Working with contours

The grape-covered pergola is a feature of the north side of Louise’s house, providing shade in summer and letting light in during Guildford’s cold winter. The house has a 3.5 kW solar array and utilises thermal mass. “I have a house that maintains a constant temperature. It’s an absolute pleasure,” says Louise.
Sarah Coles speaks to Guildford local Louise Balaz-Brown about gardening in tough conditions, the importance of contours and the miracle of sheep manure.

I’m tucking into a plate of beans on toast at the Guildford General Store when a man in overalls stomps in and says to anyone within earshot, “When’s it gonna rain?”. It’s a common question in these parts, but you wouldn’t know it looking at Louise Balaz-Brown’s garden.

Guildford is a town of approximately 350 people on the Loddon River between Daylesford and Castlemaine, in Victoria. In 2013, Louise bought a bare one-acre block and, with the help of her son Lynden and builder Jean Lucchesi, set about building a passive solar house and garden.

Standing in the garden, I’m flanked by Indian bean trees, passionfruit, roses, persimmon, maple, crabapple, butterfly bush, winter honeysuckles, lilacs, euphorbias, Jerusalem artichokes, grapevines, lilies, japonicas, oaks, and the ever-changing foliage of the tamarisk. I have come here to find out how Louise manages to grow an abundant garden in an area of low rainfall.

The nearest weather station is 8.7km away in Yandoit, where the average annual rainfall is 619.4mm. Of Guildford’s annual rainfall, “We’ve only been getting around 250mm,” Louise says. She goes on to explain that “Guildford is in a rain shadow between Mt Franklin, Mt Tarrengower and Mt Alexander.” A rain shadow is the dry area on the downwind side of a mountain.

On contour

Louise’s mind was on the garden before the foundations of the house were even laid. “The first thing we looked at was the water situation. There was nothing here except a sloping block facing north and we knew it was going to be important to collect all of the water.”

Louise’s son Lynden is a farmer and has studied the water capture techniques of permaculture and holistic land management. Using a total station (a surveying instrument), he surveyed the contours of the block and they dug a system of swales. A swale is a ditch and a mound, aligned on a contour line to capture water and direct it to the plants.

During floods, the water level in the swales is banked up high enough to reach the tree trunks. “When we’ve had big rains, the swales have filled up past the trees,” says Louise.

The downpipe leading to the billabong has a removable cap. When the billabong is full Louise replaces the cap and all of the rainwater harvested from the roof of the house is diverted to the tanks. Note the presence of lamb’s ears, Stachys byzantina, a dry-tolerant perennial.

Rainwater harvesting

On the rare occasions when it does rain, rainwater is captured from the roof of the house and carport into two water tanks—22,000L and 16,000L—with half diverted to a billabong, an unlined pond full of water lilies and frogs. The water level is low at the moment. Around the billabong are Manchurian pear trees, whose roots receive the water that seeps out of the billabong. The garden paths are lined with cardboard and straw, so are also water permeable.

The property is still connected to town water, which Louise partially relies on to water the garden in summer. Louise expects that as the shade trees grow larger, water usage will decrease. Louise does not use any irrigation systems, as she prefers to avoid the use of plastic in the garden: “I water everything by hand on an as-needs basis.”

After purchasing the block in Guildford Louise asked around for a source of free manure. “Someone told me about a sheep farm at Mt Franklin. I just went and asked and that was fine because they like their sheds to be cleaned out.”

The miracle of sheep manure

The other secret to the garden’s success is Louise’s relationship with a local sheep farmer at Mt Franklin who lets her collect manure. The application of manure increases the soil’s fertility and moisture-holding capacity. Louise collects a trailer-load of sheep manure at least once a month, and has done so for the past seven years.

In the early days of the property, Louise and Lynden also collected roadkill from the side of the highway. “Every time I went to collect the sheep poo I’d pick up a dead kangaroo. I hate seeing dead animals on the side of the road. That peach tree has three kangaroos buried beneath it,” she says. Louise and Lynden would dig a hole to plant a tree in and then fill it with roadkill, leaves and sheep poo.

Louise says the whole process can be scaled down for city living. “If you haven’t got access to sheep poo, have a worm farm. If you’ve got a small backyard, raise guinea pigs for manure.”

When Louise was married to a sheep farmer their farm was devastated by bushfire. Now, in her garden at Guildford, Louise harvests Russian garlic for sale at the Guildford General Store and donates all the proceeds to the CFA.

Mulch

The soils are clay. Aside from applying sheep poo, Louise has been improving the soil structure through the application of mulch. She collects leaves from her garden and also buys old or damaged hay from farmers that is unsuitable for animal feed. “The swales and trees are heavily mulched. I’m always putting more carbon on the garden.” Louise points to a poplar: “The deciduous trees lose their leaves which I use as mulch. Nothing leaves the property.”

Dry-tolerant plants

The sunny and exposed areas of the property are planted with drought-resistant plants. Louise is growing a staggering variety of species. There are over 200 trees on the property including poplar, olive, medlar, loquat, feijoa, pomegranate, apple, callistemon, ornamental pear, plum, cedar, chestnut, nashi, walnut, almond, hazelnut, elderberry, maple and elm.

Windbreaks are crucial here, where the hot summer winds dry out gardens. Louise has planted olive Olea europaea, sage-leaf butterfly bush Buddleja salviifolia, and Chinese hawthorn Photinia serrulata along the perimeter. “It is all about making sure the garden isn’t getting battered by wind and heat.”

Slow down and stare

Louise’s garden at Guildford is the result of careful planning and observation, the continual addition of organic matter to the soil, and efficient water capture. The results are outstanding. People driving past slow down to stare, and there is a surplus of fruit and vegetables to share.

 

DIY swales

A swale is a shallow trench dug along a contour, with a berm (a small hill) on the downhill side. The berm increases the amount of water that can be retained and is often planted out. Swales are commonly used in permaculture gardening as a method of stopping stormwater runoff. Capturing rainwater in the landscape is an efficient way to irrigate and improve soil quality. All of the points along the contour line are exactly the same height. This ensures that a trench dug along the contour slows the water and spreads it across the available area. Slowing rainfall and spreading it out reduces soil erosion and keeps the water on the property where the plants need it. Swales are suitable for backyards too, as long as the swale is specific to the site. For more on swales, including tips for handling overflow and building them on a backyard scale, see goodlifepermaculture.com.au/swale-pathways

Aerial shot of the Guildford property four years after Louise purchased a bare block. Examples of the swales (highlighted in blue) are visible as curved lines of plants. Without swales on Louise’s property, the rain would hit the property and would rush down the slope, forming gullies, and taking precious topsoil with it.
One of the swales filled with water in heavy rain.
Author & photographer:
Sarah Coles
Sarah is a journalist, editor and community broadcaster.

Support our work

Renew is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to arming you with the unbiased advice and information you need to make your home and community more sustainable. If you enjoy our content, please consider supporting us by becoming a Renew member or buying our publications. Your support is critical to helping us achieve our goals.
support renew
Further reading
Donna to the (plant) rescue

Donna to the (plant) rescue

Most nurseries recycle materials such as plastic growing containers, but what happens to any unsaleable plants? Sarah Coles speaks to Donna Grundy about plant rescue and an unusual business model.

Read more
DIY: Sheet mulch and hot compost

DIY: Sheet mulch and hot compost

Fuchsia Branwhite explains the permaculture tricks she uses in her own garden, to both control weeds and produce beautiful non-stinky compost from a wide range of garden waste.

Read more
DIY: All-season vegie shade tent

DIY: All-season vegie shade tent

One reader, Brian Mollan, describes his solution to the problem of summer scorching of his vegies—and it can even be left in place in winter.

Read more