Harvesting the Suburbs

Robyn Francis, garden forage

Micro Eden Series: Making the most of small spaces to reduce food miles to meters with Robyn Francis

Anyone can have a garden. “Small is beautiful” and the discovery of small space sufficiency can yield surprising results, not only as produce for the table, but as a place of beauty and the great sense of satisfaction that comes from watching a seed grow and eating food you’ve grown yourself.

We can bring nature and the farm back into the city. We can homestead in our backyard, sideyard, frontyard and transform the streetscape into an oasis of beauty and abundance and create a micro-eden.  Robyn Francis explores the productive potential of small gardens to reduce our food miles to meters, and ways permaculture design can yield more than just a good feed.

The concept of “square foot” (or metrically speaking, “square meter”) gardening can inspire new perspectives on the use of space. One square foot can be used in many ways – it can produce one cabbage, or a dozen carrots, or a tomato plant, or grow a grape vine that will produce tonnes of delicious fruit over its life span – and you get nine square feet in a square meter!

Another concept I find interesting is “edible landscapes” – designing a productive garden to look as good as it tastes. With a little imagination a garden can be planned so that production and function work in harmony with aesthetics. The garden photographed here (right of my veranda) has a vegie and herb garden with a bird bath framing a pond that makes pleasant and productive use of the stormwater from my roof. The bamboo bridge is my path into the rest of my kitchen garden. I’ve not oly got a very productive garden but a beatuful view to enjoy from my hammock on the veranda.

Permaculture is more than simply growing a few productive plants, its a design system for whole environments and looks at ways we can create all kinds of benefits through exploring the relationships between plants, buildings and structures, animals, and the natural elements. Permaculture tries to maximise the functional benefits as well as the productivity. Its also about acheiving a realistic degree of self reliance in food production, water and energy and reducing our energy and consumption.  Most of all its about quality of life.


This house in Village Homes, Davis CA, has constructed a pergola over the patio supporting a productive grapevine to provide a cool sanctuary in summer. In winter the vine drops its leaves letting the winter sun sine right into the house through the glass doors and windoes to provide natural heating.


A permaculture design for your garden, in addition to providing food, will also aim to:

•  create comfortable microclimates year-round through the control of sun, shade and wind

•  support energy efficiency of the home through passive solar landscape design for heating in winter and cooling in summer

• consider solar access for your solar panels, water heaters, and respect your neighbours solar rights as well

• identify opportunities for water collection in water tanks and in-ground filtration with soaks and swales, and address drainage

•  conserve water through mulching, appropriate plant selection, recycling waste water and use of water conserving irrigation systems

• integrate appropriate technologies, waste-water treatment, composting toilets into a total working system design

•  reduce maintenance and work through mulching, use of perennial and self sowing plant varieties and other design features

•  reduce or eliminate areas of grass unless it really needed for play or other uses, grow a mulch meadow of herbs instead

•  provide spaces for outdoor living – consider the garden as a natural extension to the living environment of the home

• encourage you to chat with your neighbour and plant a fruit or nut they like too on the boundary to share.


Another important fact, which is often overlooked, is that you don’t have to own your own place in order to have a garden. How often have you heard the excuse “But I’m only renting…” as a reason not to garden.  For ten years I was living in rented houses, in the inner suburbs of Sydney then in a small rural city, yet I’ve always had a garden producing a substantial amount of my food. I’ve also noticed with great pleasure that the gardens I’ve left behind have usually been continued by the new tenants that followed me. If you strike a landlord who doesn’t approve of gardens then make yourself a container garden – it’s mobile so you can move it with you when you change house!


Harvesting the Suburbs

Much of the land now covered by the suburban sprawl was once farming land, yet its productive potential has been forgotten under the cover of bricks, bitumen, cement and lawn. The lawnspace of the suburbs, if put into intensive food production has the potential to out-produce the yields of commercial agriculture previously practiced on that land and provide most of our fresh food needs.

Suburban blocks vary in size from less than an eighth acre (500m2) through to the quarter acre (1,000m2) lot. A family can grow most of their vegetables and possibly produce a surplus of fruit from this area of land. Some animals may be included, such as chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, but this will depend on individual preference and council regulations.

Although the backyard has traditionally been the place for a vegetable garden and generally tends to be the most used yard space around the home, front yards and side yards are also important landscape areas that can contribute to food production.

Of all food producing systems the annual vegetable garden has the greatest potential to supply a high proportion of our daily food needs. It is also the most labour intensive, requiring continuous input year round to yield a constant and continuous harvest of fresh wholesome food.

The aim of permaculture design for the home garden is to maximise food production where its convenient and easy to maintain, and to balance this with the other uses of the backyard or area immediately around the house. The objective is to grow an abundance of fresh herbs and vegetables all year round with the least amount of work.

There are many ways to eliminate unnecessary work and minimise the necessary maintenance. These include how we design our garden landscape, where we place the garden itself, the plants we choose to grow and the methods and techniques we employ for garden construction and on-going maintenance.

It makes sense to place intensive food gardens close to your main centre of outdoor activity where it is readily accessible, and develop it along routine paths travelled daily or frequently for other chores and activities, like en route to the clothes line, compost bin, nursery or chicken house.

Its good to start with a checklist of what you want from your garden. The table below lists typical examples of the types of production, function, structures and features that are often incorporated into urban Permaculture edible landscape design.


ProductionFunctionsStructures & Features
Herbs – culinary-       fragrant

–       medicinal


Salad greens



Fruit trees



Cut flowers

Craft materials





Garden nutrients

Bird & butterfly forage

Microclimate-       summer shade

–       winter sun

–       windbreak

–    passive solar


Food production

Outdoor eating/cooking



Child play area

Water collection, recycling



Aesthetics (good looking)


Clothes drying

Waste management

Wildlife habitat

Raised bedsContainer gardens

Paths, paved areas

Shade house

Green/glass house


Garden furniture

Barbeque, cob oven

Trellises and screens

Pond/water feature

Greywater system

Drains and soaks

O/D sink & cleaning

Composting toilet

Animal housing, fences

Compost bins

Shed, workshop, studio

Cubby house

Play equipment



© Robyn Francis, Dec 2010

This articles includes extracts from the Micro-Eden booklet by Robyn Francis.

Future Articles in the Micro-Eden Series will explore further design ideas for small space permaculture.


Micro Eden Series with Robyn Francis

#1 Going potty permaculture style – Container Gardens

#2  Harvesting the Suburbs and Small Space Gardens

Robyn Francis – renowned international permaculture designer and educator, Robyn has been growing her own food organically for over 30 years in urban and rural, temperate and tropical environments. Robyn is principal of Permaculture College Australia and manages Djanbung Gardens, one of permaculture’s leading education centres and demonstration sites.


Enjoyed this article? Please leave a comment and share with your friends.

Read more of Robyn’s articles here:

Why Gardening makes you Happy and Cures Depression

Edible Flowers

Slaves to Convenience – a story of liberation

What is Permaculture?

A Taste of the Bush in the Backyard

The Underground Gardens of Fresco, California

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