It was a very 90s-style garden,” remembers Kate. “There was a lawn that never really looked good and five palm trees and four conifers which we removed.”
Now not a square metre of the block is wasted when it can be used for growing food. The front garden is certainly the greenest on the street – and the most overgrown-looking, but in a lush, jungle-like way, with tendrils, vines and branches laden with fruits tumbling over each other. “I love messy gardens,” says Kate. “I know people think I am that crazy hippie in the neighbourhood!”
Aside from a beautiful Chinese tallow in the front garden that was there when Kate and Nick moved in, almost everything in the garden has been planted by Kate. “All the plants in here have a purpose – they’re either medicinal, edible or they attract the birds and bees,” says Kate, who doesn’t plant formal vegetable gardens, generally preferring vegies to self-seed where they like. Amongst potatoes, kale, kumquats (toddler Maeve’s favourites) pepinos, passionfruit, tansy, grape vines, lemon balm, tamarillo, tomatoes, spinach and herbs of all kinds there are trees like apple, almond, pomegranate, orange, mandarin, crabapple, olive, chestnuts, pawpaw, lemon, and more exotic cookery plants like moringa and banna.
There are delicious, strange things to eat too – such as a chocolate pudding fruit tree (the fruits of which contain four times as much vitamin C as oranges, and can be used as a chocolate substitute in cakes and milkshakes) a jujube tree (“Have you ever tried a jujube?” Kate asks me. “Oh my god, you have to, they’re a kind of Chinese date and they are amazing”) and an icecream bean tree. “The icecream bean tree grows these seed pods and around the seeds is this white fluffy flesh. It tastes just like vanilla icecream. My three girls love them.”
This is one lady who really knows her stuff when it comes to growing edibles. Did you know that you can eat dandelions – and they’re great for you? While I spent the weekend before yanking them out of my yard, Kate lets them grow freely in her yard. “Apparently, apart from parsley, dandelions are the most nutritious vegetable ever tested by the US Department of Agriculture, according to The Weed Forager's Handbook,” says Kate. “How cool is that? Whenever the girls and I go walking and come across the dandelion puff balls, we collect them and blow the seeds into our garden to sprout there! Free greens!”
As I am chatting to her, two of her little girls examine the fruits of a gooseberry tree and try to pluck some off. “No no no, remember you have to wait until they’re crispy,” Kate tells them. “My girls go mental over the gooseberries,” she says to me. The things in Kate’s garden – and there are too many to name! - are not always the kinds of trees you find readily at Bunnings, so Kate gets a lot of her ‘weirder’ edibles from Gumtree and Tass1 Trees.
In Kate’s garden the edibles self-seed and sprout where they like – a system that saves this busy mum time, money and effort. “With a permaculture system, you’re going to rely on a self-perpetuating garden system,” says Kate. “You’re not spending time putting annuals in each year. For example, we planted kale seeds, and the kale lasts for years. I let my lettuces go to seed; Jerusalem artichokes re-sprout. Things like that are what I try to grow. I’ve done nothing except improve the soil. I don’t water more than twice a week.”
Kate has always had a passion for the outdoors, sustainable living and water-wise gardening. She worked for the Department of Environment and Conservation and studied Horticultural Management and Permaculture. “If I’m going to put effort into something, I want to get something out of it,” she tells me, over delicious homemade lemonade. “What I love about permaculture is that it’s relatively low effort but for a very good yield. It is different to your normal vegie patch. You try to plan it so that problems are negated before you start. There’s a famous quote about permaculture that says, “If you’ve got a snail problem, you’ve got a duck deficiency.” So eventually the garden becomes its own ecosystem. You’re setting it up to work for itself. You really get something out of it.”
The main trick for produce success, it seems, is keeping the soil high in nitrogen. “You really have to keep the microorganisms and bacteria in the soil,” says Kate. “Before we began planting we added lots and lots of Bentonite clay, which is a by-product of mining that you can get at garden centres – although not Bunnings. Bentonite clay is amazing for our soil. We have sand on our block so what we need to do is build up the clay content in the soil. We dig it in to about 30cm and then add compost and fertilisers. We added a lot of seaweed extract. Anything from the sea will give your soil a lot of trace elements you can’t get from the land.”
Kate also gets help with keeping the soil fertilised and healthy from her clan of chickens. They are adorable. I loved having pet chickens – I grew up with them as a kid and it was my job to look after them until I left home. We’d have up to a dozen at a time. Every day I’d let them out for a scratch in the garden and then in the evenings I’d call them back into the cage for their dinner and they’d come running (running chickens are hilarious). I have always thought there is something so restful about watching content chickens scratching about. “The kids love them,” says Kate of their friendly chickens, who can be glimpsed from inside the house. “They peer through the windows and peck on the glass when they see us walk past. They are just so nice to watch.”
I notice a pretty, leafy vine that edges the garden pathways of Kate’s house – it’s sweet potato. And thanks to Kate, I now have sweet potatoes growing freely through my garden, too. “Oh my god, you HAVE to grow sweet potatoes,” she cries, handing me some pieces of plant. “All you need are cuttings. Stick them in the ground and you seriously don’t have to do anything, and you just dig up the sweet potatoes as you need them.” I also stuck a few sweet potatoes from Woolies in the ground and they have taken off, creating a very pretty (and useful) lush groundcover! “Sweet potatoes are really hardy and will grow just about anywhere!” says Kate.
So, Kate’s overall advice for those who also want to make their gardens give back to them? “There is a Chinese proverb that says a good time to plant a tree is today, but the best time is yesterday,” she laughs. “Just start as soon as you can.” Maya x