Guerrilla gardening

Why you shouldn’t plant citrus trees in the verge

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Yes, that's a lemon tree buried in amongst the nasturtiums...
Yes, that’s a lemon tree buried in amongst the nasturtiums…

Before Lewisham, we lived in a unit in Chippendale. Surrounded by the local guerrilla gardening of the verge, we were equally enthusiastic when we moved into our new house.

We remain strong supporters of the principle of gardening the verge (nature strip). We’ve learned along the way, however, a bit about what works and what doesn’t.

What works in the verge

There are many possibilities for gardening the verge, while staying in local council guidelines.

“Pick and come again” mediterranean herbs work particularly well. They’re tough, attractive, and useful for office workers heading home to make their evening meal. Olive trees and bay trees also work well, acclimatised as they are to tough conditions.

There are plenty of native plants that work well in the verge, from low-running ground-covers and strap-leaf grasses, through to hardy bushes and small trees. (We’re quite pleased with our native verge.)

What doesn’t work in the verge

Our biggest lesson is that citrus trees don’t work well in the verge. Since this is the hardest learned lesson for us, it’s worth sharing a few specific reasons:

  • Citrus trees are gross feeders. That is, they require a lot of food, throughout the year. Without this, they remain stunted and fruit-less. (For example, for us to get lots of limes, we greatly ramped up our feeding regimen.)
  • Citrus are attacked by bugs and diseases. There’s practically nothing that they aren’t attacked by, including citrus leaf miners, stink bugs, aphids, thrips and citrus gall moth, to name just a few.
  • Citrus aren’t set-and-forget. For the reasons listed above, citrus need constant monitoring and care, for their entire lifetime.
  • They get stolen. Mirroring the experience in Chippendale, three of our four citrus trees were stolen in the first fortnight, the last being left only because it looked so poor.
  • People are impatient. While the whole idea of edible plants in the verge is to share the bounty, we’ve found that the fruits get taken well before they’ve even ripened.
  • People are careless. More often than not, a whole branch will be ripped off, rather than a single fruit twisted free.

In short, don’t plant citrus. Beyond this, each local council will have guidelines about what not to plant. Large street trees are typically seen, for example, as the sole domain of the council to plant.

But there are plenty of other options! May your verge live well and prosper.

Fifty plants now in around Lewisham Station

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A pile of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.
A growing collection of seedlings and tube stock, all going well.

Since my early native plantings around Lewisham Station, I’ve been steadily adding to the collection, mostly by planting a few of my hand-raised cuttings each weekend.

I’ve now reached the milestone of fifty plants. These are planted closely together — typically about 30cms apart — to create a dense “bush pocket” effect.

While that might seem like a crazy amount of over-planting, it’s all to a plan:

  • At the back of the strip, a canopy of small trees, including acacias (wattles) and callistomons (bottle brushes).
  • A mid story of native bushes, including westringias (native rosemary), correas (native fuchsia)  and prostantheras (mint bushes).
  • A bottom story of strap-leaf plants at the front of the strip, and a mix of hardy groundcovers throughout the rest.

I reckon there may be 30-50 more plants required to fill it all out, but I’ll continue the slow-and-steady approach.

So far only two plants have died, and they were struggling as cuttings even before I planted them out.

Fingers crossed the rest will keep on going strong!

Digging up the last of our nature strip

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The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.
The last patch of grass in the nature strip alongside our house.

Soon after we moved into our house in Lewisham, we dug up a section of the nature strip, and planted citrus trees and herbs. While three of the citrus were immediately stolen, we continued to build up the strip in front of our door, until it was lush and vibrant.

A year ago, we pulled up another section of the nature strip, and native plantings quickly took over.

As it turns out, the local council would actually prefer us to pull up little sections of grass, rather than leave them squeezed in amongst other plantings. This makes life easier for the council staff who do the mowing, and helps to reduce the cost of maintaining the streets.

So with just one piece of grass left between the two sets of plantings, we sorted that out this last weekend.

Nothing but bare earth now!
Nothing but bare earth now!

The process of pulling out the grass is easier than it looks. The roots are shallow, so some mattock work lifts out chunks of grass. It’s then just a matter of digging through the soil to get out as many remnant grass roots as possible.

I then topped it up with some spare soil, and added a little native plant fertiliser.

I’ve been growing a number of native plants from cuttings, so these provided the start of what should become a thick bushy area. Plants include mint bushes (prostanthera), correas, dianellas, and a number of ground covers (including pigface). (We planted the grevillea six months ago.)

The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.
The start of what should become a thick and bushy strip of native plants.

I collected some free mulch from the local council nursery, and the end result looks rather good I think. Over the next month I’ll finish off the plantings, and by then I’m expecting the seedlings to start putting on some serious growth.

Another piece of grass replaced by native plants, yay!

(Not) guerrilla gardening around Lewisham train station

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Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees
Gymea Lilles planted underneath the established palm trees

The area around Lewisham train station is a desolate wasteland. Other than a row of large palm trees, there’s a disintegrating raised garden bed, and a long strip of browning weeds. Hardly a joy to behold.

Following a casual suggestion from a neighbour, I guerrilla gardened in a number of gymea lilies, underneath the palm trees. These are extremely tough, and will grow to a size large enough to visually fill in the gaps along the fence.

That got me started, so I continued on to plant a small patch of native plants at the start of the pedestrian walkway that runs alongside the train line.

I’ve since expanded this a little, and it now consists of a mix of acacias (to start enriching the soil), hardy native shrubs (westringias, etc) and strap-leafed plants (lomandras, dianellas).

The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.
The start of what will hopefully become a patch of mini-bushland.

This has not been without some challenges:

  • The railway put in a huge new vandal-proof black fence, and the workers trampled some of the plants in the process (although most survived!).
  • The regular railway workers tend to roll their trucks over the garden every once in a while.
  • Kids keep stealing the stakes, so the plant guards blow away.
  • It’s only rained once in the last 3 months, so hand watering is critical in this early stage.

Despite this, many of the plants, particularly the bushes, are already growing rapidly. I’ve also got a heap of cuttings that should be ready for planting out soon.

Why do this?

A few people have asked me “why bother doing all this, it isn’t your problem?”.

There are a few reasons:

  • It’s nice to live in a lovely local environment, and the current station environment is far from lovely.
  • It’s also good to increase the local biodiversity, encouraging more birds, insects, etc.
  • This land belongs collectively to us, as the local residents. The Council is just the steward of the land, looking after it on our behalf.
  • This gives us a responsibility to participate in sustaining and improving the environment.
  • Someone should be doing it! The Council, even with the best of wills, can’t do everything for us.
  • It’s enjoyable and satisfying to see something grow and prosper.

It’s now official

I also struck up a conversation with the lovely folks at Marrickville Council, who have endorsed the use of the land as a low-maintenance community native garden.

So it’s no longer guerrilla gardening … it’s official gardening. Where’s the fun in that! 😉

Watch this space for updates as the space (hopefully) starts to bush up and spread out…

 

Reclaim the curb (and win a prize!)

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Our native verge is lush and vibrant.
Our native verge is lush and vibrant (although only partially edible).

We’re great believers in homeowners playing a direct role in their street. The most visible (and perhaps the easiest!) way is to plant out the verge.

In our case, we’ve planted one verge with native plants (above), as well as a second containing herbs and other edibles. Both are lovely to walk by (we think).

That’s why we’re excited to hear about the Reclaim the Curb initiative, who are holding a competition to Create Australia’s Most Edible Curb.

What a great idea! So get planting, and submit your efforts to win a prize 🙂

(The deadline is 5pm 31st May 2013.)

Two books on edible weeds

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Everything you ever want to know about eating weeds
Everything you’d ever want to know about eating weeds

Living in the inner city, there’s no shortage of weeds, in the street and in our garden. Thankfully not one but two books have been published to make the best of it:

The first is a self-published book covering common weeds, their identification and use. Don’t be fooled by the name: this book is applicable throughout temperate regions in Australia, including Sydney.

The second book is professionally published, and covers much the same ground, but with more pictures.

Both are truly excellent, and they make you look at “weeds” in an entirely new way. Many of the most common weed plants are edible, as salad ingredients, steamed or in stir-fries. They also have many medicinal uses.

Using the two books, these are the weeds that we identified growing in our garden, or in the food forest out the back:

  • Amaranth
  • Blackberry Nightshade
  • Catsear
  • Chickweed
  • Cobbler’s Pegs
  • Clover
  • Dandelion
  • Dock
  • Fat Hen
  • Onionweed
  • Oxalis
  • Plantain
  • Sow Thistle
  • Sticky Weed

That’s quite a list! With the plants growing at different times throughout the year, we’re going to make an effort to make use of what’s growing wild, to supplement our garden crops.

We’re also using them to give our chickens a green feed every morning, which is probably why their yolks are so yellow!

(The fact that 80% of the weeds out the back are edible does gives pause for thought. Perhaps they were seeded deliberately at some point in the distant past?)

Planting natives into our verge

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Just starting to pull out the first of the grass
Just starting to pull out the first of the grass

When we first moved into the house, we brought with us a bay tree that was living in a pot. One of our first actions was to guerrilla garden this into the verge, along with a lemon-scented tea tree (Leptospermum Petersonii). They’ve been happily growing there for the last 3+ years.

Inspired by the Council’s recent efforts, we decided to take the next step, and to strip out all the grass in the strip of verge.

This was surprisingly easy to do with a mattock, and the grass was all out in a little over an hour.

We then planted in a mix of hardy natives:

  • Lomandra longifolia
  • Lomonda hystrix
  • Dianella caerulea
  • Pennisetum advena ‘Rubrum’
  • Grevillea

It’s not much to look at right now, but give it six months and it will be lush bush pocket!

Give it a bit of time to grow, and it will look great.
Give it a bit of time to grow, and it will look great.

Giving street trees more space

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Dianellas planted around the base of a Council street tree
Dianellas planted around the base of a Council street tree

One of the topics that came up at my first Marrickville Council Environment Committee meeting was the Council’s recent (?) policy of widening the cut-out around street trees, as shown in the photo above (taken a block away from our house on Old Canterbury Rd).

Hardy natives, such as Lomandras and Dianellas are then planted around the base of the tree.

This is a great idea, for a whole pile of reasons:

  • the trees get more space to grow, including better access to rainwater
  • damage to the pavement is reduced
  • the arrangement looks great
  • it increases the biodiversity of the area
  • plants such as lomandra and dianella both produce berries much liked by birds

Of course, it’s not a new idea. In the streets around us, hundreds of trees have had  plants guerrilla gardened in underneath them. The variety is the great bit, from natives to exotics, grasses and flowers. Perhaps the Council is just catching up with the local residents!

Gardening around the base of street trees -- have residents been leading the way?
Gardening around the base of street trees — have residents been leading the way?

Our first apples

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Our first apples, Granny Smith I think
Our first apples, Granny Smith I think

Some years ago, we started guerrilla gardening some of the convent land to make it into a food forest. This included nine different varieties of apple trees.

Much to our surprise, the trees started flowering after only a year, although they produced a very small amount of fruit. (All of which was attacked to death by the fruit flies that year.)

So the apples above represent our very first harvest. They’re not the biggest of apples, and frankly, they’re not the best. But they are ours 🙂

It’s been a tough year for the trees. After a very wet summer, we then went into 6 months of drought, with less than 50mm per month. (Until the skies opened up two days ago, dumping 150mm on Sydney.)

The ground was parched, and even the weeds were brown and dying. The trees only survived by weekly bucket watering, which is far from ideal growing conditions.

So we’ll enjoy these first apples, and look forward to an even better harvest next year 🙂

12 best edible wild plants of Australia

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The Weedy Connection have posted a great image listing the most common edible weeds in Australia.

(See the full size image.)