Vibrant gardens look good, smell good and make you feel good... but there's so much more we can gain from our gardens when it comes to creating a resilient lifestyle. Whether you want to become as self sufficient as possible, or just be able to provide a few basics yourself, it's nice to know there are plenty of possibilities!
It may surprise you just how many things your garden can help supply, but when you think about it, it makes sense, because our ancestors had to do for themselves and create what they needed from what was around them. And in many parts of the world, a lot of things are still done in a manual way, with natural materials.
So, let's have a look at some of the options you may like to consider. Some of them are simple to grow or use, some more complex. Some take only a small amount of space, others will only be suitable for someone with a bit more land available. And, of course, not all may grow in your particular location. So a little research and planning will be needed to get the most from your garden.
The video below is a fascinating discussion about growing a backyard food forest using natural progression principles of any forest, and therefore cutting down on work and creating a hugely productive garden in a small space.
Backyard Forest Garden- Sustainable Gardening Australia
PERSONAL FOOD SECURITY
Probably the most common thing people think of when they think of self sufficient gardening, is growing food. This is also probably the most important thing to get going with, and then move onto other things if you have time, room and the inclination to do so. Of course, some plants have dual (or more) purposes (such as edible and medicinal or a different part of the plant can be used for something else), or serve important purposes which will help you with your food production (such as repelling pests, or helping supply nutrients.)
The next video takes us on a tour of the wonderfully productive food garden in the first video, looking at using companion planting to help deal with pests and help other plants to grow abundantly. It goes into the practical applications of companion planting and is well worth a look.
Companion planting in a small productive urban garden. Sustainable Gardening Australia
The scope of food crops is almost endless, but if you are just starting out pick plants that are easy to grow in your area, hardy varieties, and foods that you will actually eat! A huge crop of easy to grow radishes isn't much use if no-one in your family likes them. Of course, you may decide to grow some things just for exchange value with your community, but once again, make sure there is actually a demand for it.
Even providing a small quantity of your own food can have huge benefit. For one thing, it's probably much healthier, and certainly much fresher, than what your probably usually buy. But also, in the case of an interruption to the just-in-time food chain, you have food on hand. Especially if you preserve some for future use...
With excess harvest, you can make jams, preserves, dried food etc, which will help to keep you supplied through seasons when those foods don't grow, supply shortages, or to exchange with friends and family.
Developing a knowledge of what weeds are edible in your area may be of use. Remember to always be cautious- you need to be absolutely sure it is the right weed, and the right variety, and that it comes from a clean source and hasn't been poisoned etc.
The Garden Gurus - Edible Weeds
You can of course grow your own crops of weeds, as if you choose the ones that do well naturally in your area, they will probably be easy to grow. Remember, a weed is just a plant out of place, so weeds can easily become part of your valued plant crops. Observing weeds and naturally occurring plants can also give you an insight as to the type of plant families that may grow well in your area- ones that are related, or have very similar requirements. You can often also tell a lot about your soil composition and condition from what is growing there naturally.
If you have enough room, and the right conditions, you can grow your own grains, and grind your own flour.
What about growing your own beverage plants? Tea plants are one possibility, with the right conditions. And don't forget herbal teas made from a wide variety of plants- whatever takes your fancy! It may even be possible to grow coffee or carob plants. And of course a multitude of fruits for juices.
COMMUNITY BUILDING AND FOOD SECURITY
What can be achieved on an individual scale, can also be built upon to create community food security. Swaps can be set up among family, neighbours, or more officially run swap marts. Community Gardens can be created for the benefit of all involved, plus spare produce can either be swapped, sold, or donated to low income or other needy people. Ideally, food producing street trees could be planted, and even food planted on footpaths and median strips.
Jointly producing or sharing food is also a strong co-operative, bonding activity for the community, as it builds resilience and shared purpose around one of the essential needs of the people.
This video from Peak Moment is a fascinating insight into the concept of community shared food.
Beyond Back Yard Sustainability
PERSONAL CARE AND MEDICINAL
Various herbs and other plants have long been used for medicinal and personal care applications. Growing some of your own natural medicinal plants is both useful when you have a condition for which you don't have any commercial product at that time, and in the case of availability of these products being interrupted or vanishing. Learning how to grow, prepare and use them in advance, before there is urgency, is far better than a last minute attempt.
This topic has huge scope, so we will only be covering a fraction of this here as examples.
Warning: Please keep in mind that not everything suits everyone, and in fact some people have bad reactions to certain plants. Always do a small spot test first, and if at all concerned about possible bad effects, or adverse reactions with anything else you are taking or using, ask your medical practitioner. And make sure you know just how each plant should be used... some are eaten or drunk, some are inhaled, some have oils extracted from them, and others have poultices made from them etc.
Below are just some of the possibilities for medicinal plants:
Some wonderful natural antiseptics are lavender oil, eucalyptus oil and tea tree oil. They are also anti-fungal among other things. Inhaling the scent of lavender is also soothing and can help with headaches. Eucalyptus makes a good decongestant inhalation. Tea tree oil is amazing for all kinds of skin problems, and definitely something worth having on hand. These oils, and many others, can also be added to home made lotions and cosmetics as fragrance or active ingredients.
Aloe vera is another "must have"- great for soothing burns, wounds and skin irritations. It can also be used for various digestive problems, such as constipation, however certain restrictions as to who should use it, and the correct doses, must be looked into. Aloe vera also continues to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen in the dark, so can be useful in bedrooms.
Various thymes have deodorising and disinfecting properties... and good for cooking too! In fact, most herbs are not only for flavour, but have some medicinal value as well.
Calendula is a wonderful plant for skin conditions, and various other applications.
Nasturtiums are anti-fungal and antibacterial, among other things, and are also edible... leaves, flowers and seeds.
A wide variety of plants can be used to make soap, either as a soapy replacement for usual materials (such as lathering up bracken rhizomes, or western balsam poplar), or as an additive for extra properties, such as soothing effects, exfoliation or fragrance. Flax (linseed) oil can also be used in soap making.
Sphagnum moss is an amazing plant! It absorbs 16x its own weight in water!! It is used for surgical dressings and could be used in home made nappies, as absorbent padding, or any other application which requires high absorbency.
Chamomile and lemon can be good for hair.
Make a cleanser using lemon, lemongrass or sweet basil.
Got acne? Try tea tree oil, chamomile, grapefruit or mint.
For dry skin try jasmine, lavender or rose.
Rub elderberry leaves on your skin for an excellent repellent against a variety of insects.
Many plants can be used in making your own perfumes. Rose, lavender, jasmine, carnation, frangipani and citrus are good for making essential oils, which are then used in your perfume or other scented products.
Medicinal Herb Workshop
CREATIVE AND FUNCTIONAL
Plants can be useful in a variety of ways that are both creative, and have a useful function.
Some plant materials can be used to make fabric, such as cotton, flax and some barks.
Some plants have soft downy fibres which can be used for stuffing in making your own soft toys, cushions, pillows, warm coats, or even mattresses! Some of these are various milkweeds, cotton grass, western balsam poplar, various rushes and plants with fluffy seed heads.
You can even make your own musical instruments out of plants such as bamboo, reeds and gourds.
Make a wide variety of gifts from your garden such as jams, preserved fruits and veg, dried fruits, pot pourri, home made beauty products, essential oils and perfumes, baskets, or even a bag of your own nutrient rich compost or some worm tea!
The possibilities for home made dyes abound in the colours of nature! Roots, barks, bulbs, lichens, fruits, nuts, flowers and leaves! Berries, beetroot, turmeric, coffee grounds, tea, grapes, roses, dahlia, crab apple and weeping willow barks to name a few.
DIY dyes from your kitchen & garden: magic of living colour
AROUND THE HOUSE
All sorts of things can be accomplished around the home without relying on outside sources for your materials. Just go to your garden and harvest what you need!
Warning: Always spot test any substance before using it on surfaces. Reactions can occur.
Home fragrances such as essential oils and pot pourri can easily be made from the scents of your choice from your garden- lavenders, roses, lemon balm, lemon scented verbena, jasmine, fragipani, carnation and herbs to name a few. A bunch of lavender stems, as well as other fragrant stems, can be burnt as incense sticks.
Sage brush infusion is a good disinfectant for washing surfaces. Also lemon, tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil.
Make your own polish for furniture and floors- dutch rush, wax tree, onion juice, lemon, walnuts, flax (linseed) oil.
Got stubborn stains on your pots and pans? Make home made scourers from western balsam poplar or field horsetail.
Make brooms from broom, heather or any other suitable bundle of stiff brushy plant material.
Stuff makeshift mattresses, cushions or pet beds with hay of various grains or heather.
Make your own furniture from bamboo and various woods. A huge pumpkin would last as a seat for quite a long time... if you have any to spare.
Carve spoons, dishes etc. out of wood or gourds.
Create containers and bottles from bottle gourds.
Weave baskets, mats etc from plants like hedge bamboo, palm leaves, broom and sage brush. Here's a whole lot of interesting info on gathering for, and making, natural baskets.
Making Willow Baskets
LIGHTING, HEATING AND COOKING FUEL
If you have room, planting some trees and other plants for a wood crop may be a good idea, because this can give you another source of fuel for heating, light and cooking.
A wide variety of trees can be grown for both kindling and main wood supply, depending on your local conditions.
Sunflower stems and empty seed heads for kindling.
Wicks can be made from cotton grass, various milkweeds and inner bark of western cedar trees.
Some plants contain a wax which can be substituted for candle wax such as the wax palm and the fruits of various myrtles.
Quandongs have oily wood which makes for good friction sticks for starting fire without matches, and the seeds are rich in oil and can be burnt for light.
Many plants have oil which can be extracted and used as lamp oil.
The garden can provide a lot of useful things to the home handyman- or woman. Here's just a few.
Make your own string and rope from reeds, western balsam poplar, heather.
For waterproofing try stinging nettle, safflower, various spruces and flax (linseed) oil.
Some plant oils can be used as lubricants.
Adhesives can be made from bracken roots, western balsam poplar and grasstree.
Use these as a varnish- grasstree, wax tree.
For a wood preservative try camphor, woad and flax (linseed) oil.
As a rust preventer or de-ruster try onion juice, shallot, hemlock.
For a home made sandpaper- field horsetail, dutch rush.
Some plant pigments can be used in paints, as can flax (linseed) oil.
Want to test the pH of something? Make your own litmus from elderberry or red cabbage.
To make a rubber/latex you can use various milkweed and various golden rod varieties.
Want a gazebo or cubby with a thatched roof? You can use hay of various grains, heather, western red cedar and other woods.
Make pipes from giant reeds.
As an insulation try straw bales, heather or flax.
Straw bales are also one of the best natural building materials
Check out this short video on the benefits of straw bales as building materials.
Benefits Of Straw Bale Construction
FROM THE GARDEN - TO THE GARDEN
Your garden can give back to itself in many ways, as well as giving you joy, food and so much more.
Plants can be "brewed" for fertiliser teas (comfrey, nettles, dock, horsetail) and repellent sprays (such as onion, elderberry and pyrethrum).
Left over vegetable scraps can be fed to worms, which make a brilliant "worm tea" fertiliser, as well as wonderful "castings" compost.
Prunings, weeds, leaves and all sorts of garden "waste" can be composted and put back into the garden.
"Green manures" can be grown and dug into the soil to enrich it.
Plant cutting rooting hormones can be made from various plants, especially varieties of poplars and cottonwoods.
Garden stakes can be grown from bamboo or strong sticks from a variety of trees.
Corn stalks can act as living stakes, for climbers such as legumes.
Trees can be climbing frames for creepers and climbers, or anchor points for hanging baskets etc.
Trees, bushes and hedge plants can provide living fences and wind breaks.
Higher storeys of trees and other plants can provide shade and create micro-climates for other species.
Certain plants have fire retardant properties, so can be planted on your perimeter to help protect your garden and house from bushfires.
Milkweed attracts monarch butterfly caterpillars, so if you would like these beautiful insects in your garden, plant milkweed! Lavender, lilac and butterfly bush also are great for attracting butterflies.
Lilacs are also attractive to birds and bees. A wide variety of flowering plants will ensure a good number of beneficial visitors to your garden.
Alliums (onions, garlic) are good companion plants (not for legumes) because they help repel certain pests. You can also make a spray by chopping and soaking in water, which can also be used as a fungicide.
Basil and tomatoes love each other.
Pyrethrum daisy is a good insecticide.
Onion juice is also a moth repellent, as is cedar wood.
If you want to repel ants, plant some sage, pennyroyal or spearmint.
Garlic, chives and nasturtiums are aphid repellents.
Sage, rosemary and thyme to repel cabbage moths.
Mint may help keep mice away.
Some plants are fire retardant, and can help lessen bushfire dangers to your garden and home. For example, Myoporum insulare (Boobialla) and Enchylaena tomentosa (Ruby Saltbush) are fire retardant Australian Natives.
Top 10 Fire Retardant Plants for Australia
Much of what we grow in our veggie gardens can also be fed to various animals. We can also plant other things specifically for this purpose.
Warning: Make sure you never feed animals any crops which have been chemically sprayed or otherwise treated with potentially dangerous toxins!!
Nasturtiums make good rabbit treats. They also often like a lot of other traditional veggies, such as broccoli, spinach, kale, carrots, celery, mint. Just make sure you feed in the appropriate quantities for the particular food. And don't forget... meadow hay should be their main feed.
You can grow sunflowers and other seeds for birds.
Pigs love lots of the veggies you grow. Root veggies especially are popular with various animals.
Put in some jerusalem artichokes.
Comfrey can be a useful animal feed for almost any livestock. Wilting it first can help.
Chickens like swiss chard.
Lots of your leftover bits of plants and weeds can be fed to something, but make sure you know what is safe for what animal.
Don't forget feed for worms!!
Some garden residents have certain habits that can give clues to the upcoming weather.
For instance, the flowers of the calendula officinalis close up when rain is heading your way.
Don't forget to keep an eye on the habit of those busy little garden visitors, the ants, as coming rain makes them scurry actively, as if they are trying to get everything done before it falls.
And although it is somewhat obvious, sunflowers tend to follow the direction of the sun, which shows the sun is out... and may give you a rough idea of time.
This is only a small sample of what can be sourced from plants. As you can see, with some thought, planning, time and effort... and enough space for what we want to grow, our gardens can provide us with many of the things we now buy, in commercial, chemical laden form. Not only does growing our own sources, and learning to use them, save us from many toxins, but it can save us money as well... plus it puts us a step ahead in the event of availability or affordability becoming an issue.
So, get out there and get your hands dirty! And give yourself a sense of security... and accomplishment, from what you and nature can achieve together!