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Up-gardening

I don’t know why I didn’t expect that protecting and cultivating the wildlife would lead, eventually, to lots of wildlife. Duh! For years we planted lilly pillies for the possums and native figs for the parrots, left hollow trees standing as nesting places for eagles, nursed and released orphanned wallabies. For years it seemed to make no difference. Then, all of a sudden, populations reached a point where a doubling of numbers meant not just an extra one or two, but an extra 1,000.

I tried swearing and throwing things, slingshots and foul tasting things, scarecrows and festooning my garden with bottle tops and plastic bags till it looked like a preschool Christmas tree. But my great, sprawling, rampling garden wasn’t going to survive. I was dragged kicking and screaming by marauding wildlife to my current garden design – a series of very tiny, very intensive, very productive, very heavily fenced areas. But in retrospect it has been a change for the better.

I had always been interested in minimum work gardening. Or rather, gardens that produce more kilojoules and more enjoyment than they consume, preferably lots more. I can’t say that I came willingly to the point of view – it took about ten years of coming to terms with it – but I now think up-gardening is a good way to get there.

There are three principles that are the key to producing lots of food out of a very small area.

First one is: don’t underestimate the quantities of compost, worm castings and mulch needed to keep taking large harvests out of a small area, or the difference that enough nutrients make.   Just my shadehouse alone uses plenty, and if I want to keep my plants well nourished enough to stay healthy, I need to top up the nutrient levels in the fenced areas with every planting. Finding good local sources of easy-to-get organic matter, and figuring out methods of converting it into compost that are so easy you won’t skimp, are the most productive bits of garden work you will ever do!

Second one is: plant intensively in time as well as space. If you can halve the amount of time a vegetable spends in the garden, it is the same as doubling the space. Most things will happily spend the first half of their life in a pot, getting to 15 cm or more before they will really appreciate being planted out. In fact they often do better for being kept out of pests’ way and given their own private water and food supply. A capsicum seedling, for example, will take a good six weeks to get too big for a 12 cm pot, and only another 6 weeks after that to bear.

I germinate seeds in a sandy, well-drained, seed germinating mixture. As soon as the seedlings are up and have their first pair of leaves, I transplant the strongest into individual pots in a very rich mixture of compost and worm castings, with a little bit of river sand for drainage. They stay in the nursery in a protected area that gets nice morning sun, where I can ration out water (and not forget to water them), for over a month until they are ready to go out into the garden.

On planting days I can select what I want to plant out. I can avoid wasting space on duds or things I already have too many of. I can plant each seedling out into a thick bed of mulch so worms and soil organisms are protected and water is conserved. I can place each plant individually to give it the right amount of space, the right neighbours, the right aspect. I can keep the garden very full, all the time, with things that are all bearing or within a few weeks of it.

Third one is: With a little bit of attention to solar aspect, you can easily double your garden area, just by extending your garden up. There is a lot of vertical space available, and it can be staggeringly productive. So long as you have very rich soil (see number one), and you are planting into a thick bed of mulch to conserve water (see number two), the only other thing plants need is light.

And in Australia, the light is always to the north. Always. On a winter morning it is to the northeast and on a winter afternoon it is to the northwest. On a summer morning it is to the east-nor-east and on a summer afternoon it is to the west-nor-west. Always to the north, and once you start taking notice, surprisingly low in the north.

This means that snake beans can grow as high as they like on the southern side of a bed without casting any shade, ever, on the more vertically challenged capsicums and eggplants in front of them, or the strawberries and carrots in front of them. Fences make great trellises for beans (french, snake, madagascar, kidney, and lima), peas, (telephone, snow, and sweet) cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes, squash, and ceylon spinach, adding metres of space.  A short plant can be virtually underneath a tall plant, but so long as it is on the northern side, it will get its share of light.

Now I just have to figure out how to stop the wallabies coming through the house!