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4+ Years of Desert Permaculture with Tiny Rental Backyards

For six years before moving to rural Victoria and Loganberry Forest, Daniel and I lived in Roxby Downs in central Australia. It’s 6hours drive north of Adelaide and in real desert country with red sand dunes, salt pans, gibber plains and very little vegetation except a few acacia shrubs and saltbush. I was living there while doing my PhD fieldwork in archeology and about 2 years into my time there started growing food in the small backyards or decks of the various rental properties (and caravan) I lived in.


One of the smallest backyards we had in Roxby Downs but by far the most productive.

This met several needs I had: a need for green in a red/orange landscape, a need for fresh food where the only supermarket had unusually fast perishing fruit and vegetables (i’m a total foodie), and a relaxing and enjoyable activity to unwind from intensity of work where there was little else on offer in the tiny and remote town.

One of many mini harvests from our desert garden

Growing food in a sandy desert (the town was in dune country) in a climate that reaches near 48 degrees C in summer and gets quite cold and windy in winter is certainly challenging. On top of that we were in rentals with usually tiny backyards with high, hot metal fences and no way to collect rainwater (not that there was much rain). But it was in this environment that Daniel and I first discovered permaculture, studied and received our Permaculture Designers Certificate (PDC) and transformed our backyards into a green, somewhat productive oasis. These are the strategies and tips that I can share about practicing permaculture in this type of situation.

Desert Environments Vary Dramatically

I feel the need to stress the variability of desert environments. This is important since if you search permaculture and deserts you will invariably come across Geoff Lawnton’s amazing project in Jordon on Greening the Desert and little else. He provides an excellent example of what can be done in his type of desert environment. That doesn’t reflect the environment that we had and if studying desert landscape archaeology and geomorphology has taught me anything, it is that landform type and soil is everything and this will have an enormous baring in what will work, particularly if you are planting in the native soil.

If you are in pure sand like we were in Roxby Downs it will be extremely difficult to plant much except native plants directly in the soil without a lot of additions to reduce drainage and add carbon and nutrients. Alternatively,  if you have a lot more clay in the soil the options will be much greater, but then you might also have too much clay for fruit trees and they might go swelling and shrinking on you (gilgai features) constantly uprooting your trees. Thus, both soil types are going to need amending to either increase or decrease drainage. So sometimes, especially if you are in a small rental property like we were, it makes more sense to control the situation better with container and no dig gardening of various types than using the natural soil. Rainfall also varies enormously by region. Basically you can’t just apply a method directly you see online in just any old desert without considering how your own environment may be similar or different and the consequences of that. Because so few people are talking about desert permaculture you might even have to be a trail blazer and work things out yourself after a period of long observation and trial and error like we did.

Some of the huge variability in the landforms of the desert around just Roxby Downs alone:

Composting

If you can only do one thing to live a more sustainable lifestyle, then pick composting! For the average household a large proportion of waste is compostable and unless you have a municipal compost system (which most people do not for food scraps) that waste is going to landfill where in an anaerobic environment it doesn’t break down as it should and releases methane: a harmful greenhouse gas. When you compost, that big negative for the environment gets flipped to a huge positive and not only do you practice a form of carbon sequestration, and reduce the amount of landfill, but you get a fantastic soil food for plant and microorganism nutrition and better soil water retention. Those factors are absolutely critical in any desert environment if you want to grow anything other than the local native plants. If you don’t want to garden personally, then give that brown gold to someone who does who will be thrilled, or it would be better to quietly dump it in a public garden bed than have those food scraps go to landfill (or get chickens..!).

In a desert environment, composting may be slightly more complicated – but not much. Drying out of the compost is likely to be the biggest issue over another climate with more rainfall. We found a fully enclosed rotating compost bin to be the best option and this also worked fabulously in a rental as it could even be placed on concrete or pavers conserving our precious garden space. From time to time if there is the right balance of carbon and nitrogen material it does need a bit of watering, but far less than if the compost was done in a more open style bin or pile. If it never seems to need watering then you are probably not putting in enough carbon rich (brown) material.

The other issue we found was a lack of carbon/brown material to put in the compost from within our own property. In our tiny rentals in the desert there aren’t a lot of dried leaves to use (no deciduous plants grew there), no woody garden clippings and usually no grass clippings we could dry out to use. So I would bring home shredded paper from work and used that as the carbon component which worked just fine. We could have used straw or cane mulch but it was much better to use a free waste resource were we could.

Creating Fertile Soil for Growing Food

Our native soil was pure orange sand with extremely low levels of carbon. Since acacia (part of the legume family so nitrogen fixers) were present there was a little bit of nitrogen naturally in the soil so some people locally sometimes did manage to grow a few things like watermelon or pumpkins in it for one season but then it would become quite barren without amendments. We found generally that it was better to just create all new, better soil in raised garden beds, planters and larger containers like half wine barrels. This also worked well as we were renters and required to be able to put back things as we had found them whenever we moved home, which was almost yearly. 

We looked around us at the resources we had access to, and this is what we used to create  soil using a lasagna bed method.

Lasagna gardening  is about using alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen rich material which essentially becomes a form of sheet composting. You use what you have access to. For us living in Roxby Downs, a major resource was the local horse club where we could get unlimited amounts of horse manure for a small donation. We also used our own compost, kitchen scraps, the local sand for a mineral component and purchased straw or sugar cane mulch. Since this was very coarse to begin with it was topped off with purchased compost or potting mix and mulched with more straw after being planted out. Where there were a few store bought components in this mix, the purchase was only once for each garden bed. When the material broke down overtime and needed topping up we would then just use a mix of our compost and the local sand. Then the only external input was straw yearly for mulching which was essential for water saving and preventing plant death in summer.

Lasagna beds for soil creation

Note that when we first created our soil we were using our raised beds, just as standard, open bottom raised garden beds. Later on we converted them to wicking beds (which i’ll go into more detail next) which were lined with builders plastic, but only after all the lasagna layers had completely broken down into a homogenous black soil. As much as we love lasagna bed gardening AND wicking beds, the two are not compatible at the same time as initially lasagna bed soil will be too coarse to wick properly. So you would either have to do what we did starting with a traditional raised bed before doing a wicking bed, or bring in a finished soil blend to do a wicking bed.

Reducing Water Use

We did not have access to a rainwater tank since we were in rental properties and our roofs didn’t always even have gutters. Our water source was therefore town water which was desalinated from the Great Artesian Basin and thus precious and rightly so, expensive.  We wanted to do everything in our power to preserve that resource which we achieved in several ways.

Mulching was an absolute must all year around, but particularly in summer. This reduces evaporation of the water in the soil. We used straw or sugarcane mulch for this but there are many other things that could work too if you had access like dried grass clippings before they go to seed, or shredded paper.

50% shade cloth over everything in summer really helped.

In summer we also shaded the garden beds with a 50% shade cloth. I found in the middle of summer most things stopped growing, but this kept the plants from dying while they waited for things to cool down a little bit.

As the garden grew denser and denser with more and more crammed in planters and raised garden beds hand watering became quite laborious and often we’d want to go away for a weekend. So I installed an automatic drip irrigation system which also used less water than overhead watering with a hose by hand. This was put underneath the mulch and I found using driptape (dripeze etc) was much less prone to have leakage issues than putting in individual drippers. I even used these for our fruit trees in planters by forming a ring of the tape around the trunk. 

Having such a small space pushed me to make use of my vertical growing space against the fences. One way I did this was with hanging baskets in which i grew herbs and strawberries. These were the only things I used individual drippers for and by hanging 3 as a group underneath each other the water from a single dripper got used three times before watering something like a chilli plant in a self watering pot on the ground underneath. This way the water wasn’t just draining away into my sand dune backyard and used as many times as I could.

Making use of the vertical space along fences and recycling water through multiple planters before end up in a self watering pot with a reservoir.

In a similar vein I made use of our grey-water from the washing machine. This water along with a bucket in the shower is the easiest way for a renter to utilise grey-water without needing any kind of treatment system. The key thing is you can’t let it sit around as it will grow bad bacteria and also any cleaning products you use need to be grey-water safe. We used soapnuts for our laundry which are great for this.

The caravan I lived in. The washing machine water went straight on these sunflowers and mint.

Our system was quite simple. I had a 200L water tank outside the laundry window into which the washing machine output hose was placed with a sock on the end to act as a simple filter. The tank came with a small stand but it became apparent this wasn’t high enough above my garden beds or fruit trees to use gravity alone to do the watering, so I used a small tank pump (made by Maize specifically for this purpose and size of tank) to get the grey water to the garden. I usually used it on the fruit trees as you don’t really want it touching things like lettuce that you eat directly.

As mentioned previously, at one point we converted all our raised garden beds into wicking beds. These are a closed system so that there is a water reservoir in the bottom which wicks up through the soil to the plant roots. It is absolutely the best ever method of growing vegetables in the type of desert environment we were living in and saved us so much water and created abundant plant group. For our wicking beds we stacked two of our 1.2m wooden raised beds on top of each other. We also dug into the sand underneath the bed to get a bit of extra depth and lined it with heavy duty builders plastic. Digging down is also another way of reducing evaporation of moisture from the soil.

Out wicking bed setup

For the water reservoir we filled it with offcuts of slotted ag pipe then filled it with our local sand. The ag pipe just increased the volume of water storage than if we had just used sand. Then we had a layer of shade cloth then our beautiful black soil we had developed over the years from our lasagna beds.

Finally one other method of water efficient growing Daniel in particular explored was aquaponics. This was inspired by some setups a couple of other people in the town had going which were quite successful. Aquaponics is like hydroponics – the plants grow just in nutrient rich water, but in case of aquaponics the nutrients are provided by fish. We just used goldfish since we just trying the method out and tried growing things like lettuce, asian greens and tomatoes in containers with scoria with water being pumped and aerated between the fish container and the plant containers. A benefit of this method is you can potentially use it to also grow edible fish and that it can be done where the areas is concreted. 

Personally we didn’t have much luck with this system. The plants never reached the size of those grown in our normal garden beds, the fish kept dying from the heat and then finally the whole setup one day collapsed from the weight of the water and scoria. I think these failings had more to do with a lack of welding experienced (the successful systems I saw locally were all welded, whereas ours was wooden) and the extremely sunny hot location that was all that was left in our yard to try this. Possibly some other fish other than goldfish may also have been better but at this point we didn’t want to invest any more money in a failing system since the other downside of this is that it uses inputs that were expensive and hard to come by where we lived and also required electrical equipment. But as I said others had more success.

Plants we Grew Well

Creating a appropriate microclimate is key to being successful in desert permaculture since the natural environment, at least in the type of desert we were living in isn’t really naturally conducive to most plant foods (except the odd bit of bush tucker which is highly seasonal and couldn’t be relied on as the bulk fruit and veg for someone with a small backyard). But that works to a point. it doesn’t make sense to put a lot of resources into trying to grow something that needs particularly large amounts of water or that can’t cope with the hot summers (unless its an annual you can can just grow in winter for example).

Things we had particular success with were:

Passionfruit. This we grew in the natural soil on a trellis. I planted it with a piece of sheep’s liver to give it extra nutrients and a little compost. It grew prolifically and I was drowning in fruit twice a year.

Olives. I had two olive trees in half wine barrels and these did well enough to provide me around a litre of olives to preserve each year from the second year I had them (they were probably year old trees when I got them).

Strawberries. These I grew in hanging baskets since my raised beds were too value for vegetables.

Pepino. A kind of melon tasting fruit this did well in a small self watering pot.

Peas. Grown in winter and early spring these I grew up a trellis at the back of my raised beds/wicking beds.

Tuscan Kale. Otherwise known as dinosaur kale these lasted far longer into summer than any other kale variety. Sometimes they even got through a summer and kept growing when it got cooler which is pretty amazing.

Corn. Sometimes i couldn’t justify the space for this but it did grow well so long as was planted in a block which therefore was an entire 1.2m2 garden bed for me.

Sweet Potato. This did amazing (white potatoes didn’t). I often found styrofoam broccoli boxes beside the road and these were perfect with a few holes poked into it filled with a mix of sand and horse manure. Often i’d even get potatoes escaping through the holes and growing in the sand below the boxes. When I also grew them in my raised garden beds these also worked as a kind of living mulch for the rest of my plants.

Lettuce , asian greens, spinach, silverbeet, herbs and radishes These are high value items so worth the time and fast growing too.

Carrots. These grew well in the cooler seasons and grew long and straight in my sand rich lasagna bed soil.

Zucchini. Enough said. I also enjoyed the tombuchino variety which is more of a squash, as well as blackjack.

Pumpkins. I would plant these on the corners of teh raised beds so that they would climb out onto my paths rather than smother the other plans in the garden beds.

Eggplant, tomatoes, Chilli and Capsicums. One year in particular we were drowning in eggplants. They love the heat to a point. For some reason I always struggled to grow full sized tomato plants when I lived in Roxby but cherry tomatoes did well. 

We also had some citrus, a pomegranate and a fig tree in half wine barrels. We got a few lemons and limes off it and one pomegranate, but these plants never really gave us much in the few years we had them. Partly this was a wind issue as it was incredibly windy and we couldn’t give them enough protection to stop the blooms from flying off. 

I really like the Gardinate website and app under the Arid climate setting (Australia) to give me an idea of what to plant when. I should also mention that since nobody local had bees pollination was sometimes an issue particularly in newer housing areas with less planted locally. In some places I lived i’d have to self pollinate my tomatoes with a toothbrush and hand pollinate my pumpkins and zucchini. I found when we moved to a home that had a lot more native plants with flowers in them that the natural pollination rate improved dramatically.

Other Lifestyle Factors

Permaculture is of course not only gardening but a whole lifestyle. Baring in mind that living at all in that kind of environment isn’t particularly sustainable since so much of the resources like water and food we couldn’t grow that we needed were brought in from great distances. But since we were there for other (work) reasons we did as as much as we could to reduce our overall impact. This included composting and using reusables as much as possible (cloth nappies, shopping bags etc), cooking from scratch at home and walking or cycling to work and catching the bush. We also tried to take part in our local community which became part of my job when I joined the local council in the community team to assist in environmental education programs as well projects with the community garden.

Overall I would say there are many benefits to practicing permaculture even in the extreme environment of the desert and that many of the limitations I faced were probably more of a factor of being a renter with small backyards. In particular growing some of our food kept me sane and it is what blossomed into the passion for permaculture that we have and live on a much larger scale today.