Ligaya Garden – Gawler South
Less than an hour north of Adelaide sits the suburb of Gawler South, where this family of four – Jelina, Marlon, Athena and Malcolm – have created the small yet thriving Ligaya Garden. We chatted with Malcolm to learn how the garden evolved to become an inspiration to learn, grow and give it a go.
THE KEY STATS
- ✅ Year established: 2015
- 📍 Location: Gawler South
- 🏡 Land size: A family home on a 360sq meter block with a garden space of approximately 60sq meters.
- 🌧️ Average annual rainfall: 440mm on average rainfall.
- 🌱 Soil type: The block is on a river floodplain, but the soil was full of builder’s rubble, rubbish and weeds when they moved in. After years of mulching and heavily composting, the soil is now rich in organic matter.
- 🚜 Main energy sources: The family is on the mains grid and also have a 500W solar setup made by Malcolm, which is used to charge batteries, phones and some of the aquaponics pumps. It will also run fans and lights inside the house when Malcolm can upgrade the wiring. The plan is to eventually finance grid-connected solar and join a local community initiative called Solar Harvest. This way they will be contributing to the overall stability of the grid for everyone’s benefit.
- 💧 Main water sources: The garden uses a combination of mains and rainwater. They only have room for one 6,000-litre tank so rely on mains during hotter weather. Despite this, they often use less than a two-person home with no garden.
- 👩🌾 Labour and volunteers: They don’t employ anyone, it’s purely a family show.
- ⚡️ Capital: The garden was started with a tiny budget of just $10. Five years later, the couple estimate they’ve spent around $18,000 all up. This includes fencing, small building jobs, paving and maintenance.
- 🥕 Main production: Lots of fruit trees and lots of leafy greens. Their favourite summer food to eat and share are kangkong, eggplant, silverbeet and kale. There’s also a strong emphasis on medicinal plants.
WHAT’S THE PROJECT, IN A NUTSHELL?
Ligaya Garden is a small backyard family garden. After buying the house in suburban Gawler South in 2015, the family of four – Jelina, Marlon, Athena and Malcolm – began establishing the foundations of what is now fondly known as Ligaya Garden.
Jelina and Malcolm met in the Philippines and the country still holds a special place in their hearts, influencing the name of the garden, the main ethos and what plants they grow.
In Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, Ligaya means the happiness that comes from family and community. This is the guiding ethos for the family’s garden.
“Our garden is as much an expression of a love for food and nature as it is a love for culture and community.”Malcolm Haines
Growing as many tropical plants as possible is another way that they connect to Jelina’s culture and love of food. In her culture, passing down knowledge revolved around food.
The family also writes a blog, detailing their gardening successes and challenges.
Malcolm says the blog chronicles their story. It details a lot of tried and tested gardening tips, with a focus on food, medicinal plants, aquaponics and water and energy solutions.
“We’re not just about food production but try to dabble in everything that makes a family lifestyle suitable for a world that we all need to work at making,” Malcolm says.
“One of our goals was that it doesn’t look like a farm or just one big vegetable patch. We tried to stay away from a grid-like design and incorporate as many curves and hidey holes as possible.”
“Also, the garden is designed to support Jelina as she has long-term back issues.”
HOW DID THIS ALL GET STARTED?
Malcolm and Jelina met in the Philippines while both studying at a traditional medicine school. After living there together for a few years, the family moved to Adelaide.
They started their garden with minimal gardening experience but were driven by passion and the necessity to grow their own food.
“I never knew much about all of this but just applied common sense to the overall design, then filled the gaps from there,” Malcolm says.
Their overall goal starting out was to grow as much as they possibly could while saving energy and water.
They also began at a time when the government was increasingly lowering much-needed welfare support – which Malcolm, who’s on a disability pension, relies on. He recalls their income slowly falling every couple of weeks, “as allowance after allowance disappeared”.
They started with a single straw bale bed for green leafy vegetables. Apparently that was so successful that they just kept going!
But turning their rubble-filled backyard into a gardening paradise wasn’t easy.
“We emptied local sources of cardboard and paper and sheet mulched the areas that we wanted plants in. Then we bought two cubic metres of mushroom compost and two cubic metres of regular compost. We added two trailer loads of good soils and laid that lot over the cardboard. That formed the growing areas,” Malcolm explains.
Soon after, they created their website as a virtual space to share their journey, but also as a form of therapy for Malcolm’s depression and other health issues. It soon became a place to showcase their passion and perseverance.
Malcolm says he wanted to “show that no matter how small the garden space, you just need a little bit of creativity and patience”.
ANY TIPS FOR THOSE WANTING TO START SOMETHING SIMILAR?
Get to know the sun on your block before you start planting anything, Malcolm says. “That’s crucial and will make or break any project.”
Then consider what is growing around the area already. Even the weeds can tell you so much about the soil – deficiency, strengths and drainage.
Malcolm’s next tip is to start small, even if you are on a big block. Master a few square meters first and start by growing the plants that you like to eat. At Ligaya Garden, for example, they started with brassicas first, then solanums.
“Success with a smaller space will bring both nutrition and confidence in your growing abilities.”Malcolm Haines
“Exotics can come later and will probably do better with the protection of established plants.”
Malcolm wishes he knew about blackbirds earlier on in his gardening journey. Malcolm says, “They’re destructive little critters, they disagree with me on every aspect of mulch placement!”
He also says that a little more research on insect pests wouldn’t have gone astray. They deal with a brief but annual cycle of whitefly and, this year, spider mites.
Finding people to inspire you and create a network is another great way to support your fledgling project.
Ligaya Garden is well connected in their community, finding inspiration and support with the folks at Joe’s Connected Gardens. Transition Gawler has also opened up the doors to many opportunities to share information and projects.
Malcolm suggests a few key readings that he keeps close by and revisits when in need of guidance or inspiration:
- One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein.
- Intelligent Gardening by Steve Solomon.
- Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets.
- Grow Your Own by Angus Stewart and Simon Leake.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE SO FAR?
For Malcolm, the greatest challenge in Ligaya Garden is his health – but this has led him to realise that he’s a great supervisor!
There are days where he can’t do anything physical, but he knows he can rely on his son, Marlon, to do the heavy lifting. Malcolm does want he can when he can. He says, “You learn more to be more efficient and also learn what ideas and plans to let go of.”
Marlon has a term – “feature creep” – for the constant evolution of ideas and plans, and the constant upgrading and updating of this or that. But Malcolm admits that “a lot of it becomes unnecessary when you learn to let the plants do their thing”.
Being able to rely on a strong community who can support you with non-monetary resources, skills and advice also provides a sense of reassurance.
“We have found that patience, planning, frugality and more patience help a lot.”
The family doesn’t currently make a living wage from their garden, but Malcolm says their homegrown produce does help stretch his Disability Support Payment and Carer’s Payment much further. Workshops and talks at the garden bring in occasional income, too.
Ligaya is a flexible space that responds to the uncertainties and variabilities of climate change. “Flexibility will become the key to success and survival, not old gardening dogma,” says Malcolm.
One of their more significant responses to climate change has been to expand the aquaponics and to move all the growing of leafy green and ‘daily’ vegetables to that system. This way both water usage and plant growth is more controllable.
Planting perennials has been another adaptation method. Most areas around the garden are perennials now. Malcolm says, “Perennials are less water-intensive and generally less prone to pests, although our yearly invasion pear slugs would argue against that!”
WHAT’S THE BEST PART?
Malcolm says having a coffee in the garden and knowing all the work has paid off is one of his greatest joys. He can look around and see that everything around him is either edible or medicinal.
They have also made it easier for others to build similar models. Malcolm says this gives him a buzz and sense of accomplishment.
“What keeps me going, personally, is the knowledge that we’re not alone. That nothing we do or anyone else does is in isolation. It is so easy to connect and inspire others.”Malcolm Haines
“That’s what it’s really all about – inspiring people to try.”
Social media has been a fundamental aspect of their lives in the garden. It has been the best way for the family to reach people, connect and share their journey.
“We feel great every time we share something with others, or even when we learn something,” Malcolm says.
TELL US ABOUT THE FUTURE – WHAT’S NEXT?
The family’s current goals are to increase the nutrient density of the food they harvest, as well as to become local leaders in water efficiency.
They’re going all out over winter, when the digging and carrying is easier, to upgrade certain aspects of the house and garden so they can capture and reuse every drop that enters the block.
“I’m studying the details of water filtration and purification so that I can produce and teach how to make small, home sized, DIY purification units. I’ve even found a tiny turbine to fit the mains pipe and generate a little power,” Malcolm says.
Jelina, meanwhile, is itching to get back to her artwork and teaching. She is an internationally known felter and traditional weaver and, when not working on her PhD, mentors and runs art workshops – on top of the plant-themed workshops the family also runs.
Next summer, they’re planning to ramp up water-related workshops.
True to their ethos, Ligaya Garden will focus on sharing this information with their community, with talks and a free PDF and eBook all soon to come. Keep an eye on their website!