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Designing my productive garden

Helen McKerral

Helen McKerral

July 17, 2012

Gardening books make it seem so straightforward: four beds, each ten metres long by one metre wide in full sun, enough to allow for crop rotation and for a family to harvest all they can eat. If you have a flat, bare acreage, lucky you! Simply choose your paddock, orient and then dig your beds – exactly as the book describes! Easy-peasy! But we suburbanites have annoying impediments like houses and sheds that take up valuable planting space and cast shade, completely ruining the ideal layout of our productive garden! Ditto areas south of fences –post and wire is fine, but 1.8 metre corrugated iron isn’t. Add neighbour’s hedges or trees. Add aspect – north-facing too hot and dry, south facing too shady. Add drainage – boggy areas. Add the necessity for access. The list goes on… and every site is different.

As I wrote earlier in ‘From Scratch – Paths‘, my first priority on this sloping block was access, so paths determined the shapes of beds, not vice-versa. My second priority was maximising and preserving sunlight, because that’s the limiting factor for production (in my garden; for other gardeners, it might be the availability of irrigation water, or wind exposure, or poor drainage).

Before I began working on the block, I drew a plan, which was based on that idealised empty flat paddock in full sun. That plan lasted about a nanosecond after I’d actually walked the area! So the plan evolved: here is incarnation No. 19 – yes, nineteen! Click on it for the higher resolution view. It’s from last week but it’s already changed!

I’m now at the pointy end of the process, because this month I’ve begun planting (and transplanting and propagating) all my deciduous trees and perennials including:


  • peach ‘O’Henry’*
  • nectarine ‘Arctic Rose’*
  • 2 plums ‘Satsuma’, ‘Narrabeen’
  • cherry ‘Lapins’*
  • persimmon ‘Jiro dwarf’


  • pear ‘Trixzie’
  • apple ‘Pinkabelle’
  • apple ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’
  • peach ‘Sunset’
  • nectarine ‘Sunset’
  • peach ‘Trixzie’
  • pomegranate ‘Gulosha Azerbaijani’


  • 2 Chinese dates ‘Li (ita)’, ‘Lang’
  • 4 blueberries (several varieties)
  • 12 red and white currants
  • 4 black currants
  • 2 jostaberry


  • 2 pears ‘Williams’, ‘Buerre Bosche’*
  • 2 apples ‘Granny Smith’, ‘Red Fuji’
  • 2 table grapes*


  • *8 raspberry ‘Autumn Bliss’
  • *4 boysenberry

They’re chosen for:

  1. cross-pollination
  2. early and late fruiting
  3. cooking vs. eating
  4. suitability to my local climate (based on advice from my specialist supplier, Chris Perry of Perry’s Fruit and Nut Nursery )
  5. growth habit and of course
  6. my family’s preferences (I adore currant jelly, which is why I have so many of them).

Later, I can always graft on additional varieties, while my quince, medlar, sour cherry and triple-grafted Nashi will remain in the old garden.

I bought eight of the varieties* this season, but all the rest are transplanted (from pots or the old garden) or propagated. Until planting, new ones are heeled in where a stump was mulched – the ideal loose, friable sawdust/soil mixture to protect roots.

So, where should all these deciduous plants go? Sun on the central vegie beds (Beds 1, 2, 3 & 4 on the plan) must be preserved, so no trees in them at all. But step-over apple espaliers, or grape espaliers would be okay on their southern sides.

Red ‘Fuji’ apple

The ‘Red Fuji’ apple is four years old and, although it branches higher up the trunk than I’d prefer for an espalier, its effective height is lowered by planting it on a slope below a path at the eastern end.

The uphill neighbour has no dog, so happily the new boundary ‘fence’ can comprise espaliers – they’ll look great and, because they’re low and deciduous, they won’t cast shade in winter. The cherry is taller, and the fan espalier might look odd beside the horizontal ones, so I haven’t finalised its position; possibly at the western end to screen the shed.

View E-F on the plan

I also asked Chris to rank my new fruit trees according to their sun requirements, from most to least: grape, pear, apple, cherry; important for the boundary fence, because there are several trees to the north. The stone fruit are in the sunniest spot.

In the end, my paper plan is a foundation, and it’s when I begin placing plants and digging holes that fine-tuning happens. That’s the fun part! If I’m unsure, I hammer a stake into the ground. The stake is about the height of the mature tree or espalier, to help me estimate the shade it will cast. Sometimes the stick gets moved a bit, other times I decide the espalier form is better than a dwarf tree (or vice-versa). Sometimes the tree’s relocated to a completely different spot. For example, I’m still not sure about the table grapes – I could grow them on the archway, or espalier them on the boundary, or along one of the beds. Many of you reading this will understand how the perfect spot often reveals itself with time! You think, ‘Why didn’t I see it before?’ Even so, if I make a mistake with these deciduous plants, it’s no drama: I have a few years to change my mind, and transplant them again!

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Paul Brown
Paul Brown
7 years ago

Hi Helen……Novice gardener myself but I have read your articles. I’m about to try full winter shade garden bed that gets the full blast in summer with the added bonus of site being extreme coastal. Should be fun……