Recycled timber: material that tells a story

Once upon a time only ‘alternative’ architects and owner-builders were motivated to feature recycled timbers in construction projects. Before the 1980s, a load of chunky hardwood beams from a woolshed demolition was more likely to be burnt than carefully de-nailed, re-milled and given centre stage.

Fast-forward three decades and the value seen in old wood has completely changed. High-grade recycled timbers are now premium products, valued for their density, sustainability and character. Access to timbers harvested from the world’s old-growth forests is severely restricted – for many species the only responsible way to purchase them is second hand. And waste management is improving as the demolition and building industries become better at diverting materials from landfill (although they are still far from perfect).

Those ‘radicals’ who first made the effort to de-nail all those floorboards could be described as visionaries. And many are now behind the impressive network of demolition and timber-recycling yards dotted around Australia, with organised racks of beams, posts and floorboards painstakingly prepared for the building and renovation market.

The ceiling lining boards of this renovation in Seddon, Victoria, were salvaged from the original house – each room had been painted a different colour. The builders, FIDO Projects, then sourced additional boards directly from demolition sites and salvage yards to line other parts of the house. Image: Marcel Lee

The ceiling lining boards of this renovation in Seddon, Victoria, were salvaged from the original house – each room had been painted a different colour. The builders, FIDO Projects, then sourced additional boards directly from demolition sites and salvage yards to line other parts of the house. Image: Marcel Lee

Despite the industry growth, recycled timbers stubbornly defy real commodification. Building with recycled timber is more like collecting antiques than buying Lego blocks. It pays to be flexible and to develop good relationships with reputable recyclers. For domestic building projects, there are important issues to consider including supply, design and workability.

Supply

Mainstream awareness of the old-growth forest disaster has come a long way. But the intrinsic value of such wood for construction hasn’t changed, and a big motivation for recycling is to avoid abetting markets for new logging. “Using recycled timber is a statement of environmental responsibility,” says Andrew Brodie, managing director of Australian Architectural Hardwoods in Kempsey. “Demand has slowly been building as people are becoming more aware of our finite resources.”

On top of that, contemporary tastes increasingly place a premium on building materials with history, authenticity and a story to tell. “Recycled timbers are unique. They offer warmth, character and features you can’t get any other way,” says Mandy Donchi of Nullarbor Timber.

Dressed, furniture-grade recycled timber in the rack at Nullarbor Timber.

Recycled timbers are materials that have had a prior end-use, perhaps as flooring in a house or as beams from an old railway bridge, and the process of recovery and preparation is often labour intensive. In Australia, much of the recycled timber market focuses on local hardwoods such as blackbutt, jarrah and stringybark that are prized for their density and colours. There are also large quantities of long-ago imported material such as Baltic pine and French oak. Some dealers now import recycled timbers from offshore, including China and Indonesia, but we would advise very close scrutiny of such offerings.

The construction industry prioritises volume and consistency in materials, which is somewhat at odds with the reality of recycled materials: “If clients want 180 square metres of a particular size of hardwood floor for their new home, it will generally be manually lifted from three or even five house lots,” explains Andy Mineur of Urban Salvage. “We try to be sympathetic with tone and vibe which is sometimes possible, but not always.” The maturation of the local timber recycling trade is based on an organised approach to such laborious work, but the supply is still finite, and the trade-offs mean that plenty of lower-valued lots still go to landfill.

Interrupting the waste cycle

Premium prices for recycled Australian hardwood timbers, including bridge timbers like spotted gum and ironbark, appear to be a major factor ensuring recycled timbers re-enter the building market. Expensive tip charges are also reducing the amount of reusable timber being dumped in landfills.

Detailed statistics on the size of the recycled timber market just aren’t available. A 2013-2014 Sustainability Victoria market report gives some perspective, though. About one-third of the 505,000 tonnes of timber waste that was generated in that state over that period was diverted from landfill. Less than half of that diverted material was re-used; and the vast majority was for low-grade uses such as packaging and mulch.

Timber terminology and certification

Terminology is rarely consistent, so keep your brain switched on.

‘Recycled timber’ has had a previous life in another construction: beams in an old barn for instance. Recycling involves re-deploying the timber in a roughly similar application – without significant changes to cross-sections, but often a lot of effort is expended on preparation such as removing bolts and nails. Much of the character of such material derives from all the bolt and nail holes and distressed marks.

‘Re-milled’ timbers are recovered from large-dimensioned lengths and then dressed and cut into smaller cross-sections and consistent sizes for new applications. French oak wine barrels, for example, which are re-milled and used for floorboards.

‘Reclaimed’ timber is generally from urban demolitions or even old piers.

This impressive table and the external cladding at Peter McKay’s passivhaus in the ACT are made from re-milled spotted gum and blackbutt. Peter reclaimed the timber from a series of footbridges which were being (conveniently!) replaced in the park opposite his house.  The timber was split in half for the cladding and cut to achieve an overlapping profile. “Very labour intensive, but a unique result,”  he says. Images supplied.

This impressive table and the external cladding at Peter McKay’s passivhaus in the ACT are made from re-milled spotted gum and blackbutt. Peter reclaimed the timber from a series of footbridges which were being (conveniently!) replaced in the park opposite his house. The timber was split in half for the cladding and cut to achieve an overlapping profile. “Very labour intensive, but a unique result,” he says. Images supplied

‘Salvaged’ can be quite ambiguous: it may be simply recycled, or it may be 200-year-old fallen habitat trees that have been pulled from paddocks and rivers.

Certification isn’t a reality for recycled, re-milled or reclaimed timber materials. While the Forest Stewardship Council offers certification that could technically be relevant, even reputable dealers rarely apply it to recycled materials. The best way to build confidence that your timber actually is recycled is to critically assess the ‘chain of custody’ with your supplier. Legitimate dealers will know where they sourced the material from, and will know the exact woolshed, factory or house demolition. If you don’t see nail holes and other scars on recycled timber you would likely need to question how it was possibly used so carefully in the past. And if you can, sense-check with a builder; material such as shiplap spotted gum cladding is just not available as a recycled product, it can only be sourced new (make sure it’s certified for sustainability).

Flooring

Flooring is one of the major uses for recycled timber. Floorboards are commonly reclaimed in ‘lots’ from urban demolitions. Reputable recycled timber dealers will be able to provide detailed information about the quantities available, the species, previous use, and details such as whether it was previously protected by carpets. It’s not recommended to buy materials that have been water soaked or stored outside; and be aware of ‘mixed’ packs of floorboards that are sold as one house lot. Re-milled boards from recycled structural timbers are also on the market and have very consistent dimensions. These timbers are collected from a diversity of sources and when laid as floorboards the variety can look stunning. Re-milled timber is a ‘new’ product, and should be graded in line with the Australian Standard, so it is worth getting your head around terminology such as ‘standard and better’, ‘over grade’ and ‘run of the mill’.

Typical floorboard timbers in circulation now include blackbutt, ironbarks, tallowwood, jarrah, Tasmanian oak and Baltic pine. Always personally inspect the product being offered in order to judge its suitability in appearance for your project. Ask for a sample, don’t rely solely on verbal descriptions and be warned, product names can be ambiguous.

Can I use recycled timbers structurally?

Yes – but the general consensus is that it isn’t worth it for any structural elements of a building that are hidden from view. For hidden structure, steel and sustainably sourced plantation engineered products may be a better choice. Recycled structural timber is relatively difficult to work and adds time and cost. Engineering computations to confirm structural sufficiency are normally based on grading associated with readily available new materials. Professional builders have responsibility for the structural integrity of what they build for a decade or more, and will want structural timber graded. Experienced building inspectors will also need independent third party certification of visually graded recycled materials. For these reasons, structural use of recycled timbers can be more easily justified when they are in full view – and of course, the right timber can really ‘make’ a space.

Structural timbers will carry an ‘F’-rating that relates to the load the timber can carry. The numbering system is somewhat arcane, but basically the higher the rating the higher the strength. These ratings are also relevant to recycled timber, and there is an interim standard in place for this. These ratings for recycled materials are not an exact science, and may be less relevant for recycled materials that are massively over-engineered for their purposes, such as enormous beams used for a pergola. Where there is a structural requirement, some recycled timber suppliers will supply timber with an independent stress grading, for a small extra fee.

Feature timbers

Recycled timbers used as features or as timber ‘accents’ can add warmth and character to a room or façade and is an increasingly popular way to use recycled timber. Typical uses include kitchen benchtops, internal lining and feature beams. While we’re not including details here about furniture-grade timbers, recycled timber for furniture represents an enormous proportion of the market. The best recyclers, or a collaborative designer, will be able to assist with identifying unique timbers and how best to put them to use.

In the elements – recycled timbers outside

As with strength, it is important to understand the durability of timbers. Timber species are generally grouped into durability classes, which relates to their weather resistance and susceptibility to fungus, rot, and insect attack. A class 1 species will likely last longer outside than a class 2, and so on. Examples of class 1 timbers include ironbarks, spotted gum and tallowwood; class 2 includes blackbutt, stringybarks and jarrah.

Decks are often the most exposed part of a building and many recycled timbers, particularly those species native to Australia’s southern states, may not be suitable. In general, decking timbers are guaranteed to last around 10 to 20 years; on these numbers some people argue that decking is not the most sustainable use for any timber. In addition, many recyclers are reluctant to re-saw boards into narrower dimensions for decking due to its lower perceived value. Instead, a common choice for decking is new, sustainably sourced class 1 timber, such as spotted gum. Composite materials are also an option.

Recycled timber cladding is more common than decking, and high-class recycled timbers can provide an attractive patina or weathered appearance that is organic and beautiful.

Approximately 20,000 lineal metres of 4”x 2” house frame timbers were used for the City of Melbourne CH2 Project. Approximately 270,000 old and rusty nails were removed by hand. Nullarbor Timber re-milled and re-dressed these timbers and provided this photo.

Approximately 20,000 lineal metres of 4”x 2” house frame timbers were used for the City of Melbourne CH2 Project. Approximately 270,000 old and rusty nails were removed by hand. Nullarbor Timber re-milled and re-dressed these timbers and provided this photo.

Will all tradies work with recycled timber?

You may have heard people speak about builders that won’t work with recycled timbers, due to the perception it is all rusty nails and knot holes. This still happens but is less common than it used to be. Old seasoned timber can however be harder on any machining blades or bits used to cut, thickness or drill, as well as being harder on the workers using them.

If you wish to use recycled materials, discuss it with your design team to make sure they are on board. Designers who work with recycled timber can help you set realistic expectations around cost and availability. Recycled timber can be more expensive to purchase compared to using new materials. And, depending on how you use it, it can also be more labour-intensive to work with, which can add cost to the build.

It is also worth speaking with your building inspector. Experienced inspectors will have the appropriate training to visually grade structural timbers. If your use is non-structural, including timber features, flooring and lining, this is less important. There are benefits to using recycled timbers that good inspectors appreciate, such as the stability. “Newer greener timber might bend and bow [as it dries]. And while second-hand materials can be difficult to work with, some of it has been dried for over 20 and 30 years or more,” says Chas McKinna, a building inspector working in Victoria who’s had 60 years of experience in the industry.

Be mindful

Recyclers tell us they have never been busier as more households and large corporate clients specify recycled materials for their projects. The move towards commodification of recycled timber needs to be put in perspective though: it accounts for a tiny fraction of the $4.3 billion annual new timber market in Australia. Sustainably sourced new timbers are likely to remain an important component for many renovations and new homes.

So, while ‘character and conscience’ is driving much of the consumer sentiment in this area, there is a lot more to specifying recycled timber than being charmed by the story of its prior usage. Find yourself quality design advice and develop a relationship with a reputable recycler. Be realistic. Be specific. Be flexible. What you want may not be available – it is a finite resource after all.

Feature image: Recycled ironbark posts. Image: Nullarbor Timber

Picking a site with potential

It’s often said that you need to go into any property purchase with your eyes wide open, but it certainly helps if you know what to look for.

If you are currently searching for the ‘optimal’ site for your sustainable home, there are a lot of factors to consider: some may seem obvious, others less so, and what at first appears to be an obstacle may be an opportunity. In my experience, almost any house can at least be improved, and some completely transformed through good design, but some properties have a lot more going for them than others.

BEAUTIFUL NORTHERLY ASPECT

Aspect is usually the first thing that springs to mind when estate agents spruik a property’s virtues. In southern states, a northern aspect is always seen as desirable as it gives the whole property a head start in soaking up winter sunlight. But unfortunately, there are not enough properties with ideal northerly aspect to go around.

In the 1990s, NSW’s Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) surveyed the state’s housing sites to find out what degree of solar access was available. The results took many by surprise: about one third had ideal-to-good potential for solar access, another third had moderate solar access, while the remaining third had poor-to-no effective solar access. Did this mean that only a third of residential lots in NSW could ever be called ‘sustainable’, because without good solar access it’s impossible to achieve passive solar design, and therefore impossible to achieve sustainable design? Not so.

Passive design has two components: only one of those has the word ‘solar’ in it (passive solar heating), the other, passive cooling, deliberately omits the word, because that’s exactly what the building does: keeps out the sun and its heat through summer. Therefore a site without good solar access in winter may be just the ticket in summer, and provided it is well insulated and runs its efficient heating system on clean, green energy in winter, it can be as sustainable as its neighbour over on the north side of the hill.

Great design can make the most of even a sub-optimal site. This home by Clare Design is on a steep site in Buderim, QLD. Image: Richard Stringer

Great design can make the most of even a sub-optimal site. This home by Clare Design is on a steep site in Buderim, QLD. Image: Richard Stringer

And there is more good news for sites with reduced solar access: because the real estate industry has traditionally ascribed greater value to the sun-soaked sites, the steep shady ones can be more affordable. This can then leave more money in the bank for the smart work necessary to get the house working well in winter, while the summer cooling comes for free. This ‘discounting’ effect diminishes as you move into warmer climate zones, until in our tropical zones it counts for nothing at all. But for a significant majority of Australia and New Zealand’s populations it can be very useful.

ORIENTATION

A building’s orientation (the direction the main living area and its glazing face) should respond to correct aspect, but very often doesn’t. So while a block in Hobart or Sydney may have nice north aspect, the house may face west, or south, and there may be simple renovation opportunities to improve the orientation without doing a complete rebuild. Each floor plan will have its own challenges of course, but when looking to purchase an existing house, look out for rooms already located in the right place, as it may require just a change to the window locations in order to improve its performance. And keep an open mind for opportunities where whole rooms can change function with minimal structural change overall.

Having a roof with sufficient suitable aspect for rooftop PV is another thing to look for. It need not be pure north either; east- or west-facing solar arrays can be effective to supply morning and evening consumption peaks. Be aware that in some heritage or conservation-zoned streets you may not be permitted to install photovoltaics on the roof if they will be visible from the street. (This rule will change one day, but today is not that day.)

LOCATION

The old adage in property of location, location, and location still holds true, as the upward pressure on house prices near our major city centres demonstrates. High prices, even within 20 and 30 kilometres of a CBD, necessitate the consideration of less-than-perfect properties in order to access the other benefits a good location can provide.

As we become increasingly urbanised, there are also new challenges for sustainable design emerging. Residential lot sizes are getting smaller, and larger buildings are being built closer together. This trend makes good winter sun at ground level an increasingly rare commodity, and the same tendency in the newer suburbs of Cairns and Darwin is having the inverse effect by reducing air flow between buildings, which is also a detrimental outcome. This was noted way back in the 1980s by the first guru of tropical architecture, James Cook University’s Professor Dick Ainslie, who found that separation between buildings had a bigger influence on passive cooling than whether the house was ‘high-set’ or ‘low-set’. (1)

Are such houses a lost cause? By no means, although they will necessarily require a mechanical system’s input to achieve thermal comfort: winter heating in southern climes, and cooling during the build-up and wet season in the north. If the insulation is correct, and the draught sealing effective, then energy-efficient systems powered by clean green energy – whether generated on or off site – will maintain comfort without costing the earth. Adding insulation to existing roofs is not usually a problem, and there are systems and products out there that can be installed in existing floors and walls, such as Icynene expanding foam (for walls and floors), or Aircell Permifloor foil-foam sheeting (for floors). But be aware that if you have limited crawl space it can make underfloor work difficult.

IDENTIFYING TRUE VALUE

It is important to look at the ‘bones’ of a house, rather than being distracted by any ‘bling’ bolted on the surface. If the fundamental structure is sound, it is likely that improvements to its sustainable functionality will be quite achievable on a sensible budget. Granite benchtops add little to the functionality of a house, but can help drive up the price.

Worthwhile features to look for, and the potential for these, include passive design, energy-efficient appliances and smart energy systems, water-efficient appliances and water harvesting or reuse systems. The kind of roofing will affect the rainwater harvesting rates of run-off, and of course the location and type of downpipes must also be considered. Look for potential tank locations, keeping in mind that while above-ground tanks are cheap, meaningful volumes of greater than 10 thousand litres can occupy a fair bit of backyard. Underground or underfloor tanks save site area but cost a lot more per litre stored.

One of the worst features a building can have is asbestos – unless you never change the building, drill a hole or make any other change. Many people use even a minor renovation as an opportunity to be rid of the stuff, and get a certified clean bill of health. If a significant amount of asbestos is present – and that is likely for every home built in Australia prior to the mid-1980s – you will need to budget an extra five to 15 thousand dollars for an accredited specialist to remove it.

GETTING THE RIGHT ADVICE

Getting advice on a property’s sustainability opportunities is best obtained from a skilled professional with a track record in the field. There are a growing number of such people who offer pre-purchase consultations; they are generally architects or building designers, but also engineers and some leading builders can offer this service. There is no one professional association, but both the Building Designers Association and the Australian Institute of Architects have referral services to many dozens of members with the necessary high-level skillsets.

Look for real estate agents who have been trained as Liveability real estate specialists, as they are much more likely to identify details and potential, and can be sought out as reliable guides. They are shown how to identify, list and sell homes with liveability features (see diagram opposite). The Liveability Real Estate Framework has recently been acquired by the CSIRO and will be rolled out across the country.

ADJUSTING EXPECTATIONS

There is a very live debate about affordability in Australia, particularly as it affects younger generations. Putting the crystal ball aside, and assuming the status quo reigns for some time to come, what are options for those who feel they are being left behind?

Your dreams of a sustainable home might change but don’t need to be extinguished. House and land size influences price, and opting for smaller can be both a money saver, and provide a head start to sustainability gains. Smart storage and clever home organisation can overcome a compact property size, and smaller houses are easier to run from smaller PV systems and so on. And the amount of material required to make any changes or improvements is less.

Home units and townhouses can still be made sustainable, through a different set of strategies. Even though the research behind BASIX in NSW discovered that apartments are not inherently low energy and water users, individual owners can still take control of their own energy use patterns.

Sharing space is a slightly more unusual approach in the Australian social context, but quite common in other parts of the world. This can be between multiple generations of the same or related families, or just between individuals and families who share a common interest. I am aware of several households like this, some of which share kitchen and living areas in one large single residence, others sharing a dual occupancy which is on the same title. Many lenders are not averse to shared mortgages. Sharing the cost of sustainability improvements is a big advantage too.

(1) These are common terms in tropical Australia, describing traditional lightweight ‘troppo’ type homes set on an open raised subfloor perhaps two or three metres off the ground, as compared to slab on ground houses often constructed from hollow concrete blockwork.

Developed by the Centre for Liveability Real Estate, which is now managed by CSIRO, ‘the 17 Things’ is a handy summary of the key factors to consider when choosing a site or a house. If you’re buying an existing house, remember to take into account its potential to score well in these areas with a bit of renovation or reconfiguring, as well as how it currently rates.

Developed by the Centre for Liveability Real Estate, which is now managed by CSIRO, ‘the 17 Things’ is a handy summary of the key factors to consider when choosing a site or a house. If you’re buying an existing house, remember to take into account its potential to score well in these areas with a bit of renovation or reconfiguring, as well as how it currently rates.

Checklist: picking a site with potential

Floor plan: It is tempting to want more area for your money but bigger isn’t always better. Keeping it small will give you more garden space and less house to heat, cool, light, clean and furnish.

Orientation: Choosing a floor plan that faces the right way on your block will make your home more comfortable, and you won’t need to spend as much on heating, cooling and lighting. Look out for the potential for changes to a floor plan that can bring these benefits.

Thermal mass: Good thermal mass with solar access can be used to absorb excess heat from within the house during summer days and dump it to cool night skies. Looking out for ways you can incorporate or make use of thermal mass in your home can make a big difference to comfort and heating and cooling bills. And if you are building a new home, concrete with SCM (flyash and slag) can reduce embodied emissions.

Infiltration and indoor air quality: Talk to your builder about infiltration and ventilation. Building wraps, construction process and quality all contribute to how leaky and drafty a built house will be. Request blower door verification of performance and the inclusion of an energy-recovery ventilator (ERV) when the air changes per hour is less than five. In older homes blocking air leakage is often the easiest and an effective method of improving a home’s thermal performance.

Insulation: For a new build, ask about what’s included in your price, and, if necessary, talk to your builder about increasing the amount of insulation in your slab, walls, roof and floor. For existing homes, consider ways you can increase the insulation in walls, under floor and in ceilings.

Glazing: Glass is the ‘path of least resistance’ for losing or letting in heat, so don’t go overboard on it. If you do, your home may feel like a sauna in summer and an igloo in winter. While it will cost more upfront, double glazing can minimise heat transfer, increase comfort and save you money on your bills.

Heating and cooling: It is better to invest money in an energy-efficient building than spend it on heating and cooling. However, if you do install heating or cooling you can save money while keeping comfortable by:

  • using fans instead of air conditioners
  • only heating or cooling the rooms you need and making sure the heating and cooling is ‘zoned’ so you can switch different areas on and off
  • making sure the systems are the right size for your needs – oversized systems waste money in upfront costs and running costs
  • making sure your heater or air conditioner has a high star energy rating
  • review the condition of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) equipment; equipment in good order will run more effectively and efficiently.

Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture, a sustainable building design firm in Sydney and Redland Bay, Queensland.

Feature image: Living locally and having access to transport options that facilitate sustainable commuting (time and emissions) is highly valued, and may lead you to consider a less-than-perfect property in order to access the other benefits a good location can provide. Photo: Lachlan Fearnley, Wikimedia Commons

Small spaces gardening

Increasingly, our gardens are becoming smaller spaces, whether that means a compact back garden, a courtyard or a balcony. But this doesn’t mean you can’t have abundant greenery. A small garden can be a little oasis in the midst of our urban sprawl. You can create your own microclimate and cool your space, even grow some trees. You just need to think on a smaller scale – you might not be able to have a 20-metre lemon-scented gum in your courtyard garden, but maybe you can plant a grafted variety. Look for grafted corymbia or eucaplytus, or other small tree cultivars, like the crepe myrtle ‘zuni’.

The principles of garden design are essentially the same for small or large gardens. However, in a small space there is nowhere to hide, so all the components need to work well. Part of having a sustainable small garden is getting it right the first time: you don’t want to have to reinvent the whole thing in 12 months because what you put in the first time didn’t work.

START WITH THE FUNDAMENTALS

Soil: A vital ingredient of any garden is the soil. For courtyards and small backyards, my driving principle is to work with the soil that’s there already.

Clients often ask me to remove the existing soil and replace it with new. I usually resist this and prefer to build on what’s there; unless it’s clearly in really bad shape – full of builder’s rubble or contaminated from paint or concrete runoff.

If you have a really sandy soil, add compost and other organic matter and over time this will build up the soil. At the opposite end of the scale, if it’s a heavy clay, then add gypsum.

Edible courtyard: In courtyards, garden beds tend to be narrow or sheltered so the rain does not always reach these spots. This edible garden is irrigated, full of herbs and vegies and provides enough space for chickens. New soil is created from compost in bins located beneath a long timber-grille platform. The raised garden beds have enough depth of soil to support small trees and vegetables. Image: Sydney Organic Gardens

Edible courtyard: In courtyards, garden beds tend to be narrow or sheltered so the rain does not always reach these spots. This edible garden is irrigated, full of herbs and vegies and provides enough space for chickens. New soil is created from compost in bins located beneath a long timber-grille platform. The raised garden beds have enough depth of soil to support small trees and vegetables. Image: Sydney Organic Gardens

You should also use plants that ‘like’ your soil type. For a sandy soil, choose plants that suit a coastal environment; options include westringia, leucaphyta, melaleuca, anigozanthos (kangaroo paw). Look to Western Australian natives for some inspiration. With clay soils, select plants that like poor drainage such as callistemons and bottle brushes. Lomandra grasses will also cope well – they’re tough and will cope with almost anything!

One of the most important things for any soil is to add compost. Compost will increase the organic matter in the soil – it’s food for your soil. You can buy compost by the bag or make your own. Even a small courtyard or balcony can host a worm farm or Bokashi bucket on the kitchen bench which will reduce your landfill load and feed the soil at the same time.

A big part of any small garden is likely to be pots. Use potting mix rather than soil in pots. Pots need good drainage and potting mix is designed to deliver air and water to the roots. Remember, you get what you pay for. You’ve already invested in pots, planters and plants, so don’t cut short on the potting mix. Use the one that is right for your plants and check if it has fertiliser added to the mix; this can sometimes explain a difference in cost. If it doesn’t include fertiliser, then add a pelletised slow-release fertiliser to your pots at the time of planting. Don’t add organic matter to potting mix as this will actually disrupt drainage and air flow; pots are an artificial environment, so the usual rules don’t necessarily apply.

Specialised potting mixes are particularly beneficial when planting specific groups of plants. If you are growing succulents then use a succulent mix as it has a more open structure than regular potting mix and is good for both succulents and orchids. The same goes for specialised vegie or native potting mixes; they’ve been designed to cater to the specific requirements of those plants. A good all-round, all-purpose potting mix is ideal for small potted trees, citrus or other fruit trees.

Light: As with any garden, the amount of sun your space receives will dictate what it is possible to grow. Is it shady for most of the day, does it get morning or afternoon sun, or is it a full sun position? This will be dictated by the aspect – which way the garden faces – and any surrounding shade.

If your garden faces south or is shaded by buildings or large trees, then it may be difficult to grow vegies or fruit trees; instead, you can grow parsley, mint and basil. Citrus trees will be fine but won’t necessarily produce any fruit.

The sun can also heat up your walls and create a microclimate. This can work in your favour with some plants, but it will also add to pots drying out.

Water: All plants need water, even succulents. Of course the amount will vary depending on the choice of plants, but water is still essential.

It’s surprising how many balconies have no access to a tap, so you may find yourself carrying a bucket or watering can outside to do the watering. If that’s your situation, you’ll need to think carefully about the plants you choose and how often you’ll need to water them.

Whether your garden is on a balcony or your backyard, be realistic about how often you will hand-water your pots or garden beds. Depending on the aspect (and the season), what you plant may survive on a once-a-week watering, but it won’t necessarily thrive.

If you can, set up a drip irrigation system and connect it to a battery-operated timer; that way you can be assured your plants are getting watered regularly. It’s not hard and there are lots of resources online to help you.

Alternatively, consult your local specialist irrigation supplier to help you design a system to suit your needs. Take a plan of your garden to the supplier; it doesn’t need to be complex, just a rough layout with an overall measurement of the area. They’ll also want to know your water flow – check this by timing how long it takes to fill a nine-litre bucket with the tap on full.

One of the potential pitfalls with pots is that the soil dries out and becomes hydrophobic. When this happens the water runs straight through the pot and nothing reaches the plant roots. You’ll see it on the ground instead!

If this happens you need to rewet the pot. In technical terms you do this via what’s called mechanical agitation or, more simply, by making mud pies! Use a hose or watering can to slowly add water to the pot, and stir it in as you pour to mix the water and potting mix together. Eventually the potting mix will hold the water.

As an alternative to standard pots and planters, consider using self-wicking pots, which have a reservoir of water under them which ‘wicks’ up to water the plants. These are ideal for balconies as they require less frequent watering and deliver the water to exactly where it’s needed – the roots.

WHICH SMALL SPACE?

Balcony: A balcony garden, by definition, is most likely in an elevated position, so it’s more prone to the drying out effect of wind. As previously mentioned, small pots dry out more quickly, so use larger pots where possible.

You might think that sitting a pot in a saucer of water would help prevent your pots from drying out, but this stops oxygen from getting to the root zone – roots need air as well as water!

Balcony planters: Wicking beds come in all shapes and sizes, and store a reservoir of water at the roots, which helps prevent soils from drying out in windy, elevated positions. These snazzy planters are from Two Sisters Green and there are a couple of sizes and endless colours to choose from. Image: twosistersgreen.com.au

Balcony planters: Wicking beds come in all shapes and sizes, and store a reservoir of water at the roots, which helps prevent soils from drying out in windy, elevated positions. These snazzy planters are from Two Sisters Green and there are a couple of sizes and endless colours to choose from. Image: twosistersgreen.com.au

Using bigger pots or planters will also allow you to grow some small trees. So for your balcony, consider larger planter troughs and pots and self-wicking planters, especially if there is no tap on hand.

You do, however, need to consider the weight of the pots when using them on a balcony. For example, if you are looking at planting, say, three long troughs, it would be better to use lightweight fibreglass planters, at 10kg each, rather than concrete or stone, at maybe 60kg each. Not only is it better not to put all this weight on your balcony, it’s a lot easier getting them up there as well.

Lightweight planter boxes are a great option, keeping the weight load down. They don’t need to be confined to charcoal or off-white – you can paint them to match your decor. Pick up on an accent colour in a cushion or rug, and bring some colour outside.

A wicking bed or planter box could give you close to a square metre of garden to plant. In this, you could easily grow some seasonal basil, a couple of cherry tomatoes, and lettuce and spinach: the essentials for a summer salad for every day of the week!

Courtyards: When it comes to a courtyard, you’ll have slightly more options than on a balcony. The weight of pots isn’t such a problem, and you could even build raised garden beds or plant straight into the ground.

If your courtyard is already paved then you may want to work with what is there.
The pavers will either be on a concrete or sand base. If the base is concrete this is more permanent and harder to adjust. Of course this can also be a bonus, as the paving is less likely to move over time and won’t grow weeds in the gaps.

If the area is paved on a sand base you could potentially lift up your paving and re-lay it to suit your design.

Both options really come down to cost and the balance between reusing or waste. If you do decide to pull up paving, make sure you recycle it. Pavers on sand could go on Freecycle or to your local tip shop. If it’s a concrete base then make sure your skip is going to a concrete recycler and not landfill. (For more on paving options see
Sanctuary 28.)

Often courtyards have very narrow garden beds and that can be a challenge. The building or boundary fences may cast a shadow over the beds, blocking light and much of the rainfall as well. And have a look over the fence at your neighbour’s place: if there are large established trees, this is great for shade and a green canopy, but those plants will also be drawing moisture from the soil.

When planting into these areas try creating some depth of space by espaliering or training a climber on to the wall and planting a low border below. This creates more visual depth than, say, planting a hedge all along. If you have an existing hedge maybe you could pleach it by removing all the lower growth to, say, one metre above ground level, exposing the trunks. Then plant a low border or ground cover. Instantly this creates more depth.

The best way to manage water to these areas is by directing surface irrigation directly to the ground. Use drippers along the length of the bed or plastic spikes that direct the water into the ground, the sort that take a soft drink bottle upside down. Or use a hose on a very slow drip, but remember to set a timer to remind yourself to turn it off! The idea is to release the water into the area slowly rather that in a rush where it is likely to overflow to other areas.

If your garden hasn’t yet been built, then consider creating one large garden bed with green walls for borders, such as a narrow hedge, climbers or a vertical garden. A little bit of depth to a garden bed allows room to plant a small tree in the centre, mass some groundcovers under, and grow a climber up the fence. This gives you three layers instead of one, optimising your use of the space.

Vertical gardens: Vertical gardens are a good solution for creating a green wall with loads of interest. The pots or planting pockets on a green wall tend to be quite small, so the plants will ‘bonsai’ due to the restricted root zone: factor this in when you’re choosing your plants.

Try a herb garden with hardy perennials such as oregano, thyme and prostrate rosemary, and useful annuals such as curly leaf parsley and basil. Load up the pots by planting close together. This will give you good coverage and a longer harvest period. But don’t think of it as a one-off planting: if you are constantly harvesting then you may need to replenish your base stock two or three times over the warmer months.

Vertical gardens: Permanent step ladders are integrated into this bright and lightweight herb wall, suitable for indoor and outdoor spaces. The Vegiewall system was developed by Coolth Inc and is one of a number of off-the-shelf edible walls on the market to make it easier to grow food in small spaces. Image: Peter Edwards

Vertical gardens: Permanent step ladders are integrated into this bright and lightweight herb wall, suitable for indoor and outdoor spaces. The Vegiewall system was developed by Coolth Inc and is one of a number of off-the-shelf edible walls on the market to make it easier to grow food in small spaces. Image: Peter Edwards

Rather than an edible vertical garden, there are many other options. You could use groundcovers that cascade down the wall to hide the pots, or grasses will create a massed clumped effect. You can play with different textures and colour in the foliage.

This is where aspect and water are really important. Remember, small pots dry out, and elevated gardens dry out, so vertical gardens are best combined with drip irrigation.

TREES

For a smaller garden, you just need to downsize your concept of a tree! Smaller cultivars of larger tree species mean you get their beauty without the large canopy and root mass. It is critical to plant the right-sized tree for your space.

By planting known cultivars, you can easily select a tree that will grow to suit the space, not overwhelm or cause structural damage. The width and height of the tree relates directly to the root mass underground. Consider this when you are selecting and positioning your plant. A general rule of thumb when planting near pipes or buildings is that, if a mature canopy is 5 metres high, then plant 2.5 metres away from any building. You can also consider installing a root barrier, which directs the roots down into the sub soil and stops shallow roots from developing and pushing through to either pipes or building footings.

Irrigation can also play a role here. Regular, infrequent long watering encourages roots to move down into the soil profile. This means there are less likely to be roots in the top half metre or so of the ground, thus reducing the risk of building damage. The tree will also be stronger and more resilient to drought and storm damage.

MAINTAINING YOUR SMALL SPACE

Now you have a beautiful space that is flourishing with food or just some lovely foliage to soften and connect back to nature. How do you maintain it?

Fertiliser: Use a slow-release fertiliser every six months or so: check pack directions as slow-release fertilisers are designed to break down over different timeframes depending on temperature. Add granulated fertiliser (like blood and bone) every three months. Sprinkle it around the base of the plant like chook food, then water in well. Liquid fertiliser is for short-term boosts. The nutrients are passed out with the water so you need to apply this every two to three weeks for sustained benefit.

Pot maintenance: Large pots containing established trees can be maintained by topping up potting mix on the surface; apply it like a mulch. Prune as you would for plants in the ground. Remove old spent foliage and diseased plant material. Remove cross branching and prune to open up air circulation in the canopy. Established pot plants can be maintained over an extended period (10+ years) by using this method. I have two cumquats, planted circa 1989, that are still going strong in the original pots!

If it is necessary to re-pot I usually like to do it in situ. I prefer not to lug heavy pots around, even if I have access to a trolley. Lay a drop sheet or tarp down to capture all the mess. Tip the pot on its side with a towel or something to cushion and protect the outer edge of the pot.

Pots and planters: When choosing pots and planters, opt for larger pots where possible: the larger the bulk of the potting mix, the slower they will dry out. Lots of little pots might look cute in a row, but they won’t seem so sweet when you need to add water again and again. However, you do need to match the pot to the plant size, and potentially ‘pot up’ into bigger pots over time. Image: Luke Middleton

Pots and planters: When choosing pots and planters, opt for larger pots where possible: the larger the bulk of the potting mix, the slower they will dry out. Lots of little pots might look cute in a row, but they won’t seem so sweet when you need to add water again and again. However, you do need to match the pot to the plant size, and potentially ‘pot up’ into bigger pots over time. Image: Luke Middleton

Now try to prize the plant out. Slide a trowel or shovel or something else that is thin, long and narrow down the side of the pot. Work your way around all sides to loosen the potting mix and roots from the inside surface of the pot. Gently pull on the base of the trunk until the plant is out.

Now prune. Don’t be scared of pruning roots; it is the same principle as pruning foliage above ground. The root ball will most likely be full of lots of fibrous outer roots, which shows that the plant is pot bound and is due to be re-potted.

Loosen the root ball by running a knife or secateur blade along the outer layer then gently tease out the roots. Trim off any excess growth you’ve exposed. Any roots that are spiralling around the outside can be cut back to just before the spiral originates.

By reducing the root ball you should be able to refill the pot with fresh potting mix and pot back into the same pot. Once you’ve potted up you need to also prune the canopy. Remove around the same amount of leaf mass as you did roots so it is balanced.
If you are potting up to the next size, follow the same method and just increase the pot size.

Irrigation: Irrigation is critical for any garden. For good examples on how to effectively irrigate your garden we recommend you watch these two Gardening Australia episodes on irrigation: abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s3821145.htm
abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s2321331.htm

Kate Smalley is a landscape designer and garden design educator.
www.smallspaces.com.au

Feature image: Anne Atkins’ Fitzroy courtyard garden is a riot of greenery, with hanging pots, creepers, trees and shrubbery combining to create depth and height. Image: Annette O’Brien – see more images on the Design Files website.