How to turn a concrete desert into a food jungle

Simon Watkins
Wednesday, 7th September 2011

Simon Watkins gave up his car and took up cycling instead. It left him with a huge, empty concrete drive in front of his house. He decided to create a food jungle – no easy feat when you have little soil and compost and less money. Here he shares the beginning of the story step by step to encourage you to permaculture your front yard!

Having rattled the cage of the gravel-bound back garden, it's time to turn my attention to the front. If the suffocated soil and dry shade of the back represented a challenge, the front looks like a fool's errand. I'm bequeathed a tidy, concrete-slabbed driveway long enough and wide enough to host four medium sized cars. But since renouncing petrol in favour of pedals a couple of years ago, I've no interest in renting the drive to the nations biggest waste of energy; instead I want to turn this concrete desert into a food jungle. In my mind's eye is a big front garden vegetable patch: a riot of annual, perennial and shrubby foodstuffs for me, to pick for lunch on the way out to work. And maybe space left for just one car - after all, there's no parking on the street and I do want some visitors!

So where to start? I've no idea what the ground is going to be like under those slabs, but it's not going to be good. I got a first impression a month or two ago when I lifted the first few, which were laid on a thick bed of mortar in places crumbling, elsewhere rock hard. Not a prepossessing sight. In the intervening weeks I've been mulling over whether to buy imported topsoil at considerable expense; but I'm still in recession and anyway if there's a home-made solution I'd rather follow it and enjoy the experiment than splash out. The trouble is, just how am I going to conjure four cubic metres of soil out of nothing?

I need to scale down my ambitions – at least at first. 'Start small and watch the seeds grow' has become something of a mantra for me. It occurs to me that I've a few plants left over from this year's seedlings including three potted sunflowers - presents which I never got round to giving. Boosting these with a few choice plants from the end of the season at a local independent garden centre I could make a pretty display in at least part of the garden: a statement of intent to no-one in particular, other than myself. With two gro-sacks of potatoes now harvested, and some left over manure and compost from garden centre bags, there might just be enough stuff to plant them into as well.

First though, I've got to tackle that hard unbroken mortar. Even with a pick axe it had remained unyielding. But as is often the case, the small, patient methods work best, so after an hour or so with a bolger and hammer I've persuaded it to give in crumbling chunks and have a square of just over a metre free to work with. Under the hard layer is a thin spreading of very sandy soil – laid as a base for the mortar. Under that a very weak and incoherent concrete which takes little effort to break through.Beneath that, I'm at last down to the first natural layer: a thick, smooth clay subsoil typical of Coventry. Then I see the first thing which gives me real hope since I started this excavation: a tiny fragment of living growing root, white with a pinkish tip, poking out from the clay into the cavity I've created. Intrigued and almost entranced by this discovery, it takes me a while to reason out what on earth this is, buried eight inches below a concrete-bound drive several metres from any sources of surface water and utterly deprived of oxygen. It can only be the vanguard filament root of the neighbour's purple Cherry Plum, optimistically thrusting itself into the dark in search of moisture and nutrients. Well, perhaps I'm about to make its day.

I need more material for soil, so I salvage some of the clay from beneath the concrete layer and some of the sandy soil from under the mortar, in order to add bulk to the respectable pile of compost and manure I've brought from the back. Mixing it all up on a sheet of cardboard off-loaded by the other neighbour, I end up with a heap resembling the dung of a large bull mammoth, but smelling far nicer (I imagine). But all this soil and all the goodness in it could be washed away into my new hole in the ground, so after levelling that off as best I can, I drag another piece of thick cardboard over the gap and punch a few planting holes into it before spreading the new soil on top. Then I arrange my plants for maximum visual effect (!), soak and plant them, dividing the bergenia into three roots probably at completely the wrong time of year (but I'm mean to plants sometimes).

The final step is to protect the majority of the soil which remains exposed after the planting. The organic peat-free compost I've used as a base is coarse in grain and dries quickly, even with the other materials mixed in. I cast about trying to think what I've got available which would do the trick and my eye rests on the pile of broken up mortar I created an hour or so earlier. Not ideal – all that lime filtering into the soil - but for the time being it might be enough to keep the worst of the direct and reflected heat off the soil and prevent the thirsty roots below from drying out. So, after creating a 'concretery', spotted with sunflower, echinacea plant, bergenia, purple sage, lemon balm and something (probably a wild geranium) which came in with the others – all reasonably bomb-proof plants or low-key enough not to be a great loss if they fail – I can finally sit down for a cuppa. Just as well, as around about then it starts to rain.

Simon Watkins is a landscape architect based in Coventry, but as a student of permaculture, he is increasingly guided in his work as much by his stomach as his eyes... He writes a regular blog for Permaculture online. Visit his website to see more of the things he gets up to.