When we moved into our home, I hadn’t had much experience gardening and I had a fairly bare backyard. What was planted was largely getting the chop. Having wanted my own garden for a good 15 years or more before I was able to get one, I was overwhelmed by what I wanted to do – and I wanted to do it all instantly. But there is benefit in taking a bit of time to plan your garden I think, even if it is agonizing. I started by observing how my garden’s aspect and the local climate interacted. I watched the sun and the frost and learned about my soil.
You often read about watching your garden for six months or a year before planting it up. I can see why now – you get a detailed understanding of how your garden’s aspect affects where the sun and shadows fall and how much sun various parts of the garden get throughout the day (as well as how frost and wind affect it).
Our block is aligned almost due north-south. We have a small front yard to the north of the house, that is open to the downward slope of the hill. Our back yard is to the south of the house, bordered by high fence on the western side, and a shed and retaining wall on the eastern side. It’s about 10m x 18m:
I spent all year watching the sun and the shadows and it was the first time that I’ve really noticed the arc of the sun in the sky and how much it changes from mid-winter to mid-summer. In mid-winter it rises to the north-east and does a very low arc in the sky staying to the north all day – hence why shadows from the north are so long in winter. In mid-summer the sun rises from the south-east and at midday is directly above and that is as far north as it gets, and it sets in the south-west. So in mid-summer the longest shadows are from the east and the west but there is plenty of sun throughout the day even with shadow from these directions. Here is a cute image from the Sydney observatory which shows what everyone else probably already knew but I had fun observing for the first time:
As a very new green thumb, I’m so glad I did this. I hadn’t realised how much shade would be cast by a mature walnut tree over the south-west end of our garden from a neighbour’s side in summer (I decided to move where I thought my vegie beds would go, away from there, because so many vegies love all day sun). I noticed a couple of evergreen trees and shrubs planted in the northern half of the garden cast far too much shade in the sunniest part of the garden in winter. And I noticed how much shade was cast by the high fence on the western border. So along the south-east border I’ve planted three evergreens this past autumn: a loquat and two feijoas, which will all still fruit in partial shade. Along the north-east border I’ll plant dwarf apples to espalier – these I am told, will probably like being protected from the very hot afternoon sun in summer.
We are inland and got frosts most weeks last winter. Here is a good explanation on frost from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and why it forms – usually through heat loss from the surface at night. And here is a simple diagram from Colorado State University explaining it for those who understand better through visual representation (ie. me):
I spent last winter watching how frost fell, which was often, and almost everywhere, with right under the high fence on our western side and the sandstone wall we have in our front garden being notable exceptions. People say frost flows downhill (I think this is because the cold air is denser and settles in hollows as described in the BOM site linked above) and our block is half way down a large, steep hill. This helps in the front yard I think, but the back yard is terraced and there is a shed wall blocking the downhill flow of air along part of it. And I’ve noticed that the frost still seems to fall heavily in the areas where there are no obstructions to air flow (although they are heavily mulched and I’m told mulch attracts frost? Is this woo or true I wonder?). Anyway, there is frost and I want to plant lots of citrus, which don’t love frost – and particularly not when they are young. There are many happy looking mature orange, mandarin and lemon trees in gardens around me, so it is true that when mature they don’t seem so bothered.
There are many many ways to work around frost. Methods I’ve read or been told about include: using masonry walls to reflect heat absorbed during the day, building a microclimate through use of frost-hardy trees or bodies of water, establishing a heat sink by planting in a U-shape towards the sun, irrigating before a frost (as wet soil can retain more heat), covering plants with shade cloth, or using barriers around plants to help frost flow down hill. I’ve decided to rely both on planting frost-hardy evergreen trees first (this is what prolific Australian author Jackie French suggests, as in this piece on groves), and using shade cloth or similar over the trees each winter for the first few years. My first experience of the olfactory sensation that is an orange tree in full blossom was at an open garden in an area even colder than ours – the secret? A hessian jacket each winter for the first 5-7 years. Dedication.
Here is a great overview of different types of soil from the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK. The soil in my area is usually clay and our block is no different. There are different kinds of clay soils: see this piece on Gardening Australia website for simple tests you can do at home to determine what sort of clay soil you have. I didn’t do these! I did dig lots of holes to see how much soil there is, what sort of soil it is and how it behaves through the seasons. As expected with clay, it’s pretty hard in summer. Not much better in winter. Not particularly freely draining but not terrible either (to figure this out I filled the holes with water and waited to see how long they took to drain – quite a while. Less than an hour, more than a few minutes). Our block is excavated on one side, and has a retaining wall built up on the opposite side. The soil is slightly more friable on the retaining wall side. And on the excavated side, in some parts there is almost no soil and you hit rock. For various reasons, I’m going to build soil up, rather than digging down too much. This is a great way to avoid problems encountered when gardening clay soil – it’s much easier then digging through clay all the time, it provides a friable loam instantly if you want it, and it keeps roots away from clay, which doesn’t drain well and not many temperate fruit trees and vegies love waterlogged soil. So on the excavated side I used the no-dig technique pioneered by Australian Gardener Esther Deans,building a bed up to a height of about 30-40cm. Here is an image from a website dedicated to this form of gardening, No Dig Vegetable Garden:
It is a bit tedious process when doing a large area and when you have to push your heavy wheelbarrow with a flat tyre up a steep short hill three hundred times without anything for your feet to grip on to. I hope to be producing enough compost of my own for the garden one day, but for this I bought in bulk, which wasn’t too expensive. I’d prefer certified organic products but I can’t find these in bulk and the bagged products would have sent me broke. On the retaining wall side I’m only building up the soil to about 15-20cm because there’s more topsoil, it’s not as compacted and in some parts there were existing garden beds.
Other Things to Observe
I probably should have paid attention to the wind too, but I didn’t. I feel like it should be obvious to me but it isn’t. I probably should ask some locals about prevailing winds, but I haven’t. I’ll just err on the side of caution and stake young trees as I plant them. Although I haven’t yet (staked, that is).
I also noticed which bugs were out and about, and when. But not really closely. I really don’t know much about bugs. Except that they decimated my monoculture strawberry patch.
Gardening – Learning by Doing
Doing a little bit of gardening was useful too. I planted vegies in a few no-dig garden beds, and compared the results with some things I planted into ground that I prepared by pulling up cooch grass (nothing better to make me grump than to see that stuff poking its head up through a bed), and adding in compost and manure and straw/lucerne. The main difference was the invasion of cooch grass in the dug beds…. This was useful as it turns out, because I had never come across cooch grass before and did not realise it was the most heinous weed known to garden kind. However, after a year, I’m less panic-stricken by it. I’ll just have to manage it. I realised that it is much easier to remove from friable loam – quite easy even – than from compacted soil. The worst part is digging out the runners from compacted soil.
I also, by necessity, planted quite a few things in part-shade to…. a lot of shade. Leafy greens (lettuce and kale and mustard greens), garlic, basil, dill, chives, chamomile, nasturtiums and cucumbers. I chucked all the seed in without worrying about spacing particularly. I did thin them out a little as they grew. And they all thrived. It gave me a bit of confidence to disregard some of the rules I’d read about vegies and herbs and reassured me I could continue to plant edibles in that spot, which after this winter, will be in the front of the bed where my apples will be. A good development for a wet behind the ears, by-the-rules gardener/perfectionist.
So that’s what I spent my year doing in the garden. What did I miss?