Self-sustaining systems for the backyard gardener

Sustainability in Korora

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 11.6.11

Meet Steve McGrane. He’s the newly appointed Coordinator of the soon-to-be-inaugurated first-ever Coffs Regional Community Garden, to be constructed on 5000m2 at the Combine Street reserve.

Steve McGrane in his backyard garden in Korora
Steve McGrane in his backyard garden in Korora

Steve brings a wealth of horticultural experience and knowledge to this position, as well as a fierce passion for the principles of organic gardening and sustainable living. And not just the principles: Steve is a man who ‘walks the talk’, as anyone fortunate enough to visit his small (600m2) suburban property in Korora can attest.

He moved to the Coffs area in 2007, after working as a horticulturalist in Sydney and being involved at the community level with groups such as Permaculture North. His first intention was to set up a demonstration broadacre farm, but then it occurred to him that ‘actually it’s the domestic situation which is creating a lot of the waste [in our food system], and which is not really effective and sustainable in the way that we manage our resources.’

That realisation was the germ of inspiration for a seven-year project to demonstrate just what can be achieved, right here and now, in a 300m2 backyard, in terms of sustainable food production and biodiversity. And what Steve has achieved, largely with his own time, effort, skills and resources, plus some help from his neighbours, is quite remarkable.

When Steve talks about ‘sustainable food production’, what he means is a system that, after a period of time, doesn’t depend on purchased external inputs, i.e. it can sustain itself. His project isn’t about achieving self-sufficiency, which he sees as unrealistic and even undesirable. Rather, the aim is that after seven years, ‘the inputs which are producing the food here [will] be totally self-sustainable’, including ‘the water, the fertilisers, the mulch, and everything else’.

So how has he gone about achieving this goal? By applying permaculture and biodynamic methods ‘to prepare what was basically clay and shale soil’; and by researching what could be grown, with the aim of getting a ‘broad range of species’, especially those that would largely take care of themselves.

The starting point was to plant a lot of pioneer and support species, like acacias (Sally Wattles) and bamboo, alongside a large number of fruit trees. At first the ratio of support species to fruit trees was 90%-10%, and Steve’s aim is ‘through evolutional successioning’ to reverse that entirely over a fifteen-year period. Currently, after four years, the ratio is 60-40, support-fruit trees.

The pioneer plants have two main purposes: to fix nitrogen and improve the soil; and also as ‘sacrificial plants’ to produce mulch, via the ‘chop and drop’ method. Both purposes complement each other:

When you cut acacias and you trim the canopy, you also trim the roots, and that releases the nitrogen…Otherwise nitrogen’s not released until the plant is actually killed, and the nodules are broken open. So [this] is a way of releasing nitrogen as you go.

At the ground level, Steve’s put in other pioneers, like comfrey and vettava grass, which he uses as a border for his mandala vegie gardens.

Vettava grass is ‘used as a fodder in India for cattle’, says Steve, ‘because it’s very high in proteins, and it makes a very good mulch. It breaks down into straw, and that’s what I’m talking about in terms of not having to bring in inputs. So all I do is chop and drop it into the soil. It’s got nitrogen as well, and a high mineral uptake.’

The comfrey serves a similar purpose, and is also highly recommended for making a compost tea, together with a bit of seaweed, and the odd biodynamic prep. Another good ‘chop and drop’ is pidgeon pea, which also yields a crop of lentils. Other food-and-pioneer plants are sweet potatoes, which as a ‘ground cover [creates] a habitat for the microbes and bacteria to do their work’; and mint, which also deters pests.

The result of these years of soil preparation? ‘I now have six inches of soil’, says Steve, ‘which I didn’t have before.’

Talking of food, Steve has Decassis and Cavendish bananas, apples, peaches, pears, citrus, pawpaw, nectarines, almonds, macadamia, a dwarf pecan, hill gooseberry, South American cherry, passionfruit vines, and many other species. And that’s before we get to the vegies…

Steve’s new projects for his garden are the native bees, and aquaponics, which we’ll discuss in future columns.

If you would like to visit Steve’s garden in Korora, please put your name down for a tour with the Coffs Coast Ambassador programme, 6648 4676. For those interested in finding out more about the Coffs Regional Community Garden, please visit, or contact Adam Curlis on 0424 989 979.