Planning an Edible Garden

During Sustainable Backyards month of March, we usually open up our garden to visitors to see a working Edible Landscape in action. They ooh and aah and think that it is all incredibly well planned but I point out our mistakes in the hopes of sparing them the same mistake of NOT planning and allowing everything to take shape organically, as we did!

Mapping out existing structures and plantings.

When we first moved into our current home 16yrs ago, we had this great big bare blank canvas, and so off we went to a garden centre and bought some fruit trees. We came home and dug some holes, added compost and planted them. All good. Except when you come home with trees, they are so small, you have no inkling of how big they will grow, so you don’t give them their due spacing. Well, we didn’t.

Trees jostling for space.

The following year we went to a fruit tree sale, and in the spur of the moment, we bought 10 trees and hurried home to plant them. Haphazardly finding spaces for them. And we repeated this exercise year after year until…..well, frankly, we just couldn’t cram any more trees in. The older ones were starting to grow and we saw that we were fast running out of space. So much so, that we had to start culling trees that we had so excitedly and proudly planted and nurtured years before.

Plum blossoms.

So coming back to planning, what I share with other keen first timers is this: hold off of rushing into gardening and just take time to observe in the first year, while quietly planning. Note where the shade is greatest, note the sun aspect, the wind direction and do some homework on what fruit trees grow well in your area, without too much human input and intervention. This will save you time and effort in the long run. We planted a nectarine which does notoriously badly in our area. They don’t like the wet climate, preferring a long, hot and dry summer. So our nectarine developed fungal rot problems we battled for years with, until finally ending it’s life.

We planted 12 Olive trees! Our own bit of France in the backyard!

I also caution not to plant too many of one kind of tree. For example, yes, we do love feijoas, but one mature tree can produce from 15-25kg of fruit. So in our folly, we planted 8 feijoa “sticks” (they were very small and spindly) and now at harvest time, we can’t quite cope with the abundance!! Yes, you can give excess fruit away, but that still translates into hours of work for you, picking up the fruit and distributing. Time that could be better spent elsewhere in the garden. We also planted 12 olive trees in the hope of bottling our own olives. Hmmm, we discovered that enough olives grow on just 2 trees to provide more than a year’s supply, so we have started to cull the others. Leave them? We don’t have the luxury of that, as we only have a quarter acre section, so each tree has to jostle for it’s position.

Bird’s Eye View from our bedroom window.

So getting back to planning, here are the top points to remember:

  • Create a stylistic map of your garden
  • Mark down existing structures
  • Make a note of predominant wind direction (some trees and plants can’t tolerate winds too well)
  • Mark down geographical directions, North and South, East and West.
  • Mark where the shadows fall (you don’t want to plant a sun loving plant directly in front of a fence which will exclude much of it’s sunshine)
  • Discover what trees (or plants) do well in your area or growing zone (less need for sprays and time consuming intervention)
  • Mark on your map where you will plant the trees you will buy, before rushing out and buying on impulse.
One of our site maps (drawn after all our plantings!)

So looking at our backyard, or edible supermarket as I affectionately call it, it’s not an entire flop, but I can see where we could definitely have improved on our design. Our garden shed is at the bottom of the garden BUT it should have been closer to the house as we often need to go there, if it were closer, it would save time and effort in traipsing the whole difference to and from it several times a day. Our hothouse is in the shadow of the northern boundary fence, so it robs it of the sunshine it could use in winter (lower sun elevation) when most needed. Our compost bins could also have been placed closer to the entry of our kitchen, resulting in time efficient deposits of kitchen compost. Little tweaks which could have made life easier if we had allowed for it in the original design (which was conspicuously absent in our case).

An Annual Garden Calendar of Events

The last bit of advice I’d like to share is our Annual Garden Calendar of Events. Instead of reinventing the wheel every year, every season, every month, we have a working calendar of events which saves all the thinking “what shall I do this month?”. I have twelve blank pages of paper bound in a book, which has been divided into 4 weeks for each month. This block method allows me to transfer the tasks into my year’s daily diary in easy chunks of “To Do” chores. Not only does it include garden chores, but also household chores. That way, we don’t forget to have our chimney cleaned or order our firewood on time, to sow seasonal seeds or prune trees in a timely manner. I use pencil, which allows us to change the instructions if we find something works better, or needs tweaking. At the end of each month, we look at our annual calendar and transfer the info for the next month into our daily diary. Easy peasy. No surprises or guess work involved.

Backyard Co-Workers.

So hopefully I have given you some ideas to work with, some tips for beginner gardeners, to make your life and your garden easier to work with. I would love to encourage everyone to start an edible garden. You are what you eat. Grow. Eat. Thrive.

Arohanui, Jizzy

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