Planning a kitchen garden

We certainly live in times where the perception is to achieve something you have to be moving at a furious pace; report writing, renovating and making sure you respond to friends’ Facebook comments within 15 seconds.  Even relaxation time has to be booked in and analysed: “is this yoga class really giving me spiritual enlightenment?”.

1) Observation

Anyway, give yourself an afternoon off on the next sunny day and get into that comfy chair to simply pay attention to what’s happening in your garden.

In only a few minutes, birds will start to ignore you and you can begin to note the following:

Which way is north, east, south and west?   (Free compass apps are available on most smart phones)

Where are the sunny and shady parts of the garden?

Note any breezes and the direction they’re coming from.  (You can also check for wind damaged trees e.g. missing foliage from strong/salty winds)

Bugs, bees, birds and butterflies.

Where are the eyesores or ugly views?

Take a wander and note dry or wet patches of soil.

Look for trees that may cast a shadow over areas or offer competition for water a nutrients.

Take note of the slope of the ground and where this will direct water during heavy rain.

Pay attention to the types of weeds that have grown over winter.  Tough, woody weeds usually mean poor soil.  Lush green leaves (that you’d probably eat if someone told you it was okay) are signs of fertile soil.

2) Elements

This is the fun bit and often where people start without the knowledge gained in step 1 – Observation.  Think about what you’d like; raised garden beds, a big patch for potatoes/pumpkins, compost heap, worm farm, fruit trees, chook house, asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries or other dedicated perennial bed/s, bee hives, herb patch, sensory garden, edible maze, berries, water tank, potting shed, green house – and the list goes on!  REALLY clever design is where you start to help these elements work together.  For example, including your chook run amongst your fruit trees fertilises the trees, minimises pests and provides shade for the chooks.  Your pumpkin patch may be down hill from your compost heap so its receives lots of nutrient rich run-off during wet weather.  Your potting area may look out over the rest of the yard or kids play area so you can safely garden while still keeping an eye on everything!

3) Right thing in the right place

This is where we use a Permaculture design technique called Zoning.  Basically it means thinking about how often you’ll use the above elements in your day to day living and placing them accordingly.  We start with Zone 1.  This is stuff you access every day such as herbs, picking greens such as lettuce and annual veggies.  You know, stuff you pick and cook or eat straight away.   If you’ve included a chook house, you’ll want part of your zone 1 to include a trip to fetch the eggs and check on your hen’s water and food.  You can see how this zoning exercise will influence your chook house design as wallowing through a muddy chook run to get eggs can soon lose its novelty!  Depending on your needs a clothes line may be a requirement in Zone 1 if you have a big (or young) family and need to hang washing daily.  Again your keen powers of observation from step 1 will let you know which north facing position will allow you to dry your clothes in the sun throughout the year.  I also have my worm farm in Zone 1 as it means food scraps are disposed with as conveniently as just throwing them in the bin.

Slightly less convenient is Zone 2 where you may include fruit trees, berry vines, a potting shed or greenhouse.  Other vegetable beds such as carrots, beetroot that need less TLC than heavy feeding lettuce etc. can be located in Zone 2. In an urban house block, you may have no further need any further zones and indeed a small courtyard or balcony will mean you only need Zone 1!

When designing larger properties the same logic follows with Zone 3 and 4 used for grazing, managed forests or woodlots, bees and other areas not visited every day.   Typically Zone 5 is ‘left for nature’ on large acreage although in an urban setting I often think of the rural land outside the suburbs as my Zone 5.

This idea of Zoning can be used in any from of design when aiming for maximum efficiency.  You can use it to design an office building, a house, a kitchen, and life in general!

4) Work to a timeline 

This is a really valuable step as it acknowledges that creating a kitchen garden isn’t like building a swimming pool, where you have a definite start and finish date.  As food gardeners we really do follow the seasons and that means for example that the time for planting bare root fruit trees has really passed.  Simply note it as a job to do in June/July next year and start working on the soil preparation now.  However now may be the best time to install a greenhouse as it will allow you to establish summer seedlings.  Chickens are often available at point-of-lay currently, so a chook house is another great spring activity.

If you prefer to plan on a laptop rather than paper check out here for a free 30 day trial of a garden planner…although I prefer to work on paper.

Approaching a kitchen garden design needn’t feel like project management.  However taking the time to think things through means you’re less likely to waste time and money, while increasing your chances of having an enormous backyard harvest!