In early 1999, the Permaculture International Journal asked me to write an article about my garden. This is the text of the article, which was published in issue #72 (September - November 1999)
I asked that the article be prefaced by The Charter of Calcutta, so that preceded the following text:

Re-earthing the Cities

Making our cities pleasant & sustainable places to live is essential if we are serious about environmental renewal.

More than half the world's population of 6 billion now lives in a city or town. Not only are our cities responsible for the desertification of marginal land all over the world, but they are rapidly becoming deserts themselves. While a hard-working & privileged few can live sustainably in rural areas, there just isn't enough room for everyone to have a five acre block of land. If you are not convinced, try dividing the world population into the total cultivable land areas of the Earth - your local library will have books containing the figures. Or take a look at the United Nations FAO Statistics database. As for living in the bush:

'Stay out of the bush. It is already in good order.'
Bill Mollison - Permaculture, A Designer's Manual

So if you live in the city & dream of one day living a sustainable Permaculture lifestyle - don't wait for Paradise - you can create it here & now!

10 years ago I unexpectedly became quite free to make my own lifestyle choices. Should I travel like a gypsy in my Kombi, maybe visiting various alternative communities & eventually settling in one of them? Or, as I had done more than once in the past, find an abandoned house in a rural area & make it into my own private paradise? Whenever I was meditating, (& even when I wasn't!) the plight of the cities kept coming into my mind & especially the need to demonstrate & practice Permaculture in the city. After several months of this inner pressure, I 'agreed' to move to an inner city environment.

Having applied for Public Housing, I was expecting to be given a flat, to work in a community garden or the local City Farm, & to have plenty of time & energy for activism. When I was allocated this tiny poorly designed cottage, with its minute plot of earth, it is hard to describe my feelings. Just over 1 km from Adelaide's city centre, it presented exactly the kind of challenge needed to create a dramatic example of Urban Permaculture Design. It was so right that I felt that I was being asked to undertake some kind of sacred trust. (So much for freedom of choice!) And so it has proved. View from my neighbour's garden. Photo Ben Murphy

The miniature food forest which resulted now supplies a large proportion of my daily needs, & the earth energy it generates has encouraged nearby residents to join me in 'greening' the area, & acted as a catalyst for the development of an active & effective Permaculture group in the locality.

Back to Past Plants

Low-Budget Beginnings

It was mid-winter when I first moved in. The garden was quite bare. The builders' had carefully buried their refuse to make it look neat & tidy, which resulted in some nasty surprises in the early years! The deep alluvial silt which characterises this area had been partially covered by landfill, so I applied gypsum to the surface, then spread 3 kombi loads of unwashed seaweed collected from local beaches over the lot. I didn't plan to waste any space on lawn or paths. Next came a thick layer of organic mulch - mostly lawn-clippings, fallen leaves from street trees, & the stuffing from old mattresses. No matter where I was, if I saw any horse manure or dumped lawn clippings, I scooped them up in a plastic bag & took them home! Being short of money helps to keep you living sustainably - I could not afford to buy mulch & manure even if I wanted to! That year I bought only the pond kit (on special), the mandarin tree (which I found almost dead in a supermarket & got for $2), & the almond tree. The banana & many root cuttings came from my previous residence & I walked the streets brazenly collecting cuttings & seeds of anything that would grow fast!

The most urgent design challenge was summer shade for the vast expanse of SW facing glass in the main room. This poor example of house design could have been a nightmare, raising the temperature unbearably every summer afternoon & evening, but not allowing the sun to warm the place in winter. It has been transformed by carefully designed plantings into the very heart of my earth sanctuary. Root cuttings of 'wild bamboo' (Arundo Donax), bananas, & papyrus latifolia were planted as soon as the soil warmed up in October, & grew very quickly. Until the grapevines planted a year later had matured, pumpkins & chokos climbed over them & provided the necessary deep shade in high summer. I actually tied stems of arundo to the roof in the first few summers, forming a living shadehouse & trellis for the climbers. The water garden is situated close to the glass so that cool moist air is drawn into the house when the windows are opened after sunset. Natural leaf-fall & Autumn pruning of the Arundo & vines allows the maximum amount of light to enter in winter. The slower-growing mandarin tree was placed to hide part of the back fence with glossy evergreen, supply perfume when blooming, & give winter colour with the large late-ripening fruits. I planted the almond tree in the front yard to give summer shade & winter sun to the room with a NE aspect.

As spring progressed I dug up 'volunteer' seedlings from waste ground, planted seeds from pumpkins & trombones bought for eating, buried 'shot' onions & potatoes, & carrot, parsnip & turnip tops. Friends & neighbours contributed cuttings & seedlings, & by December the whole garden was rampant with growth. The 50c. bag of cocky seed I had scattered in the front yard produced a grove of 2 metre high sunflowers.In March the local paper did a feature on the garden, & I had produce all over the floor of the cottage. I even stopped passers-by to ask hopefully: 'Would you like a trombone?'

Essential Retro-fitting

It's best to live in a location for at least 12 months before starting on a permanent design
It took me 3 years in all to complete the long-term plantings & essential retro-fitting. I had already decided that tree crops & vines would form the basis of the garden design. The growing areas consist of narrow strips defined & divided by concrete, & vary in width from 70cm to one glorious plot about 4.5 metres square. The boundary is fenced with corrugated iron, 1.8 metre high for the most part, but only waist-height at the front. Surrounded by other dwellings, some 2-stories high, the view on all sides was of rooftops, TV aerials, air-conditioners, fences, & walls. I had to design for privacy, noise reduction, to hide the general ugliness, & take into consideration that no part of the garden is in full sun for more than a few hours each day. A Food Forest was the obvious solution. In years 2 & 3 I planted 2-year-old trees & vines purchased from reputable nurseries, lots more cuttings & seedlings, & began the process of nurturing & observing them.

Surrounding houses are only a few metres from the fence - Photo Ben Murphy

The photos illustrating this article were taken in 1994, as part of a photo-essay on Urban Permaculture,and clearly illustrate that it doesn't take long to create an urban food forest in Australia, nor need it take much money. I believe it can be done almost as quickly in less forgiving climates, with careful species selection, & the use of a greenhouse & cold frames.

Water Management

From the start I minimised the use of mains water. Deep mulch reduced evaporation & increased the amount of humus in the soil, which now retains moisture for long periods without becoming boggy. The subsoil, though well-drained, is continuously moist, as irrigation water pumped from the river to a nearby oval seeps slowly back again. From the moment of planting I encouraged most of the trees to send their roots deep into it. Now only the surface rooters, citrus, avocadoes, & kiwi fruit, need artificial watering. I installed a large rainwater tank, set up an outdoor bathroom & laundry, & devised simple systems for the collection & use of grey water. The bananas & babacos thrive happily on the dish-water!

Each winter the Arundo is cut back severely, the trees & vines pruned, & an elderberry & a pussy-willow are coppiced every few years. This gives me ample mulch for the summer months, though I usually collect a few bags of seaweed if I go to the beach, sweep up leaves from nearby street trees & collect dumped lawn-clippings, to enrich the mix. There is no space for proper compost bins, & too much shade for a compost tumbler to work efficiently, so while some fertiliser is supplied by the many birds who visit the garden, the insects who live in it, & the guinea-pigs, the garden relies largely on the decomposing mulch for its nutrients.

Rainforest View

The view from where I live & sleep now resembles a rainforest. A clump of bananas, & peach, mandarin, apricot & avocado trees surround the watergarden. Papyrus latifolia, 2 babaco trees & a fuchsia form an understory, while the remaining ground is covered with herbs, beans, potatoes, & a sprawling pepino plant. The 5 metre high clump of 'Arundo Donax', a grapevine, & another avocado form the backdrop, while geraniums, fuchsias, alpinias & a weeping fig in containers hide any glimpses of the corrugated iron fence.

Aesthetics, conservation, & productivity go hand in hand. The foliage changes slowly with the seasons, light & shade with the time of day or night, & my 'picture' is very much alive. Birds of all kinds nest here or visit regularly, & many species of lizards, spiders, & insects have taken up permanent residence. I frequently find burrowing frogs when it rains, & hope other species will move in one day. Being part of this richness in the place where I spend so much of my time gives me inspiration, tranquility, & comfort.

Summer Shade

The rest of the backyard is planted with a third avocado tree, a fig, a pigeon pea & a lemon. In summer two more grape vines & 3 kiwi fruit shade what used to be the driveway but is now an outdoor living area, & the entire NW side of the house. A manzanilla chilli, a choko, beans, peas & Cape gooseberries clamber on the fences, while the large rainwater tank I installed when I moved in supports a banana passionfruit, a seven-year bean & a wild tomato. In the understorey are monsteras, warrigal greens, more Cape gooseberries, & numerous self-sown annuals & biennials, as well as many shade-loving ornamentals.

The mid-section of the front garden is dominated by the almond tree, which has become huge. This shades the NE facing office in summer, & attracts birds of many species whatever the season. Also on the NE side of the front yard are the Pussy Willow - planted to soak up excess rainwater, since there is no stormwater outlet to the street, a Guava, & two carefully selected rose bushes, which effectively hide the entrance for much of the year. Sparrishoop has large crops of juicy rosehips as large as cherries, while Felicia blooms almost all year round, with a perfume that can be enjoyed half-way down the street!

The SE side contains a nectarine, an apple, a persimmon, a macadamia & an elderberry. Honeysuckle & jasmine blanket over the front porch. Another small water garden provides refreshing sound, bathing facilities for the birds & cools the air in summer. The low portions of the front fence have been heightened & cat-proofed by the addition of mattress springs, & covered with sweet potato foliage, honeysuckle, ivy-leaved pelagoniums, & annuals like nasturtiums beans & pumpkins. Queensland arrowroot, alpinias & still more Cape gooseberries thrive beneath the almond tree. Each year I set out sweet potato cuttings here & usually get a good crop of tubers. This year I underplanted the deciduous 'woodland' in the SE with freezias & daffodils. I hope for carpet of colour & scent when they become established. They should not invade the rest of the garden, being confined to that area by the rainwater channel with no outlet. (As Bill Mollison says:'Everything is if use!')Gathering leaves from surrounding streets for mulch - photo Ben Murphy

Dynamic Stability

The 'permanence' in Permaculture refers to a state of dynamic stability, not the absence of change.
Permaculture Design is a process, not a one-off event. As things grow, they give you continuous feedback, which facilitates 'Incremental Design'. So over the years the garden changes as the design evolves. I deliberately over-planted in the beginning, & some trees have now been removed. Others have died, & been replaced - not always in the same position. Plants 'find' their own locations, stubbornly refusing to grow in places they don't like, while 'volunteer' seedlings pop up all over the place. Increasing summer shade has radically changed growing conditions in the understorey & selecting perennials & biennials for shade tolerance is essential. Careful timing is required to make the most of winter sunshine for growing annuals under deciduous trees & vines.

Good design integrates house, garden, lifestyle & community into the most sustainable system possible in any given situation. There is a lot more to this design than a city jungle.

Practicality, not convention

I bought & installed a small efficient slow combustion stove for winter warmth. It uses very little wood, & I also cook & heat water on it. A skylight on the SE side of the roof reduces the need for artificial lighting without greatly affecting interior temperatures. A ventilator on the NW wall was repositioned in the ceiling, & the back gates moved forward to enclose the driveway. This immediately reduced the amount of noise, dust, pollution & heat coming from the street. The rooms are arranged for practicality & aesthetics, not convention. The 'bedroom' with a window overlooking the street, has become a combination of office, shed, studio & dressing room, in which the fridge lives on top of the filing cabinet, & the computer on the treadle sewing-machine! I sleep, read, study & meditate as far as possible from the street, in what is meant to be the kitchen, & wash up, do the laundry & bath in the garden. The 'living room' wall is only 2 metres from the roadway, as there is no sidewalk or nature strip, so I use it only as a library & TV room. The place is full of indoor plants, some of which are 10 years old & quite large! I have little furniture, just a futon, cushions, rugs, a couple of small folding tables, a clothes-stand, & lots of shelves. Most of this is secondhand or recycled.

The Kombi was replaced by a bicycle 9 years ago, but mostly I go on foot or by public transport. I use a trolley or an old pram to collect items I can't carry, & a sturdy wooden skate-board is handy for moving large items.

Self-reliance and Community

Permaculture is about self-reliance through community, not self-sufficiency.
Each winter, for a nominal sum, my garden waste is collected in a small truck, put through a 5 hp mulcher, then brought back in bags ready to be stored for the spring. The mulcher & truck belong to members of our local Permaculture group. We also share other tools & equipment. Some members of the group 'pool' vehicles, so they can select & use the vehicle most appropriate for a given journey or task. They avoid using their vehicles unneccesarily, & ride bicycles & public transport whenever they can. We have regular working bees & celebrations, give one another mutual support, & are involved in many appropriate community activities. Several members have their own green small businesses, & I get my house cleaned using only simple environmentally sound substances, my garden help from a qualified Permaculturist, & can buy responsibly produced firewood & compost if I need it.

I buy flour, olive oil, tahine, & honey from the food co-op run by one member, eggs & other produce from others. I also glean from local parks, & by 'dumpster diving'. Urban gleaning provides firewood &numerous other resources - what most city people discard as rubbish is mostly recyclable, re-usable, or compostable! If I can't use things myself someone else in the group usually can. Otherwise I take it to the local 'Op Shop', or put it out for the Kerbside recycling service. Deposit bottles & cans are cashed in to help cover the cost of producing the Permaculture Network News. LETS markets, Op. Shops & jumble sales supply almost everything else I need.

I use as little gas & electricity as possible - generating my own power is simply not feasible. But I use passive solar energy in many ways & am working on more.

Building good relationships with neighbours, without being intrusive, is very important. This is sometimes problematical, especially since there is a big turnover in properties & tenants here. But it can & must be done when we live so close one another.

'Everything Works Both Ways'

- Introduction to Permaculture

Living in the City has numerous drawbacks. It's noisy, crowded, dirty, & more obviously polluted than a rural area. I often used to long for the peace of the countryside. But learning to deal with things provides plenty of free lessons in personal growth. The challenges are different, but not more numerous than those encountered in rural areas. And Cities are rich in resources, both material & human, which need to be utilised & developed on the spot, not thrown on the scrap heap, or dumped in landfill. I can honestly say that I find peace here, in spite of everything. Here's a favourite story from a New Dimensions Radio Newsletter

The Nature of Peace

'There once was a King who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried. The King looked at all the pictures, but there were only two he really liked and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for the peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace. The other picture had mountains too. But these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky from which rain fell, in which lightening played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the King looked, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest... perfect peace. Which picture do you think won the prize? The King chose the second picture. Do you know why? 'Because,' explained the King, 'peace does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.'

Do consider staying in the city. Whether your own little Eden is a window-box, a balcony, or a roof garden; or if you are fortunate, like me, & have your own little plot, what you do with it can make a big difference.

If you want to "see" my garden, & learn more about Permaculture & sustainable living, please visit my website: I created this site because I no longer give tours of the garden, even to very small groups - there simply isn't room any more.
There is a complete plant list, the text of my series 'The Permaculture Journey' and links to city garden & Permaculture sites all over the world. There are also some 'Woo-Woo's' - (Permie for spiritual references) but you can easily avoid them if you wish. You can also email me.

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