Sub-tropical Permaculture Design for Friends

Friends have recently purchased a house and they asked me to do a permaculture design for them.  This post describes what I provided them with.  I don’t have much experience (my only other full design is here) but I’ve had lots of fun thinking about it, feel really excited by some of the ideas I’ve provided and, of course, look forward to your feedback and suggestions which are always welcome. 🙂

There was no chance of getting a full design for my friend’s new house completed due to time, weather and other restrictions, so what I provided were some suggestions but warned them they would need to note the existing plants on the property and monitor the sun, wind, moisture, slope and movements to determine if these suggestions would indeed work. Also, I was aware that they wanted the first third of the backyard as a ‘show’ garden with the ‘hippy’ permaculture one hidden behind it.  I explained that this went against the basic principles of permaculture, particularly in regard to zones and sectors, and therefore makes it difficult to do a complete design.  Instead, I hoped they would enjoy some of these suggestions and apply them as they desired and learnt.

The following diagram is the base plan showing the general layout and positioning of existing trees, house, etc.  I drew this up quite quickly by looking at online aerial shots on

With a sector analysis partially completed in my head (I knew the direction of sun; I had observed the shadows cast at different times of the year on; I had walked around the property a few times…) I thought about the best options for the property.  Of course, thorough observation of what happens on the property over the year would need to be completed by the owners and decisions made accordingly…

So… here are my ideas!

Canal side (North) and the large area at the back of the house are in full sunlight in most of the aerial views, making them good growing areas for intensive vegetable production planted seasonally and paying attention to crop rotation.  This means planting in this order: leafy vegetables followed by fruiting followed by root vegetables followed by legumes. Leafy vegetables require more nitrogen and nutrients and the legumes fix nitrogen in the soil. These should be companion planted with appropriate herbs. The owners are capable of picking which plants they would like for this purpose themselves – they would be more traditional food crops like lettuce, silverbeet, tomatoes, Asian greens, etc.

I had a more specific suggestion for the area Canal Side though… tropical vegetables! Creating a tropical vegetable garden/food forest seems to be a perfect solution to the dilemma of the hot summers here, when most traditional vegetables don’t really survive… but also… they love the summer heat! They are water wise and water tolerant! They are EASY to grow! They are perennial, meaning deeper roots, less maintenance and nutritionally superior!  I also think they look far ‘neater’ and ornamental.  Take Tahitian Spinach (aka Xanthosoma Brasiliense) as an example, they have the most beautiful leaves. We ate them in a quiche whilst staying with Elisabeth Fekonia. You just need to boil them in water for 30 mins first to remove the oxalates which cause the mouth and throat to sting (with this plant, this does not reduce the nutritional content).  It does mean they have to get creative with their cooking but it’s a challenge I think the husband (and cook) in the relationship will enjoy and their guests will be delighted and surprised by!

I also suggested support plants – groundcovers, shrubs and trees for mulch and weed barriers and use it as a way to reduce the grass they would have to mow. Some planting suggestions I offered were: Cassava (Manihot esculenta), Taro (colocasia esculenta, xanthosoma saggitifolium and xanthosoma brasillience (tahitian spinach)), Amaranth (annual, self seeds, easy to harvest, attractive, very young leaves can be added to salad, seeds to cook like quinoa, can stir fry leaves, very healthy!), Brazilian Spinach (Althernanthera triandra, use in salads or cook as spinach, easy to propagate with cuttings, easy to grow, drought hardy, produces well through summer when too hot for lettuce etc.), warrigal greens (NZ Spinach, also easy to look after and good for summer greens) and yacon (polymnia sonchifolia)….

The living ground covers could be sweet potato, pinto peanut, mukunu wenna, dogbane, nasturtiums, pepino (solanum muricatum – like to ramble as a ground cover but you can grow it on a trellis too) and pumpkin. The shrubs could be pigeon pea (they could make dahl from it too!), crotolaria, popcorn cassia and cassia elata. They could add clumping grasses such as lemon grass, vetiver grass and Job’s tears. Some support tree suggestions could be leucaena, wattle, icecream bean and caleandra. Their herbaceous layer of plants for chop and dropping (mulching) could include comfrey and arrowroot.

I also suggested bananas – not only because the wife in the relationship is addicted to them but because they go perfectly with the tropical garden! They could grow ladyfinger bananas of course but there are lots of different types around (and you shouldn’t cook ladyfingers as they taste bad that way so other types will give you different eating options too). The cooking varieties are called plantains.  Bananas need heat, full sun and should be planted in a warm sheltered spot facing a north to easterly aspect, protected by the westerly and southerly winds… so near the canal would be perfect!  I suggested they make a banana circle by digging a large pit (2-3m wide and 1m deep), mounding the dirt on the edge of the pit and planting the bananas in the mounds (they hate wet feet).  They can then use the pit to throw garden waste, organic matter and chop and drop (saving you trips to the dump and feeding the bananas at the same time!). I warned them to be aware of the disease potentials of bananas – they should not stay in the one spot for 4 years!  And I advised them to learn to control and harvest their suckers and that they will probably need to bag the fruit to protect them.  The government expects to be advised every time a banana tree is planted or moved too.  I suggested they could plant arrowroot, ginger and galangal (Alpinia officinarum) or sweet potato around the outer base of their banana circle. Or turmeric does well in semi shaded positions too! They could start making their own spices 🙂

A more concentrated herb garden or spiral should be located close to the back of the house for easy/quick access from the kitchen and en route to the intensive vegetable gardens and chickens.

The area going toward the trees (probably on the left side looking out from the house) would be best for the chicken run so they have a bit of shade and from a placement perspective would:

  • Be en route for harvesting vegetables/herbs/greens on the way to/from collecting eggs and feeding
  • Be convenient to use the chicken straw/poo on the garden beds as fertiliser
  • Be convenient to use the chickens as a chicken tractor on a garden bed (instead of the legume crop, the chickens will clean up any bugs, prepare the soil and add nitrogen from their poo)
  • Clean up any mess from falling fruit from the trees.

A small orchard would include their citrus trees (definitely lemon, lime, kaffir lime and orange) and any other fruit trees they would like – bay leaf, mulberry or lychee as examples. This would likely to be on the right hand side looking out from the house and extending to the existing mango and macadamia trees. This would mean their intensive vege gardens would not be too shaded, it could be gradual merging/extension from the native area to the existing trees and also be close enough to the house for regular maintenance and picking of fruit.  I provided a suggestion they could try within their citrus orchard actually! Try planting a ‘trap crop’: this will attract pests away from the crop of value and toward what the pests sees as a more favourable habitat. Within their citrus trees, they could grow several crotolaria shrubs (during the same season as the food crop being produced) which act as a decoy for the leaf miner (they will easily recover again from the infestation).  Whilst waiting for these trees to mature they could grow paw paw/papaya. Yum!

Native planting would be perfect for the front garden and down the small side area of the house.  This would be their Zone 5 in Permaculture – their ‘wild’ regenerative area, normally much further away from the house but in this case, these are the areas much less likely to be frequented and with less productive space due to light. Plant natives and life attracting plants for birds and insects.

More plant suggestions if they would like a water area! Chinese Water Chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), Kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica, or water spinach) and Lebanese Cress (aethionema cordifolum). Here are some other edible aquatic plants I found in my research too:

  • Arrowhead Sagittaria sagitifolia
  • Azolla Azolla spp.
  • Brahmi Bacopa monniera
  • Celery Stem Taro Xanthosoma brasiliense
  • Duckweed Lemna
  • Lotus Nelumbo nucifera
  • Nardoo Marsilea drummondii
  • Taro Colocasia esculenta
  • Water Celery Oenanthe javanica
  • Watercress Nasturtium officinale
  • Waterlilies Nymphaea spp.

To fulfil the wife’s love of berries, I suggested they try this blueberry variety: Viccinium virgatum spp/Sharpeblue. They grow well in this climate, are relatively resistant to pests and diseases, may begin to fruit in the first year of growth, don’t need much space, can grow in containers and are of course, YUMMY!  This variety likes acidic, moist, well drained soil that’s rich in organic matter.  And I reminded them not to forget about planting gooseberries, strawberries and native raspberries!

I’m sure they’ll find a perfect spot for a passionfruit vine too… maybe to cover an unsightly fence…

Hopefully I gave them enough to think about… I can’t wait to see what it will look like when we next visit. 🙂



So, what do you think?

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