I’ve included this page about my own garden as an example of my approach to garden creation.
A well designed garden is about far more than appearances alone, however to write about every factor influencing each design decision would be repetitive and confusing. So I have laid out the content below under general themes, but they all play together in a real garden.
As I wrote in “about”, I love beauty – beautiful sounds, tastes, smells, textures, and sights – and so too does my partner. Beauty comes in many ways and not only through the five senses which we perceive the world through. For us it is further enriched through “authenticity” or “realness” and “connection”. There is also beauty in something that works well and is integrated comfortably into its surroundings, including the ecosystem. There is beauty in the small details as well as the larger picture.
Niwajiri today is a “result so far” of my evolution and learning as a gardener and designer. I hope you enjoy its story.
The Home Page asks “How do you want life in your garden to be?” This has been a very powerful question for us developing Niwajiri, helping us make all decisions, so below is our response to that leading question. Yours may be entirely different, but the following might give you an idea of how useful a question it can be, and how it impacts the garden design.
We want life here at Niwajiri to be:
I bought the land in 1988 as a vacant block of nothing more than over-grazed grass and 3 large black-berry patches. It was a blank canvass in a beautiful valley with good soil and water.
When I was young, All Creatures Great and Small set in Yorkshire was my favourite TV show. I especially liked the landscapes and buildings where everything – walls, paving, roads, fences, even rooves - were made of the local stone. It gave every scene a beautiful coherence; a sense that every element belonged and was at home in its landscape.
I also adored the early settlers’ barns and cottages from around the Adelaide Hills, where again local materials dominated; heavy exposed beams of timber, worn wooden steps and floor boards, and low ceilings. So these inspired the design and material choices for both the house (which I’d completed even before I found the land) and the garden.
Not long after moving in here I read about Permaculture. I quickly acquired several books and undertook the Permaculture Design Certificate with David Holmgren the co-originator with Bill Mollison.
The principles and design ideas continue to impact my thinking, especially to do with living well while caring for the ecosystem and human society which support us. Fortunately, I saw quite a variety of Permaculture gardens and combined with my existing knowledge was able to see that some of the “wilder weedy mess” gardens sometimes thought of as necessarily Permaculture are the owners (valid) interpretations of the principles, but not the principles in themselves. My preference for here was a little more visual order.
The garden is designed to really celebrate the cycle of the year; and here in the Adelaide Hills that cycle is about as marked as it gets in South Australia. We don’t have the four predictable and abruptly changing seasons that some parts of the world do, but rather a continuous progression, which affords us more variety within those 4 basic seasons.
In winter the garden is paired back to its underlying structure. The strong shapes of clipped hedges, conifers and other evergreens combined with a lack of any flower except Hellebores and perfumed Winter-sweet in June and July gave it a deliberately “wintry” look. There is often a fog or frost to enhance the charm of bare branches. Reading beside the crackling fire looking out on this scene is one of my favourite times.
Just before we tire of the winter look, daffodils emerge in August with the promise of spring to come and while they flower through September, other bulbs and perennials are emerging around them. The colour scheme is still restrained: muted greens with soft lemon daffodils are the dominant view from the house, but around the front door the perfume of daphne and species hyacinths greet you.
As spring progresses, more flowers and tree blossoms open and the colours become stronger to cope with strengthening light as the sun moves higher in the sky. Colour schemes move from the daffodils through a predominance of soft lavender, blue and purple with highlights of lemon (wisteria, blue bells, iris). Then clouds of pink then white cherry, viburnum and crab-apple are underpinned by stronger blues and purples in Ajuga, lavenders and more irises. Then to bold gold, russet, carmine, red and electric blue before Christmas via lilliums, roses, delphiniums, geums and Chinese forget-me-nots.
The luscious green of deciduous trees in leaf start creating areas of cool shade for the on-coming summer heat and to provide background for the strong bold colours necessary to “hold their own” in the bleaching blaze of mid-summer sun.
As autumn comes on, the deciduous trees and shrubs colour up and chrysanthemums open in time for Mothers’ Day and other autumn perennials come on for a final show before leaves fall exposing their beautiful bare stems and berries for winter.
And all the while, the muted greens and greys of eucalypts, conifers, Blackwood Wattles, Lilly Pilly and box hedges settle it into its surroundings.
I chose the site because the climate soil and water supply here are conducive to the plants and garden styles from the places which inspired me the most at the time. The layout has a graduation from “Australian country track” leading to the stock-ramp, through European influence north of the house, blending along the eastern and western sides of the house, to strongly Japanese and a little North American influence to the south. This approach also suits the micro-climates, aids the “energy performance” of the house and helps reduce bush-fire risk.
I’ve never felt the need to be consciously and deliberately “original” for the sake of that “originality” alone. While it can be fun, a bit quirky, its appeal doesn’t last long if it has no reason. Originality which emerges in response to circumstances that require it on the other hand can be wonderful and its appeal lasts forever.
Here at Niwajiri, I have taken “looks”, “moods” and “styles” that appeal to me and interpreted them in our situation. None of the garden is “original” or “an authentic” anything, except authentically ours. The “Japanese” garden (still being developed) has elements people would recognize as “Japanese” – pruned Pine trees, flowering Cherries, Japanese Maples etc - a general mood. But, it is not an “authentic Japanese garden”; neither of us is Japanese and Niwajiri is not located in Japan!
The casual romantic mood of Bickleigh Vale, Edna Walling’s village at the foot of the Dandenongs, inspires boundary plantings, and the mood the garden takes on when we let it ramble, especially in autumn.
I traveled through the “American West” while studying Holistic Management and, as I do in most places I go, fell in love with the plant life and the landscape. I later spent 5 months working as an “intern cowboy” on a ranch high in the Colorado Rockies. The landscape and plant life is awesome – truly awesome. Riding quietly on horse back up a “crick” shimmering with darting trout and banks over-flowing with luscious herbage; meandering through Aspen then Fir and Spruce then back out into open park is an experience I’ll never forget. A number of North American species do very well here, so as stimuli to those memories they’ve been included as transition and back-ground from the more organized garden into the grazing paddocks.
The swooning perennial borders of the English Manor House combined with the low hedges and tall Italian Cypresses of some Tuscan gardens are the stimuli for our perennial garden, and it may sound a long-stretch but the landscapes depicted in the movies Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources and My Father’s Glory are the stimuli for the “Mediterranean hill-side”. Maybe only we can see it, but that’s the point – it is a connection for the people who live here.
The garden here is inspired by many different places, so the plants I’ve chosen reflect this. While I chose the site for its gardening conditions, I’ve since discovered that the soil is a bit of a limitation. It is a very heavy clay-loam, and through our cold wet winter becomes very boggy. During the early stages of Niwajiri’s development the range of native plants available was very small compared to now, and many just did not survive. Many native plants also tend to be pretty flammable, so are not sensible to have close to the house.
Since then, the range of plants selected and bred from native species has grown fantastically, and as I develop the last areas of the garden am now including them where appropriate. (Several local nurseries - Cleveland, Glenberry, and Tupelo Grove - continue to be sources of fabulous new plants to South Australia which are entirely appropriate for our conditions. I highly recommend them.)
Way back when I was a teen, Pam and I observed that her gardens had fewer pests and diseases compared with many other gardens we knew. They also had very high numbers of native birds, although she did very little to deliberately achieve either. Pam is a plant lover, so the diversity of plants in her own gardens has always been very high. We concluded that it was this diversity that lead to the stability and health, and also attracted the birds, although she did very little to deliberately achieve either.
I’ve since learnt that many (but not all of course) native birds and animals will adapt to change in the detail of the habitat if those details change slowly enough. The shift in life-style of many native birds from migratory (so they could find enough native food to eat or appropriate breeding sites), to “sedentary”, nesting in exotic plants and eating the fruit, nuts and other crops we try to grow for ourselves, is ample evidence of this. They’ve also taken up eating nectar from just about every flower that has it, and clearly aren’t fussy as to which insects or grass seed they devour!
When I purchased the land, I counted only 6 species of bird here – and only 3 of those were native. There are now 38 species that visit or live here, 35 of which are native. We’ve seen bats roost in our barn and bandicoots, koalas, red-belly black snakes, wallabies, blue-tongue lizards, hundreds of skinks, countless insects and spiders, a possum, and at least 2 species of frog live here or visit. (With judicious use of an organic deterrent spray on the roses, even the possum is welcome!). All these species are here because there is something that attracts them.
The abundant and diverse plant life and the diverse habitats are significant factors, along with no cats, nor dogs with a tendency to harass birds/small animals (terriers for example).
My point is that “going native” per se, is not the only way to genuinely improve the functioning of the eco-system, nor increase biodiversity. If you would like to make a positive contribution to the health of the ecosystem that sustains us all, the most significant contribution you can probably make is through your source of food and clothing. By all means, have a native garden if it appeals to you (and I’d love to help with it) but it’s a small factor in the environmental impact of our life-style in Australia today. See “Food” below.
One of the key lessons I learnt from Holistic Management® is that while there are patterns that tend to be similar in similar situations; each individual situation is in fact different. Every situation is a function of its specific social, environmental and financial circumstances, whether that is a farm, a city business, or a garden. Therefore, to decide the “most sustainable thing to do” in any given situation, including a garden, must be done in the context of its specific whole situation. Absolute formulas, prescriptions, so-called “best practices” often miss this crucial point, and if simply applied without consideration of the situation invariably lead to unforeseen, unwanted and sometimes not obvious outcomes.
Because of our location, in a semi-rural environment with houses well-spread, smoke from a wood fire does not create an air quality problem for anyone here. Also because of the garden’s growth, and my work, we have access to wood for burning through prunings etc which would otherwise be put through fuel-consuming chippers and transport; or worse, simply burnt in a rubbish fire or put into land-fill. So, the most “sustainable” thing for us to do is use wood fires for heating and in winter for cooking as well. All the carbon that makes up the vast majority of that wood came out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis in the first place, so our burning it to harvest energy for heat is returning that carbon to the atmosphere as part of a cycle. Other situations will be different, so other solutions would be more appropriate. Clearly, heating every building throughout city and suburbs with wood fires would create foul air in those areas and probably devastate forests.
From figures collated by Sydney University, 41% of the environmental footprint of the average Australian household is from the food we eat. That’s right … 41%!! Clothing is another 14%, personal care products another 1%, and services such as restaurants, accommodation etc another 8%.
Building and running the average house accounts for only 11%, and household transport for only 6%!
I don’t know how they collated these figures, nor the assumptions they used. I assume that because the figures are “Australian average” they are calculated using the conventional food industry; its feedlots, chicken and pig factories, large scale irrigation, broad-acre conventional agriculture and supermarket distribution chains.
I am pretty sure from other research I’ve done, that the food itself isn’t the source of problem, but rather how it is grown, transported, processed and packaged, transported again, and then retailed. I further suspect that disposing of all the waste this conventional chain creates is also a significant problem.
The figures were quite a surprise to us, as most of the talk in the media these days implies that the damage from households (as distinct from industry) is from the energy consumption of buildings and cars. However, if this study is even approximately right, the biggest negative impact and the easiest to do something about is the way we source our food.
So, being much tastier, almost definitely healthier and certainly cheaper, deciding to grow as much of our own food as we reasonably can was an obvious choice in our circumstances.
As far as is reasonable, we also get what we don’t grow ourselves from local growers whose practices we trust or via locally owned and operated small businesses who label the source of their produce. We reserve the consumption of food from far away for treats. We go to a supermarket only for things we cannot get elsewhere.
In a nutshell, shopping at supermarkets and other large chain stores where the product is excessively packaged and/or transported over long distances and often heavily processed, is just about the most damaging thing you can do to the environment in your daily life. I also believe it is one of the most damaging to local economies and small businesses too, but that’s another story.
Costs and savings
Since 2000, I’ve kept meticulous and detailed records of where and what we spend on food. In 2009, with a home vegetable patch, chooks, small orchard and a few sheep, two of us spent the same dollar amount on food, including snacks, eating out etc and including all the cost of production (seed and seedlings, occasional fertilizers, chicken feed etc) that I alone spent in 2000. We also gave lots away. We eat out a little less now than I did then, but not a lot. The CPI over that period was 38%, so the net saving is approximately 2/3rds of our would-be food bill, and we still don’t have it in full production!
Now, as I wrote earlier, every situation is different. In our situation, growing a lot of our own food makes environmental, financial and social sense; we have the water, the space, the time pays for itself, and we have the desire. Your situation may be different, so I promise if I design your garden, I won’t badger you into a vegetable garden if you don’t want one. Nor will I ever mention shopping and other consumer habits!
Niwajiri receives an average annual rainfall of 1150mm, and we are not connected to the “mains supply”, so we harvest rain from the rooves, and have a bore into an aquifer which recharges every winter. We are in an unusual and fortunate position.
Long before water restrictions were imposed, and “water-wise gardens” were fashionable I’d observed that poorly designed, manufactured and installed irrigation systems were causing more damage than good in many gardens. They lead people to disconnect from observing their garden. They encourage people to water far too often and with too little amount in each watering cycle; the net effect being weak surface-rooted plants, often over-pumped and susceptible to disease and utterly dependant on irrigation – the greenlife equivalent of human obesity. They also lead to a lot of wasted water.
As I’ve stressed above, every situation is different, and the “most responsible thing to do” regarding irrigitaion must be determined situation by situation. Soil types, plant choices, site exposure to drying wind, tree root competition etc. all play a part, as does the source of the water used, and it’s alternative uses. The details of water restrictions in South Australia over the past few years have been a classic case of politics and bureaucracy over sensible policy; where a “how-to” is prescribed far removed from individual situations, rather than a policy objective being set and enabling individuals to work out how to best achieve that in their own circumstances. I know from private discussions with “insiders” that volumetric restrictions (which would have enabled individuals to decide for themselves how best to use their allocation) while being technically possible were not used because they are perceived as politically too risky by both major parties as well as the bureaucracy.
Here at Niwajiri, we have heavy soils high in organic matter (as a consequence of our management). They have a high capacity to hold it compared many other soils. We’ve encouraged our plants to develop deep roots, and if a plant cannot cope with the conditions an alternative is found. In the parts of the garden that are irrigated, we wait until the garden really needs it before watering, and then we do it by slow deep soaking, at night when possible, and usually only before the on-set of a high fire risk period.
Wherever possible we use a sprinkler type that has very little misting (hence no wastage), but in some dense shrub beds in-line drippers are used. I try to minimize these as while they are advocated by many, my experience is that they have a limited useful life because a/ mulch and roots accumulate over them and they become blocked or strangled, b/ to be effective one needs miles of it closely spaced and can lead to frequent punctures which are hard to find being “buried” under growing roots, and c/ one cannot easily see if there is a problem. The sprinklers and the timing in combination with the plants and mulch used have the added benefit of reducing our fire-risk by having the plants well-hydrated and therefore reducing flammability.
The vegetable garden is watered according to the needs of each crop. Uniform irrigation across the whole vegetable garden is wasteful and often creates problems for the crops anyway as they have differing requirements. In addition to hand watering, we use parallel strips of in-line dripper connected in blocks which fit the modules I refer to in “Internal Design Tips”, and each block has a simple poly tap, enabling it to be turned on or off as needed. They are pegged in place, but can be lifted out of the way for digging or when the chooks are put in. Interestingly, I believe there is ample evidence that “home grown” vegetables and fruit consume far less water per unit of food produced than the same crop produced in the industrial scale vegetable farms. Another reason for growing your own or getting from a local small grower!
While compiling the portfolio photos, I revisited a garden Pam designed and Mark and the team built in about 1995. The client’s brief included that the garden had to thrive without any supplementary water. The owner swears she has never irrigated. Apart from a few losses toward the end of the drought, the garden is still sensational. It shows that the range of plants that will grow on rainfall alone is much greater than you might think.
Grazing and gardening practices store carbon
We’ve ascertained through soil tests that in just 0.6 Ha and over only 5 years of Holistic Graze Planning we put an extra 10 tonnes of carbon (that’s 36.7 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere!) into the deepening and more fertile soil in our paddocks and orchard. The tests show the ornamental garden soil is even higher in organic carbon, and the vegetable garden higher still; we calculate a further 3 tonnes of carbon therefore another 11 of CO2.
The details of the grazing and why it is such an effective capturer of carbon are amazing. However, here is not the place for full and detailed explanation. If you are interested, I recommend www.soilcarbon.com.au and www.soilcarboncoaltion.org . Also, David Mason-Jones an Australian journalist skeptical of claims that this could be achieved has researched and written a book on the subject, which makes fascinating reading. “Should meat be on the menu” is available via his website www.journalist.com.au where you’ll also find a précis of the book.
The guts of it though, is that by bunching grazing animals into higher densities as they do naturally in the presence of pack-hunting predators (we use fences), and grazing smaller areas at a time but far more intensely, and then allowing adequate time for the pasture to re-grow before it’s eaten again, substantial increases in soil carbon occur. It also massively increases bio-diversity above and below the soil surface. Lest this be misunderstood as simply “rotational grazing”, we also closely monitor the pasture and especially soil surface to constantly fine-tune our animal numbers, the length of time the mob spend in each paddock, and to ensure we are constantly improving the whole eco-system health – water cycle, mineral cycle, bio-diversity and energy flow. Simple rotational grazing can lead to disaster. High density grazing is a powerful tool and like any powerful tool its use can go powerfully wrong if not used appropriately or not carefully monitored.
The process also improves water infiltration and the increases the soils water-holding capacity, and significantly slows and reduces run-off, in turn reducing flooding, erosion and nutrient loss, and is the most effective and permanent solution to “weeds”.
In the home orchard
The sheep graze the orchard, as part of the grazing plan, and we are still fine-tuning the enclosure system for using poultry to clean-up bugs there. Contrary to some popular beliefs, the grass (even long grass) is not competition for the fruit tress once they are established, but rather enhances the health of the soil if it is combined with planned grazing. The combined effect improves the soil and thence the fruit trees. I have confirmed this with the experiences of a local commercial organic orchardist who uses geese for the same purpose. Running sheep or noisy geese in a suburban back-yard is not usually an option, but chooks and other poultry or caged rabbits can be.
In the garden
We don’t want mobs of sheep or cows trampling all over, nor chooks digging everything up, so we have to do most of the work ourselves through gathering dung and garden waste to make compost and by using decomposable mulches. Sometimes, it is not a sensible use of our time to gather dung from the paddocks, so we purchase it or locally made (so there is reduced fuel burnt in transportation) dung-based fertilizers.
Like most animals, if chooks are kept in one place all the time the chance of pests and disease increase and so too does the work for their human keepers. The Niwajiri chooks have a secure shed and dry run for when we’re away or they are not needed elsewhere. It includes a “deep litter run” where they process some of the kitchen scraps, garden weeds, snails, slugs and slaters into material ready for composting.
To deploy them in the vegetable garden and orchard we’ve built a “chook wagon”. This way we can deploy the chooks as wanted without need to be here and attend to them twice a day.
The adjustable and movable run contains them where we want them - their first preference is to scratch around the vegetable garden and dig up seedlings! The arrangement also helps disperse their dung where it is wanted. The wagon is mounted above salvaged motor-bike wheels so that it is easy to push around, collect eggs, top-up water or feed, and catch young roosters to eat off their night-time perch.
Chooks are most happy roosting as high as possible too, so it works for all concerned. The roosts are peeled branches of native cypress which are naturally insect-repelling and the varying dimension of the natural branch is better for the chooks’ feet than a perfectly regular rod. Beneath the roosts is galvanized mesh so the dung can mostly fall through (reducing cleaning) while keeping the chooks safe from predators.
There is a wide door on each side to maximize our access to the inside, and also enable the run to be which-ever side is convenient.
We’ve only recently got around to acquiring a worm-farm. We’ve been “going to” build our own, but haven’t. When several friends raved about the success of their bought ones, we lashed out. It is a case of “why did we not do this years ago!?” With almost no effort on our part, it produces about 2 litres of worm-wee every week, which we dilute 1:10 with water and use as liquid fertilizer throughout the vegetable and ornamental garden. The results of this liquid feeding are really impressive. However, the biggest attraction is no rats! Our hither-to compost heaps have been a real attraction for rats, but with all the food scraps going to the worms or chooks, there is little to attract the rats. The compost now only takes garden waste, weeds, fire-place ash and collected dung. The purchase cost was paid for in less than the first year by savings on liquid fertilizer and rat poison.
The vegetable garden at Niwajiri has had 3 incarnations – and we finally have it as good as we can get it now. It’s not perfect, but that would require moving the entire garden AND the house so it isn’t going to happen.
The first location, right across the patio from the big windows of the living room, was chosen after being enthused by my first exposure to Permaculture. Great location to use – very close to kitchen, good sun, moderate frost, good soil, except….. when I was too busy to attend to it the whole area became an eye-sore, and eye-sores don’t meet the beauty part of our how we want life to be here.
The second location was near the chook shed – great for integrating chooks and vegetables, and out of site when it had its neglected face on, but too far away to be convenient to just “nick out and grab a few leaves”. Also, I didn’t pass through that area unless deliberately going there, so while it was out of site, it was also out of mind.
It is now across the patio from the kitchen, but mostly hidden by the glass-house and out-door kitchen which have lovely stone and timber walls facing the house. The barn and driveway adjoin it providing easy access, including by vehicle so if we need to bring in a big roll of pea-straw mulch – it’s easy. An added benefit is that I park my car there so every time I go to & fro I am observing the conditions and having timely reminders to attend to whatever tasks.
We now produce a majority of our own fruit and vegetables and almost all of our own eggs. The flavour of many fruit and vegetables straight from the garden is sensational, and the nutritional value of most is also much higher, and in part that’s why they taste better. A number of crops which used to be expensive treats can now be gorged upon! – berries for example. We also produce lamb.
The meat and fat from grass-only fed grazing animals is actually GOOD for you having amongst other things comparable or higher levels of omega 3 than salmon, which is quite the reverse of feed-lot and shed-raised meat. The same applies to eggs from chooks on pasture (or lawn) compared to factory eggs. http://www.americangrassfedbeef.com/grass-fed-natural-beef.asp and http://www.eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm have clear explanations of why grass-fed is much healthier.
Combine this with the environmental benefits of grazing planned through Holistic Management processes, as opposed to the environmental damage done by the feed-lot and shed models, (a significant portion of the environmental footprint referred to in "Food" above) and everyone is winning.
Our success here has lead us to arrangements with other land-holders in the valley, and we now run a small grazing and direct-marketed lamb enterprise as well. The net effect is “low-food-miles”, most weed spraying and slashing eliminated, improved soil, reduced erosion, increased biodiversity, and healthier food! If you are interested in more information or would like to become a customer, please contact me and I’ll send more information.
Our life here at Niwajiri is pretty good – in fact it’s fabulous. We love it and we love sharing it with our family, friends, livestock and wild life. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it.
But more importantly, it is an example of thinking about how the people living here want their lives to be and how the garden has been designed and developed to facilitate that.
It has taken time, and it has evolved and changed in the details as we have, but the driving force, the true-north has been the description of how we want life to be here, what we have to produce to achieve it and what the resource base (the communities around us, the environment, our infrastructure and finances) has to be far into the future to enable it to continue.
Whether you chose to engage my services or not, I encourage you to think about how you want life in your garden to be (indeed life in your whole home, business, etc). It is amazing how helpful this is, and how it ultimately eases your decision-making toward achieving it. Take the time to think about and discuss it with those in your household. The reward is well worth the effort.
Contact me, Steve Hailstone via
Or phone (+ 61) 8 8339 4811