Inner city productivity

Lucas, Libertas Gardens

In late 2011, we referred new house owners (and young parents of 3 children) Tineke and Hamish to Lucas from Libertas Gardens. They had recently taken possession of a 900m2 property in inner Melbourne, with a house that was in need of a substantial renovation and garden calling out for a full makeover.

A couple of weeks ago we caught up with Lucas and the owners to check out their work. We were blown away. So we asked Lucas to talk us through the process of designing and installing the garden and how it was achieved. We hope this will provide some inspiration for anyone looking to become more self sufficient while living a busy city lifestyle.

From Lucas, Libertas Gardens

At first look, the task of designing and building their dream outdoor space seemed monumental. Like most neglected blocks, theirs was a thicket of self-invited trees, very old and tired ornamental plants and lots of ‘weeds’.

The brief was clear and exciting. The garden was to be visually striking, highly productive, extremely child-friendly and relatively easy to maintain. It fitted the exact description of a dream project for me. They wanted it all: fruit trees, veggie patches, chickens, aquaponics, a herb garden, a large lawn space and entertainment area, play space for the kids, artworks, water tanks and a swimming pool. Within just a few months of exchange and brainstorming, a plan had emerged. We devised a construction timeline that would tie in smoothly with the house renovation.

The blank canvas in February 2012

The ground was broken in February of 2012, when arborists from Hardwood Tree Services arrived with their heavy machinery for a clean-up day. The countless unwanted shrubs and small scraggly trees were cut, their stumps ground and the wood and leaves mulched and left to compost. A good garden begins with a good compost, and this garden had a great head-start – the rich fertility of the garden’s original plants would not be lost, simply re-distributed. A few larger trees were kept, their shade desirable for a bit longer, but they were to be removed in due time to make space for edible trees.

Next, as part of the renovation process, some heavy landscaping took place – with soil-levelling and an old shed being removed. Water tanks were put in position under the deck, a winding path was built and a driveway poured. Bare-rooted fruit trees must be planted in winter, so after deep soil conditioning with compost and manure, our first seven stone fruits were planted, with only weeks to spare before spring. As is often the case, they were in everyone's way for the months of construction, but we couldn't bare waiting a whole year before planting them, and before the first fruits a year hence. So, we cordoned them off, and everyone onsite received clear instructions NOT TO MESS WITH THE TREES. It is surprising how many people on a building site do not realise how precious fruit trees are, and I couldn’t stress enough how important it is to make their value known to anyone who works on your property.


An early concept of the front yard

One of our biggest challenges was that most of the existing soil was very poor. Rubbish, rubble, clay and the occasional block of concrete or large chunk of bluestone made the work all the more difficult. All the veggie gardens onsite were raised well above ground, with a membrane keeping the soils from mixing. The fruit tree areas were also excavated prior to planting, and a few loads of soil taken away to be replaced by clean soil and composts.

The bulk of the build happened in 6-12 months. After those bare rooted fruit trees came the concrete path, the driveway, the front garden beds, the steel edging, the raised garden beds, the ‘natural stone’ paving between the garden beds, the children’s playground, the herb garden, the passion-fruit wall, the lemon myrtle hedge, the lawn, the chicken coop, the inner courtyard and sculpture, the aquaponics system, the olive hedge, the columnar fruit trees, the bees and the mural. A large sculpture is soon to be created from the remnants of a tree in the front yard.

Winter pruning is the key to a summer glut

Since the main landscaping and planting was completed, regular monthly maintenance and a lot of involvement in the veggie garden from the owners has kept the garden flourishing and producing. Winter pruning is of utmost importance and the laden branches of the fruit trees bear testament to our good work. The key to success here has been the continuous involvement and fine-tuning of the garden by its owners. They are truly the makers of this garden; my job as a designer and landscaper has been to guide and facilitate their vision.

The garden’s key elements:

The Veggie Patches

The early garden, late 2012

The mature garden, late 2017

The veggie patches are custom built out of coreten steel and feature growing trellises built by a local steel artist named Damian, AKA the Tin-Man. The soil profile was designed to allow the perfect balance between drainage and moisture retention. Hamish and Tineke have been very diligent with their crop rotation, and a generous fertilising regime has ensured that the soil maintains its fertility from year to year.

In-between the garden beds, natural stone paving with a variety of creeping plants provide a playful, cool and permeable surface to walk on. Surrounding the area where these patches are located in the front garden, perennial flower beds and small fruit trees provide habitat, as well as extra space for veggies and the more invasive plants like pumpkins, sunflowers and potatoes.

The vertical space provided by the trellises and 600mm soil depth of the veggie patches, means that all the produce grows more efficiently. The result is that less than 10 square meters of space provides most of the veggies the family needs – during the busiest times of year, it’s capable of producing all of their veggies.

Habitat, Pests and Sustainability

Bees hive shaded from the afternoon sun, near the veggies for pollination

Native flowers feed the winged inhabitants that are encouraged into the garden

The whole family enjoys nature enormously, and as such, we took great care to provide nectar and habitat to the winged inhabitants of the garden. Flowers for the insects (and bees in the hives), dense foliage for the small birds, thick mulch for the soil life, and a wide variety of plants to encourage lots of animal visitors.

Two dwarf flowering gums provide a spectacular display of blossom, the hedge of lemon myrtle is a perfect nesting habitat and of course, even though the fruit trees are netted, they do feed a few animals. All those flowering plants also contribute to the honey harvest.

A small solar powered low voltage electric fence is used at night, in a few judiciously chosen areas, to keep the possums away from the fruiting trees. Possums tend to invade gardens from one of two access points, and blocking those off can be easy and incredibly effective. I am a huge fan of this system, and have been recommending it to clients ever since. The voltage is such that the possums experience an unpleasant sensation, but it doesn’t damage them, and they very quickly learn to avoid the fences and garden entirely.

Water wise, the garden and lawn are irrigated solely with rainwater, thanks to the 50,000 litres stored in tanks under the deck. In winter, when rain supplies the bulk of the garden’s watering needs, the rainwater gets used in the house for toilets and showers. Because of the slope of the property, greywater was judged inappropriate. I only install gravity-fed greywater systems, for a litany of reasons that are best discussed another time.

Fruit trees

February 2012, before the fruit trees and natives arrived

Over 40 fruit trees are in full production on this urban block, along with about as many fruiting shrubs. This means an almost all-year-round production of varied, nutritious, delicious fruits for the keen gardeners to make best use of. Luckily, Tineke and Hamish make the best jams in the known universe, and what is not consumed fresh is preserved beautifully.

Interestingly, a few trees were planted ‘two in one hole’, so as to increase the variety of fruits and length of harvest. Like multi-grafted trees, this can lead to one side dominating the growing space and leaving the ‘weaker’ tree to languish. Keeping the trees fruiting whilst maintaining appropriate balance, shape and height requires expert pruning, which I take great pride in doing. Quite a few columnar apples and stone fruits were also planted, allowing even more varieties to share this small space. A lot of citrus trees live in pots and are very productive, and the olive hedge is reaching maturity.

An approximate list the fruiting trees and shrubs includes: 12+ olives of many varieties, 1 loquat, 4 feijoas, 1 quince, 6 citruses, 1 apricot, 1 apple, 4 peaches, 4 nectarines, 1 pomegranate, 1 fig, 4 currants, 12 blueberries, 3 grape vines, 3 passion fruit vines. However, many other fruits can also be found in Tineke and Hamish’s garden.

Today, fruit trees and natives encourage helpful wildlife into the garden and provide shade and cooler temperatures for the family

Sensory garden

An exciting element of this design was that the children's bedrooms offered windows right into the garden, in an area that receives little sun. A variety of mints, shade tolerant salvias, daphnes, gardenias, day lilies, native violets and native frangipanis bring colour, fragrance, birds and insects to this precious part of the garden.

Many of the Salvias have flowers that can be picked and suckled on, and berries, currants and a constant crop of snow peas and beans keep the young ones, and the not so young ones, grazing as they wander around the garden. Upon entry to the house, one brushes past a hedge of 8 lemon myrtles who release their beautiful scent.

The chickens

The chook house feeds under the house for the ultimate free range roaming

A few years ago, I used to be known as ‘the chicken guy’, because of the sumptuous wooden chicken coops I built from recycled timber. They use to sell at a few shops, including the St Kilda Little Veggie Patch shop. When it came to the design of Hamish and Tineke’s chicken living space, we tapped into a fantastic opportunity. The entire house is built on stilts, including a large deck. We gave the chooks access to the space underneath the house, allowing the family’s feathery dinosaur friends access to a spacious home of their own. Now, on a hot summer day, they have full access to a cool, shady maze of fresh dirt, teaming with critters and the occasional green plant... dreamy. I would estimate they have up to 500 square meters of free range fun.

In my opinion, chickens obviously need a very safe space to sleep and live, but to thrive, they really want a lot of potential to forage. It's not about the size of the yard, but the quantity of habitat for insects and worms.

Us humans need easy access to the eggs and a simple system for feeding the chooks. The coop is contiguous with the deck, which means it's only a few steps away from the kitchen, and can be accessed without getting your feet dirty.

The Aquaponics System

Fruits and flowers of the warm season crops (tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant)

Aquaponics is a system in which fish and plants are grown synergistically. The water is pumped through grow beds where vegetables benefit from the nutrients in the fish manure, while the plants simultaneously filter the fish’s water. This project was entirely Hamish's idea. In all honesty, even though I love the concept and have dabbled with it on vertical garden projects, I just could not imagine that with their busy life, these professionals and their three kids could manage such a system. Well, I was wrong. Deliciously wrong.

Granted, there have been ups and downs and a few dramas, but the system is running well now, and the fish, once mature, get smoked in a little smoker and eaten with pride. As I write, the grow bed is overflowing with watercress and leeks, and over the years I have seen it grow a wide variety of other plants. One of the reasons this system is a success, as is usually the case, is that it is well located. In this case, the fish are located under the deck, in a very cool position, where they can be fed using a chute, from a point just outside the kitchen. Easy.


Hamish and the artwall 

One of my favourite aspects of this garden is the artworks that have been included over the years. The inner courtyard, which can be seen throughout the house, features a contemporary sculpture. The bees in the front yard are guided in their flight path by a laser cut steel panel that doubles as a climbing trellis for beans and other climbing vegetables. A large mural was also commissioned to a collective of street artists, and a bland brick wall which was left from the shed removal is now bursting with colour and beauty.

The Family

So, what is your favourite thing about the garden?

Tineke: I love all the fresh produce, especially the vegetables, they are so much tastier than what we would get at the store. Making jam has been really special, it’s something I haven’t done since childhood.

Hamish: Walking through the veggie gardens in the morning on my way to work. It’s a little detour for me, but it really changes my day. It’s different every day - not just the produce, but seeing what the bees are up to, all the insects and birds.

Elise: My favourite part is walking through the garden, it’s magical. And I love the feeling that the produce is ours, that we created it. It’s better than just buying food from the shops!

Fletcher, Elise and Anya

Anya: I love that I feel I can go anywhere I want in the garden. There’s lots of animals and it’s all so natural… all the man-made things are hidden by the plants.

Fletcher: I have my favourite spot, under the Frangipani, between the red currants. It’s always cool there and a special spot. You need an invitation to go there.

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