Making Steep Banks Stable, Productive & Beautiful (Cheaply)

On the weekend just gone, we had a mini working bee with some good mates, i.e 3 hours of power followed by lunch and beers. The mission for the morning was to convert our very bedraggled looking front, steep bank into the startings of a bee paradise garden.  This is our second attempt at this bank – the first one was going really well, until we accidentally set it on fire from a spark from the angle grinder – woops. That was a few months ago and as you can see below it was more than ready for some loving.

IMG_1488The vision for this bank is to be a perennial bee fodder and beneficial insect garden. The idea is that we never have to try and access this bank as it’s actually capping off a significant pile of rubbish which the previous owners buried there when they gutted the house.  Parts of the bank are full of old couches, bed springs, lino and lots of random wire and sharp things. Basically we don’t want to touch it as it’s a world of pain and ugly surprises. So we’re converting it into a bee paradise instead.

As a weed mat we’ve used old bike boxes from the local bike shop which will eventually break down – but not before they’ve helped suppress the grass while more desirable plants establish themselves. We pinned them down with landscaping pins we bought from the local hardware – but if you’re patient, you could also make your own out of high tensile wire.

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Next up we used heat treated pallets (chemical free) to create rows of shelves roughly on contour to ‘lock in’ the cardboard even more and to provide a “pocket” to place some compost which we’ll plant directly into. Again, the pallets are free – salvaged from the side of the road around town. We’re a big fan of free, cheap and DIY, especially when you’re capturing a ‘waste product’ and converting it into a highly functional resource. True, it doesn’t look super flash, but it’s semi-temporary in that it’ll be visible for 2-3 years and then will be swamped by beautiful and productive plants. The plants will effectively replace the pallet shelves and hold the bank together with their roots.

IMG_1521 We then made sure the cardboard received a solid soaking. This helps ‘bed’ it down and prevents it from repelling water, we want it to integrate with the existing soil as quickly as possible to ensure the seeds and plants we pop in thrive. You can also see we’ve started filling the shelves with compost in the photo below. This is where we’ll plant directly into, ensuring that we can get plants established all over the bank, and not just at the very bottom.

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IMG_1529Looking down on the bank you can now see we have 4 mini terraces to plant into, where as before there was none – yay!

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So, what do we plant the bank out with straight away? Tough stuff, that’s what – enter white clover! For the record, clover will get weedy, hence we NEVER put it near our annual beds or in areas where we don’t want to have to be constantly controlling it. The only places we’ve put it on our place is the steep banks which need quick growing, soil improving (it’s a nitrogen fixer) and flowering plants – clover does it all. We also put in stacks of sunflower and calendula seeds. In coming weeks we’ll also plant out the bank with perennial herbs and hardy native shrubs and ground covers.

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IMG_1549One of our almond trees with a happy cluster of fat hen, amaranth and stinging nettle (all desirable ‘weeds’) growing around it

We didn’t bother mulching the bottom section of the bank due to it being so steep, instead have simply covered it with a combination of cardboard and jute mate to suppress the vigorous grass from taking over. At the bottom of the bank you can see our young orchard which we planted this past Winter which is settling in nicely.

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The finished product (above), planted out with white clover, calendula and sunflower seeds. We’ll be planting strategically into the shelves in coming weeks with hardy flowering natives and perennial herbs to create a low shrub and ground creeper layer. It’s going to be beautiful.

And of course, all good working bees end on a high and tasty note – a hearty and colourful lunch topped off with cake and beer to express our enormous gratitude to some of our mates for making it happen. Thank you, thank you, thank you – we look forward to returning the favour!

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7 Responses to “Making Steep Banks Stable, Productive & Beautiful (Cheaply)”

  1. Nat

    Great! Steep banks had me a little stumped. Keep us updated! Actually i’ll drop in and check it out in Feb when I’m down. xx Nat

    Reply
  2. Heather

    It amazes me how many chemicals are unwittingly being put into “organic” gardens these days. Cardboard is full of chemicals http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Corrugated-Cardboard.html and Heat treated timber pallets might have been made without chemicals but during their lifetime of use you just don’t know what they have been sprayed with http://www.life.ca/naturallife/1206/reusing_wooden_pallets.htm. Add to this the PVC pipes and hoses which are full of toxic chemicals and you start to get a picture of just how toxic a modern “organic” garden might be. The recent news coverage of the NYC garden having high concentrations of lead in their produce should make one sit up and think, they seem to be blaming the soil but HOW did the soil become so contaminated in the first place? . http://nypost.com/2014/11/16/toxic-veggies-found-in-nycs-community-gardens/ At the very least have your soil tested after the cardboard has been broken down and the garden is established, and PLEASE THINK about the materials that are used and how they might impact on the health of your endeavour. I think you are trying to do an amazing thing, I just hope you are getting it right. All the best 🙂

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Thanks for your thoughts Heather. This area we’ve written about is not for food production – the actual bank is being planted out with perennial herbs/natives and never to be touched again for the reasons you outlined. The only food plants in this whole section of the garden (which we’ve tested for heavy metals – lead from flakey old house paint is the concern int his particular soil) are fruit trees, which don’t take up lead into the fruit. So we’ve designed our whole property around what is in the soil. All the annual vegies are out the back half of the property where the soil tested safely for any contaminants. Sadly we have no control over what previous home owners put into the soil, so we simply have to respond to it in a smart and safe way. You’re also correct in that if we were going for organic status (which we’re not) items like newspaper and cardboard and LOTS of organic materials wouldn’t be allowed on site. We only use cardboard as weed matting on our fruit and nut orchards and no where else. Cheers.

      Reply
  3. Jane

    Thanks for the post. We have a similar bank in South Hobart. Full of junk and ivy. I managed to build a no-dig berry patch along part of it but I wasn’t sure what to do with the steepest, junkiest part. I’m not sure if we can drive post in at all though. We will see. Cheers.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      Good luck Jane! There seem to be an abundant amount of mini ‘landfill sites’ around the place – tricky to deal with in a safe and productive way. But there is always a solution – sometimes you just have to think sideways. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Dee

    Can I ask what perrenials, herbs , shrubs and ground covers you ended up planting on this slope…Trying to find a follow up post.

    Reply
    • Hannah Moloney

      A very diverse range of plants! At the base we have fruit trees and across the bank we have a ground cover of nasturtiums, clover, some native shrubs and salvias. Without a doubt this has been the trickiest bank to work with on our place as the previous owners buried a lot of rubbish under the earth (old couches, mattresses, ovens etc). There are large air pockets sporadically throughout the bank which make soil health *so* hard. We’ll replant into some spaces in the bank where some plants have failed (because of the unreliable soil) and will use hardy natives and some vigorous herbs (more salvias). Sorry, it’s not more organised!

      Reply

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