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Margaret's Sustainability Articles

Margaret's Habitat - 2008

With some updates, August 2010 - a lot has happened in 2 years!

The following background may help people to interpret what appears to the untrained eye to be a wild jumble/jungle devoid of purpose & design. The entire process, from it's beginnings in 1989, has been well documented & illustrated on my website, Re-earthing the Cities. The site includes a detailed plant list which I try to keep fairly up-to-date:

This small detached property was newly-completed when allocated to me by the SAHT in July 1989, which gave me a clear start. The design & location of the property presents a number of challenges that compromise sustainability, personal comfort, privacy, & security.

As a SAHT tenant I have tenure, & controlled rent, but cannot alter any part of the permanent structure to make it more sustainable. The challenge was to demonstrate what can be achieved using the Principles of Permaculture Design.

The house is only 45 square metres in area, & the rooms are small, with low ceilings; so the 5 square metres of glass facing South-west can make the place unbearably hot in summer, & leaks much of the interior heat in winter. Pollution from road dust & vehicle exhaust is a constant problem, so are noise, & both light & visual pollution.

The 150 square metres of garden soil was of excellent quality even when unimproved, & subsoil moisture is partially maintained by irrigation water from an adjacent College Oval; but since the garden is small & closely surrounded by other properties, & the beds narrow, few parts of it receive full sun for long, especially in winter. Yet home food production was originally as much a priority in the design as sustainability & the improvement of general living conditions.

The obvious Permacultural solution was to select & plant suitable trees, cover the fences with vines, & fill the spaces with shrubs & perennials. This does not, even now that the most of the trees are mature, preclude the production of small quantities of biennial & annual food plants. I raised the height of the front fence using a trellis made of mattress springs. This discourages cats, provides a measure of security, & ample vertical space for screening plants; these give privacy & provide some protection from the dust & exhaust fumes generated by passing traffic. They also provide habitat for several species of small bird.

The permanent plantings have now successfully reduced the impact of many of the original problems. My aim of living as sustainably as possible within an urban context, while coping with the chronic health problems that resulted in my being allocated a SAHT property, & on a limited income, has been largely achieved. I continue to make changes & experiment with simple practical strategies to further reduce my ecological footprint, while maintaining a reasonable degree of personal comfort. Advancing age, & the changes that take place in the immediate locality, constantly present new challenges, & require strategic responses. This apparently quiet & secluded spot is in fact quite dynamic & full of human activity - most of it mechanised!

For 4 years, from April 2006 to April 2010, substantial resources of time, energy, & money were diverted from the garden into a long unfulfilled dream - developing my talent as a singer - this, coinciding with drought & water restrictions, led to the loss of some of the annual self-seeders & water-loving groundcovers. The design as a whole withstood these losses extremely well, but the heavy concert programme eventually became too much for me, and I am once again able to concentrate on my home & garden.

The Front - Aspects NE and SE

Outside the fences & at the entrance I have piled up the soil & dust from the street, & as well as allowing climbers from the garden to layer into this I have planted many suitable common plants, & encouraged those weeds which do a good job of stabilising the soil & reducing dust, as well as providing food for birds, & for butterflies & their larvae.

This greenery also makes a much-needed safety margin of some 30cm.for the fence, by encouraging drivers to focus on it, instead of the fence. It is extremely vulnerable to vehicles manoevering in the narrow lane; the plants also disguise the damage which has occurred over the years, & discourage people from using the entrance as part of a turning-circle, thus protecting the corner of my lounge-room which is completely exposed, & only 2 metres from the carriageway.

The front garden now holds almost as many trees, shrubs, perennials & groundcovers as it will support naturally. All are productive in some way, whether for human food, habitat & food for wildlife, perfume, kindling, mulch, & firewood.
2 more large native shrubs, planted early in 2009, now provide provide further screening & more bird fodder. More native shrubs, and several more climbers have recently been planted.

In season I harvest passionfruit; rosehips; appleberries; a variety of culinary herbs; greenstuff from dandelions, other edible weeds, nasturtiums, & sweet potato tops; Queensland arrowroot; sweet potatoes; Guavas; pigeon peas; wattle seeds; jasmine flowers; perennial leeks; 5 varieties of apple; persimmons; Washington Navel oranges; & macadamias. I haven't succeeded in saving my almonds from the birds for years, but the flowers are a delight, & provide food for several kinds of honeyeater! The trees & shrubs provide privacy, shade, beauty, sweeten the air, reduce unwanted illumination from outdoor lights on the units opposite, & the streetlight on the corner of the block; give me a pleasant outlook when I'm working at the computer or sewing machine; & create at least the illusion of peace.

August 2010 Early in 2009 the lane was re-asphalted, and at the same time we had unprecedented heat. A few weeks later the street and part of the garden was dug up for the extension and upgrading of the gas supply. As a result most of the plants in the lane and in front of my fence were badly damaged, and the passionfruit vine died. Then the threatened replacement of brush fences opposite with colorbond was effected. The lane is now much hotter in summer, noisier all year round, and there is less room to maneovre , putting my fences even more at risk of collisions.
Fortunately the new plantings have done well. I replaced the passionfruit with 2 bouganvilleas, which should stand up to the various assaults and indignities of their location, without dragging the mattress springs down with their weight as the pelagoniums did in earlier years.

The Back - Aspects SW AND NW

The block is raised about a metre from adjacent levels on the SW and NW. The outer wall of my main room is made up of glass patio doors which give line-of-sight through to the SAHT car park a street away; allow unwanted light from several surrounding street lamps & outdoor lighting from adjacent properties, to enter the house at night ; the view at eye-level is mainly of roofs, TV aerials & air-conditioners. These doors are my only back entrance, so permanent blinds would be extremely inconvenient, & block the exit in an emergency. The utility room window also faces SW. This huge area of glass on the SW of the house is in full sun for many hours each day at the hottest time of year; while the prevailing winds from the West and South-West in winter used to drive rain against the glass which ran down into the house; the glass, being an excellent conductor of heat, as well as transmitting light, lets in all the heat in the summer, & out in the winter! (In contrast, the NW wall is solid & has no windows which to let in the winter sun!)

So the trees I selected to provide shade; give a pleasant outlook; screen me from unwanted artificial light & depressing views; & protect the house from rain & wind; are evergreen. This makes little difference to the light in winter, as the sun doesn't get round that far anyway. But deciduous trees & a Sultana vine, which also shades the NW wall, give extra summer shade.

I replaced the water feature that used to form the centrepiece of my 'living picture' - which is what I can now call that huge expanse of glass - with an ornamental fernery. But the birds, possums, & bluetongues use it as a hunting ground, so from their viewpoint it's far from merely ornamental! Looking West, in the background are a mandarin; peach; grevillea; wattle 'Acacia Fimbriata'; bottlebrush 'Callistemon Gawler hybrid'; the grapevine; & a buddleia. Looking East, I see the apricot, which has been pollarded this year; a feijoa; two appleberries; wattle Acacia Incognita 'Lime Magick'; & the avocado. In the extreme SE are the fig, the lemon, & a Valencia orange. I'm now establishing more ornamentals around the outdoor bath, which is under the clothesline, next to the big rainwater tank.

August 2010 The apricot tree was killed by Rainbow Lorikeets eating every leaf bud as it appeared! When I protected it with netting & a frame, the possums sat on top of the frame & pee'd on the fresh growth. It's now been replaced by a Loquat, which has tougher leaves. It remains to be seen how this will fare.The Buddleia has died ?due to increasing shade, but a cutting has grown into a full-sized shrub in the front yard. It is being replaced, experimentally, by 2 Indigofera Australis.
Possums have been eating the peaches before they ripen, I got no fruit at all last season. I no longer grow Cape Gooseberries or any other Solanums, because I've developed a sensitivity to them. The Feijoa is doing well, but all the fruit has been eaten by wildlife while still immature.
I've moved the bath back to it's original position by the NW wall of the house, because it's closer to the back door, & the view is even better than under the clothesline. I've painted it a pleasant green, much like the original & lined it with clear plastic sheeting - wrapping from a new mattress retrieved from a rubbish bin!- since the only paint I had doesn't stand up to hot water without peeling.

The Northern portion of the area on the NW is the only part of the garden which gets good sun all year round without being exposed to the pollution caused by traffic, or being needed for large shade plantings. I've often grown good crops of summer vegetables here, & may do so again. Currently there are 7-year beans & Cape Gooseberries on the fence; & lots of parsley, wild garlic, Flame Flower - a member of the portulaca family with large edible leaves - & some very fine dandelions, sonchus, & chickweed. The rear portion contains roots of Jerusalem artichoke, which will give good crops at the end of summer.


Every portion of outdoor space is put to use. The twin-tub washing machine lives, all my laundry is done & the washing dried, in the garden. I collect, cut up, season & store firewood for my small but efficient Franklin stove throughout the year, have three rainwater tanks, & as many other receptacles as I can find for rainwater storage. During winter I collect & store mulch for the summer.

Some outdoor space is given up to large plants in pots; while most space on the porch & under the eaves is storage for tools & the many useful items I keep for seasonal, or collect for future, use - e.g.lengths of ag.pipe, solid drainpipe & guttering, pieces of shadecloth from 1 metre square to enough to cover the driveway in a heatwave, cane blinds, tarps in several sizes, tiles, bricks, buckets & basins, plastic bottles, oddments of hose, several trolleys, large Mao baskets, sacks & rubbish bags, & an old pram I use during the hard rubbish season. I only move or disturb these items when absolutely necessary, as they are inhabited by a diversity of small creatures, including several kinds of gecko, spiders, leopard slugs, eggs & pupae of many kinds. My policy is one of non-interference & minimal disturbance, & I move around the place with great care so as to upset as few of my fellow-inhabitants as possible. As for toxic sprays and artificial fertilisers - I don't use them, and never have!

In summer I use a number of simple methods to heat water and cook foods such as grains & pulses, in the sun. In winter the Franklin stove does the same. I haven't used my gas water-heater or the gas-stove, both over-large & poorly located, for many years.


I have three rainwater tanks, totalling 5,800 litres, & when they are full collect rainwater in everything available. The soil is mulched & full of organic matter & plant roots, so retains all the rain that falls on it. Grey water is used on the trees & shrubs, & to flush the loo.

I usually use mains water only for the garden, & then only between Christmas & mid-March. In 2007 and 2008, I didn't turn off the mains tap until Anzac Day (25th.April). In 2006 I still managed to get through until Christmas, & last year until two weeks before, when I planted out more screening shrubs at the front, having learnt the brush fences opposite are to be replaced by colorbond.

I have deepwatering stations all round the garden, & use soft drink bottles to service them. So a very little water goes a long way, though it's labour intensive.When I'm tired or in a hurry I still use the leaky hose which I installed some years ago all round the garden. Pots are always watered with rainwater.

August 2010 In 2009 and 2010 I no longer used the leaky hose which I had installed many years previously. I found it not only didn't water deeply enough, but is also very fragile, easily punctured by birds and rats searching for water in spite of the 10 bird baths in the garden. So a great deal of water was wasted. Instead I exclusively used the deep-watering stations all round the garden, using 2-litre soft drink bottles filled by hand. This almost halved my water use this summer, in spite of more heat waves, and meant I could water at any time of day without violating the watering restrictions. But it's very time-consuming and quite hard work, so I'm hoping to devise a way of filling the bottles using drippers or something similar. At least now I've left the choir I'll have more time.

Since I cannot have my tanks plumbed in, & don't allow grey water to go down the drain, except to flush the toilet, all water is shifted in buckets! Carrying weights is good for ageing bones, & I get all the exercise I need without going to the gym!

Recent developments

In the last few years a great many trees have been removed from the surrounding area, & much paving laid. This has reduced habitat & territory for creatures of all kinds & sizes, so I have increased the number of Australian plants which supply them with food & shelter. Apart from increased bird numbers, either nesting or visiting, there are now two resident possums in this tiny space. While they help by disposing of (?)excess produce, they are undiscriminating - they have just eaten most of my broccoli, and a lot of almond blossom! It will be interesting to see how production & harvesting are affected by these new residents over the coming year!

August 2010 Indeed this has made a difference! I've managed to harvest very little of my fruit, nuts, or seeds, and the possums eat the leaves of the fruit trees & Eucalypts, and tip prune the evergreens to make nests, in spite of the nest boxes I put up for them.
The Macadamia lost a huge branch in 2009, due to a possum having used one fork as a nest for many years, thus weakening the fork with it's urine. High winds & 40°+ heat did the rest. But it made good firewood - It's burning in my stove as I write.
There has been more building, this time really close to my NW boundary, so more wildlife has been displaced. But the new neighbours are reasonably thoughtful, & the new garage/workshop will support an array of solar panels.
Noise has increased significantly, with so much major construction going on in the area, & the installation of many more reverse-cycle air conditioning units in the dwellings surrounding me, which throb away disturbing the night in particular. The noise penetrates my home, even with all the doors & windows shut.
I've realised that I am now being called upon to really live out my green challenge to the status quo. My home has become a mini wildlife sanctuary, as well as the only truly green space in the lane, & I'm now content that this should be so. But it's taken me a while to adjust to the changes, maybe that's why I've had such poor health over the last 18 months? I don't think I can blame it all on increasing age!
I can no longer depend on a year-round supply of food for myself from the garden, though I still manage to get a fair bit in season. At least we now have a Farmer's Market here, & good supplies of organic produce. My friends also often have surplus to share, & I have much to be grateful for.
Though I've recently been criticised & even harassed by campaigners for native Australian plants, because I still grow Agapanthus, Tradescantia & Nasturtiums!
I make no apology for this. Anyone who is familar with my plant list will realise that I use Australian species whenever appropriate. There are places where they either won't grow successfully, or don't have the characteristics to do a specific task. Of the almost 50 trees, shrubs & vines on the property, more than 30 are native species, over half of these are indigenous to the Adelaide Plains. "Weeds" also have their place in my system, and I intend to write further about this very soon.

March 2011
What a difference we've seen this summer! More than 146mm. of rain has meant very little watering has been necessary, and fruit crops are prolific! So there's once again plenty for me, and the possums, and the birds, and the neighbours. It's a good feeling!

See the virtual tour, lots of pictures, created for National Permaculture Day 2011.

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Margaret's Sustainability Articles

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