nature strip

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.

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!

From little things, big things grow

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One of two olive trees, transplanted from pots into the nature strip

I’ve been very active on our nature strip, madly guerilla gardening in several citrus trees, a bay tree, kaffir lime, and lemon-scented tea tree. My next step is to progressively get rid of the grass which is competing with the trees (no small task, will be waiting for some cooler weather!).

One of the residents from down the road dropped by one day to ask about the trees: did I ask for permission from the Council first? “Well, I could’ve” was my response.

After some further discussions, he revealed that he had two olive trees that had outgrown their pots, and  was wondering whether they could be planted into the nature strip in front of their house. I said: why not! The following weekend they went into the nature strip, and they’re growing well a month or two later.

As they say: from little things, big things grow. Who knows, maybe we’ve started a local movement. 🙂

Street food comes to Lewisham

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The first sign goes out on the nature strip, more to come
The first sign goes out on the nature strip, more to come

We’ve been steadily planting out on the nature strip. First the bay tree that moved with us from the old unit. Then a kaffir lime, and two dwarf lemon trees. Finally a lemon-scented tea tree.

Yes, this is guerilla gardening, but not just for our own selfish benefit. From the outset, the aim has been to put out plants that can be harvested by the locals as they wander by (perhaps the lemons break this rule).

So this afternoon, the first “street food” sign went out onto the nature strip. We hope to start a local movement, copying what has been done on Myrtle St in Chippendale. Now we see whether it’s harvested to death, or gently pruned…

Lemons into the nature strip

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Two dwarf meyer lemons, in excellent shape and ready for the nature strip
Two dwarf meyer lemons, in excellent shape and ready for the nature strip

A few weeks ago I ordered two dwarf myer lemons from Perry’s Fruit and Nut Nursery in SA. These are your typical Australian backyward lemon, but on “Flying Dragon” roostock, which according to the nursery is the only “true” dwarfing stock.

This morning both lemons went into the nature strip, in front of our house. Give them a year, and they should be producing prolific fruit all year round (fingers crossed!). Of course, many (most?) of the lemons will be picked by passer-byers, but that’s OK. Particularly if it distracts them from raiding our front garden veges…

Second planting into the nature strip

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Kaffir lime planted into the nature strip
Kaffir lime planted into the nature strip

Our plan has generally been to put things into the nature strip that provide edible leaves, rather than fruit. That way the plants should be better able to withstand the local (encouraged) harvesting.

The bay tree was an obvious choice. Then the topic of kaffir limes came up in conversation with our next door neighbours, and we knew what had to go in next! A few weekends ago we sourced one from a local nursery, dug a deep hole into the clay soil, and bedded the tree into a whole bag of cow manure.

It seems very happy. It’s even started fruiting already, although I think the extremely bitter fruit are an acquired taste…

Policy on planting in the nature strip

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I’m reliably informed that Marrickville Council doesn’t have an official policy on planting in the nature strip. In practice, they seem content to overlook any planting that does get done, presuably within sensible boundaries.

I was therefore interested to discover that City of Canterbury does have a nature strip policy. What I like about this is the explicit responsibility given to the householder: if you decide to plant the nature strip, you need to maintain it. There are also generally sensible guidelines on where not to plant (such as on a corner).

I only have  a few complaints about this policy. Firstly, it sets the maximum height of allowed plants to 600mm, which rules out all shrubs and trees (even small ones). We already have a handful of trees on our street, presumably limited by council budget and resources. This policy would prevent us from sensibly planting additional trees.

The fee for gaining approval also seems needless, and out of touch with expected practices. Still, it’s great to see a formal policy (I believe that thanks needs to go to the Greens for kick-starting this).

I’d love to see a similar policy put in place in the Marrickville area, and I’ve already made contact with Councillors Max Phillips, Cathy Peters and Peter Olive. Add a comment if you’d also like to get involved in making this happen…

Helping out back in Chippendale

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Yesterday I headed back to our old stomping ground to help out Michael Mobbs garden the nature strip along Myrtle St. A small but committed group turned up, and we cleaned up one side of the street, including planting a few more citrus trees. If you feel like you missed out, you can still help out next weekend (details to be posted shortly on the Food for the Future blog).

One of the highlights was chatting to Robyn Williamson, from the NW Sydney Seed Savers group. She also kindly shared some plants from their community garden, and I’ve now got chilli  and celery in my garden. I was also very excited to get some Warrigal Greens seeds, which I’ll plant out in spring.

I’d love to rework our streetscape here in Lewisham, watch this space…

Chippendale food fair urban farming

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We recently moved from Chippendale, where I lived for over a decade. In recent times, there had been a big transformation, driven by Michael Mobbs, the owner of the well-known “Sustainable House”. Tree and veges appeared in the nature strip, and a weekly food box organised (which we get and love!).

Michael is in part responsible for our current sustainability activities, and I continue to be amazed by his energy for spawning new initiatives. Thanks Michael, keep up the great work!

Planting our bay tree in the nature strip

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Bay tree

I’ve had a bay tree for 3+ years, and it’s been happily growing on my balcony in the old unit. Without full sun, it was getting a bit scrawny, but it nonetheless provided plenty of bay leaves for cooking.

With the move to Lewisham, the time was right to give it a proper home in soil. With space at a premium, the solution was obvious: a bit of “guerilla gardening”.

Just before Easter I went out and dug a big hole in the clay soil of the nature strip. This was filled with a rich mix of cow manure and soil, and the bay tree planted in. No need to ask permission, much better just to do it!

I’m looking forward to seeing it grow, and will put a sign on it once it’s settled in saying: “bay tree, feel free to pick some leaves for your cooking!”.

PS. I blame Michael Mobbs for encouraging this sort of behaviour! Having planted trees, herbs and vegetables down Myrtle St in Chippendale, a clear example has been set for all to follow. 🙂