The Sideyard Garden at my old residence in Austin, Texas was one of my first projects out of the Permaculture Design Course. Started in the spring of 2009 the Sideyard Garden project incorporated many urban design strategies to resolve some common issues in the modern urban landscape.
A small fenced area about 16m x 4m alongside a cottage house in North Central Austin, Texas. Aside from a young pecan tree that hangs over the fence to the northwest the site is mostly grass. A 3m tall wood privacy fence separates the space from the neighboring property to the Northeast.
The slope has about a 2 – 3% grade down toward the South. Signs of erosion are starting to show in some areas around the foundation of the cottage.
There is a water tap near the gate on the east end of the space and a window ac unit dripping condensate just south of that.
The Cottage blocks most of the southern sun and the space only receives a small bit of sunlight on the northern most end during the winter months. Most of the intense afternoon/evening sun is blocked by the young Pecan to to the west. A shed on the neighboring property to the ease does not provide significant morning shade and is hardly worth mention.
A considerable amount of water runs from the driveway on the Northwest, neighboring properties to the North and northeast, and off the eve of the cottage running down along and under the edge of the foundation. The challenge is to divert the water from causing anymore damage to the cottage foundation while still putting that resource to the best possible use before it exits the site.
The client, my landlord in this case, wants an ascetically pleasing, low maintenance site that provides food and good atmosphere. He wants to increase the value of the property at little cost to himself and would like to find a way to resolve the existing water flow issues. He offered to reduce my rent for the work I did on this space.
The grade of the sideyard space was causing an obvious issue that needed to be resolved. creating contour mini-swales to capture the water high in the landscape didn’t appear to be the most effective option due to the limited space as well as the majority of the water entering from a gated area to the northwest and off the eve of the house. Flows from the tap and the window ac also needed to be buffered to prevent erosion.
Wind is shielded on all sides by buildings fences or trees providing a safe environment for tender plants. Little sun in the winter months limits fall/winter crop options. Summer sun is still intense during the mid day but dampened in the evening by the pecan tree.
Situated in North Central Austin, the site was conveniently located near a wealth of accessible free and cheap resources.
The main focus of the design was to divert water flow away from the foundation of the cottage house while still finding a way to slow it down and capture as much of that energy source as possible.
The secondary goal was to grow an abundance of food in an ascetically pleasing way with little to no monetary inputs.
I decided to meet the design challenge head on and fix the obvious foundation erosion issue by regrading a portion of the yard to divert the water away from the foundation. This decision helped to dictate much of the rest of the design. Below is a cutaway design sketch to illustrate this design approach.
Grading the land down gently from the edge of the cottage to about a meter and a half to the north northeast would direct the water away from the cottage foundation. This also separated the sideyard into two distinct areas: A large raised bed area on the north side and a sunken path area alongside the cottage on the south. The soil dug out from the path would be added to the raised bed giving these two areas further definition.
From here the design took on a life of its own. Free limestone from a local cemetery was collected to form a rock wall to help define the garden bed area. Composting and sheetmulching materials were collected and the design began to unfold.
The sketch of the design above was not drawn to scale. The length of the yard from east to west is somewhat larger than depicted here. Because this was mostly a personal project I didn’t spend a lot of time perfecting the design on paper and instead directed the bulk of my energy toward implementation.
At the time I began the implementation of this project I did not have a working camera. Unfortunately, this means I was unable to capture a before photo. What follows is photo documentation from as early on as I was able to capture once my new camera was purchased.
grading the path
Observe and interact
After grading the pathway in an attempt to divert the water flows away from the cottage foundation we were blessed with a rain that put our design to test and gave us the perfect opportunity to asses and evaluate the work that we had done.
In observing the new water course we celebrated the victory of having accomplished our goal of diverting water away from the foundation of the cottage. We also recognized a few areas where the slope could be improved. Using the rain event to our advantage, we quickly went to work adjusting levels until we came to a slope that worked much better for the site and water flow.
use edges and value the marginal
At this point we reassessed the design again and saw an opportunity to create more edge along the rock wall and more opportunities for water to infiltrate into the garden area.
At the same time, I discovered an abundant resource nearby that was going to a very poor use. I determined that the only thing to do was to put the resource to a much better use in this design.
produce no waste
Finally, happy with the rock wall, it was time to move into the production of the garden beds. Keeping with the low budget design theme, and working with the Small and Slow Solutions principle of permaculture, we waited to gather more materials for a spanning sheetmulch.
A local tree service dropped a load of free wood mulch for the foot path. We gathered more bagged leaf mulch from our neighbors and collected several boxes of “trim” and waste produce from Wheatsville Co-op, Austin’s only cooperative grocer and my employer at the time.
We went to work spreading out the materials and had a bit of fun too…
use and value renewable resources and services
Planting was done on the same budget as everything else. Sprouted potatoes taken home from work, onion starts rescued from the compost pile of a nearby urban farm, fava beans dusted off the co-op floor and much more…
This design project presented some unique challenges that made the design interesting and fun. Upon review it now, I realize I could have created more infiltration pockets along the rock wall to capture more water before it flowed down to the lowest point in the yard. Because most of the water infiltrated in at such a low point in the landscape, most of the passive irrigation effects benefited the neighbors yard. The picture below is a shot of the weed growth just over the fence after a good rain. (although I don’t have pictures to back it up, this weed growth was easily 3 times as lush and large as the rest of the neighbors yard).
This design project also ended up having many unintended consequences that I could not have foreseen developing it what they did. I three local food potlucks at this location, each one growing in order of magnitude from the last until the the cottage house, large carport area, driveway and landlord’s house had all over stretched their capacities. The potlucks only had one rule, food must be as close to home and as close to free as possible. The effect of this concept was much larger than I ever could have anticipated and the results of these events will be documented in later additions of my Permaculture Portfolio.
The Sideyard Garden Project itself was a great success in accomplishing it’s goals and resolving serious design challenges. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the garden to fruition as I decided to relocate a few months after the project started. After new tenants moved in, they reshaped the sideyard garden, making it largely indistinguishable from what you see above. The water still flowed away from the foundation of the cottage but had no where to go but the neighbors yard. The large sheetmulched garden space became a much smaller circle that failed to capture the flows of the abundant water supplies from the roof and driveway.
If I were to do this project again, I would change only minor things about the physical layout… and spent more time demonstrating the system to the new tenants so they could benefit from an effective permaculture design.
All resources for this project were free aside from a few tools which continued to serve me long into the future.