Meet the Locals: Marisa Schlichthorst’s Permaculture Garden Is Magic
Torquay resident, Marisa Schlichthorst, balances her work as a university academic with time creating and enjoying her very special backyard permaculture garden.
Thank you for sharing your garden with me, Marisa. Before we start the tour, can you fill me in on how you came to be living on the Surf Coast?
In my twenties I was what you might call a hardcore traveller, exploring remote areas like in Latin America. I loved travelling pretty much anywhere but Germany, which is where I grew up.
My partner and I were keen surfers. Great surf and Australia just go together, so we moved here permanently in 2007 and then to the Surf Coast in 2010.
Tell me about your work?
I worked as a researcher in Public Health in Melbourne until earlier this year. I am currently in the middle of a career change. After 15 years in academia, I am now training as a Pilates Instructor.
What are your favourite local places, apart from your amazing garden?
Torquay has always been attractive to me for the beaches, surfing and a laidback lifestyle. It is such a beautiful place.
One of my favourite places nearby is Point Addis beach. It’s a secluded beach with high cliffs, red, yellow, and orange in colour. At low tide, the beach is wide-open and fantastic for walks with my dog.
Your garden is based on principles of permaculture. What sparked your interest?
Before knowing about permaculture, growing my own fruit and vegetables was always about getting things into rows and everything being very productive.
My interest in permaculture was born out of a quest for more information. How do soil, plants, animals, and the environment all connect? And how do I impact that?
Let’s take a step back. What is permaculture?
Permaculture is a holistic approach to gardening where you look at systems in nature and try to replicate them in your back garden. When you walk into a forest, there’s no one cutting the branches or making it look nice. Things just grow in harmony with each other.
Unlike a colonial style garden, with nice bushes and pretty flowers placed in particular places, it’s more chaotic, growing and buzzing with life. In a way, you are not controlling but collaborating with the garden.
A permaculture garden feeds the family and it feeds everything else too. The aim is to create biodiversity with various types of plants which are useful to you and are also useful to the insects and birds that live there.
How hard was it to establish a permaculture garden in a regular suburban backyard?
Just researching the market?
Like many suburban blocks, our garden was an afterthought. At first, we had a couple of native trees and bushes, but mainly lawn in the backyard. We transformed our garden over the past two years. In April 2020 we removed the lawn and worked towards increasing the quality of the soil. Originally our soil productivity was low. But within six months of mulching and composting, we had hundreds of lemons from our tree!
We established a worm farm to produce castings, which can be sprinkled on the soil and watered in, both fertilizing and irrigating plants simultaneously.
It wasn’t an expensive exercise, we just had our backyard looking quirky for a while! Now it’s set up it doesn’t require as much work.
Our garden has transformed so quickly. This system of gardening works. The good you can get out of your garden just multiplies.
Do you have a favourite part of your garden?
Hmmm, that is a hard one! I love all the different places for different seasons.
I love the flower meadow, which is an open area for attracting insects and bees. The ‘food forest’ has its own microclimate. There are ground covers like comfrey, flowering and fruiting trees such as plum and apple, and then taller native bird-attracting trees.
What’s growing well at the moment?
We have so many fruits growing now – apple, cherry, damson plum, lemon, jostaberries, redcurrants, boysenberry, raspberries. Aromatics like lemon balm and mint for tea, sage, catnip, and chamomile are doing well.
We’re currently planting our annuals such as carrots, salad leaves, and seasonal edibles like zucchini, cucumber, rocket, mustard and beetroot.
We also co-plant species, which is when a particular shrub is planted for the sole purpose of supporting another.
Acacia trees, which are high in nitrogen, can be cut and mulched right into the soil next to a fruiting tree. We call this ‘chop and drop’. And, around our fruit trees and raised garden beds, we have aromatic plants like chamomile and mint to deter pests. We haven’t bought salad greens from a supermarket in nearly two years.
Has learning about permaculture changed you?
There’s a lot of value in having a space you love right outside your door. I am eating better-quality food. I’ve become a custodian of my garden. It gives to me and I give to it.
I have a connection with where I live and it’s an opportunity to break away from being dependent on centralized food delivery. If things are short in the supermarket, you can trade with your neighbours.
Permaculture has helped me be more present. It’s a holistic system that brings joy to my life and challenges me to be better every day.
Thank you, Marisa, for taking me on a tour of your garden, explaining the principles of permaculture and sharing the joy that a garden like this can bring. If you are interested in learning about permaculture, Marisa recommends Milkwood and Good Life Permaculture as somewhere to start.