backyard urban garden

No land, no problem: How a lady farmer converts an idle backyard into a productive urban vegetable garden

Permaculture (also known as permanent agriculture) is a holistic form of farming. The theory states that human habitats and food production systems could live together as part of an ecosystem. Permaculture also tends to promote a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly way of living. [1] And Abi Byrne and her Ocean Grove Farm in Sydney’s Northern Beaches prove this theory with her urban garden. Since 2019, Byrne has grown fresh and organic vegetables in her elderly neighbor’s once-empty backyard.

A food garden is my happy place”

“I’ve always been passionate about the land,” said Byrne. She has been involved in regenerative land management even before she started her urban garden. 


I always see myself living on the land at a later stage in my life,” she said. However, circumstances forced her to stay in the city instead of moving to a farm. Nevertheless, she refused to step away from farming and growing food.


“Start where you are and do what you can is the motto that I have adopted to ease my need to grow. I became a horticulturist and permaculture consultant and bush regenerator, as I don’t have my own garden, I’m so happy to tend other peoples’ gardens,” she said. [2]

Abi Byrne posing in an urban garden
Abi Byrne. Image credit: Permaculture Research Institute

Despite helping others with their gardens, she still wanted to have her own. She often told people about her dream about tending a little farm with an abundance of fresh food to share with her community. “A food garden is my happy place,” she said.


And one neighbor really listened. He offered his own unused backyard to become Byrne’s urban garden. “Phil (the neighbor) said if I was willing to take on the task of clearing the overgrown and weed-infested yard, I have permission to build a mini market garden,” she said. Finally, she had her own land to turn a wasting plot of land into a productive one.


“It’s a wonderful exchange that nurtures relationships with people, with plants and with nature in general. It’s a win for elderly residents who are no longer able to tend their gardens. They can (socially) interact with me as I tend to the garden. And it is also a win for me as I get to live my dreams of growing food and playing in the dirt.

Read: “Guerilla Grafters” Secretly Graft Fruit-Bearing Branches Onto Sterile City Trees


Creating Her Urban Garden

It took about two weeks to completely clear the yard of weeds, grass, and rocks. The backyard was in a bad state after years of abandonment. Plus, there were papaya and banana plants that were left unattended Byrne had to deal with. Then she used the no-dig, no-till planting method using a lot of compost and compost worms. Additionally, she installed a drip water irrigation system.


Since the local council prohibits open bay composting, she used closed bins, eight in total. “I have set up a communal compost too, teaching my neighbors how they can help regenerate their soil by simply composting their kitchen waste,” she said. “These people I would never have met without the common link of the veggie plots,” 


In total, her Ocean Grove Farm is 16 meters by 10 meters. Today, it’s a productive urban market garden with 11 main vegetable beds and four raised beds that extend over old pathways. “I’m doing some adjustments and as the space has evolved, the beds have gotten wider and longer to maximize the space. Some walking paths have been sacrificed to use as much space for food production as possible.”


Sharing With The Community

The produce depends on the season but there is always a wide variety, including eight different kinds of lettuce and many types of herbs. “I plant quick turnover crops for a higher yield in production, but I also have carrots, beets, beans, tomato, eggplant, capsicums, corn, and cucumber now the weather is warming up and the spring cycle begins. And lots and lots of flowers for the pollinators,” she said.


Byrne then shares the harvest with five families in her community. Additionally, there are regulars and passersby who enjoy visiting and picking some fresh vegetables straight from the urban garden. “I’m always thrilled to hand a box of freshly picked veggies to other people. I get such a buzz from this when people are so taken by the lushness and abundance in this small but very productive garden.”

In order to expand her business and marketing knowledge, Byrne joined the FoodLab Sydney entrepreneur course, which also helped her build a strong network. And moving forward, Byrne may be interested in expanding her urban garden onto other idle lands. “This is a great way to provide healthy and fresh food to people. It may be small but it is an effective way to provide affordable produce while providing nutritious locally grown food to many people,” she said.

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  1. “How Permaculture Works.” How Stuff Works. Robert Lamb.
  2. “No land, no problem: FoodLab Sydney graduate turns an empty backyard into an urban market garden.Permaculture Research Institute. Maria Teresa Diaz. October 2021
Sarah Biren
Freelance Writer
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender.