I see a lot of articles in the permasphere about gardening for renters. They usually suggest removing a rectangle of grass, installing a raised bed and growing some annuals. The bed is removed and the grass replaced when you leave. The other option offered to renters is pot gardening, with the pots either discarded or going with you to the next property.
There’s nothing wrong with these ideas and I am sure they have helped many renters to connect with the earth and grow a bit of food, but if we apply the permaculture design model to the problem of gardening while renting we come up with so many improvements.
Consider the wild energies: observe and learn
The first stage of any permaculture design is to make careful observations about your site, including its context. A sector analysis considers all of the “wild energies” that impact your site, including the weather, legislation and community. In the case of rental properties we need to consider landlords and agents.
Landlords own the property and some are more hands on than others. Their main concerns are keeping the property in good order while also keeping it tenanted. For some investors, losing even a few weeks rent can mean the difference between the property being financially viable or a drain on their savings. This is particularly the case for older people that have bought a single property as part of their retirement plan. Good tenants are gold for these people. While most investors want to hold on to a property for several years, circumstances can mean they need to sell at any time. A death or serious illness in the family or the loss of a job can force owners into situations where selling in their best option. It’s realistic for tenants to plan for leaving most rental properties at some point in time, either for their own reasons or because the owner has other plans.
Agents are usually part of a real estate firm or independent property management company. There is a high turnover of staff in many of these places because the work can be stressful and largely thankless; chasing people for rent, invading their space to conduct regular inspections and telling people their home is about to be sold out from under them are just a few of the reasons. Many agents prefer to not hear from tenants at all.
The third “wild energy” in the rental equation is your lease. It used to be a landlord’s responsibility to care for the grounds of any rental property but this is increasingly not the case. Many leases now specify that the tenant is responsible for keeping the garden in good order. This is a good thing. A lease that prevents you from gardening will be an obstacle and your best option is to wait until it’s time for renewal to seek an amendment. Check your lease and the wording of anything pertaining to the garden. You may already have written permission to do your own thing. If you have responsibility for maintenance and can retrofit the existing garden beds there is not reason not to include a bit of food.
Understanding all of these energies will help you to develop a strategy for getting approval to garden if you don’t already have it, or if you want to make big changes like removing any amount of lawn. While there are exceptions, the agent is usually a hurdle you need to jump. They may have no interest in developing the garden and will usually tell you that the owner will not give you permission. In most cases they are unlikely to have actually asked the owner.
So my first piece of advice when gardening on a rental property is to communicate directly with the owner if you can. They want you to stay. Most landlords know that if you invest time and energy into a garden you are also putting down metaphorical roots. Their only concern will be that the type of garden you create will add value, or at least not reduce the value of the property. If you can’t communicate directly with the owner you need to make sure your request gets passed on by the agent. Applying in writing helps. Give the agent a copy with the original in a sealed envelope addressed to the owner. If you don’t know their name put “The owner” followed by your address. It’s best to wait until after your first inspection. Here’s a sample:
To the owner (your address)
I am the tenant and lease holder at (your address). I have been living here now for six months and as you will have seen from the agent’s inspection report I am taking good care of your property (make sure this is true). I am seeking your permission to improve the gardens around my home at my own cost. (If you have any previous gardening experience, mention it here and include photos of previous gardens if you have any). It is my intention to settle here while ever the property remains available to rent and my commitment to the garden is long term. In the event that you have any concerns or objections to changes I make, I will undertake to return the garden to its current state when I vacate. I have included current photos of the garden and a sketch plan for your consideration.
Your sketch plan doesn’t need to be landscape architecture. A neat plan on an A4 piece of paper will do. You can make life easy by using a print out from an online mapping service. Use the settings to fade between the satellite image and the map for a pale rendition of your site and draw directly on it, or use tracing paper. Include a written description and a couple of photos of the kind of garden you are hoping to create. Make it easy for your landlord to say yes to your request.
So at this point, most people will include a drawing of three or four rectangular garden beds, but I’d like to advocate for a more permaculture-aligned approach to rental gardens. What happens if we garden as if we’re creating a gift for future tenants? What happens if instead of just thinking about our own needs we also consider what the earth needs and how we might share our investment of time, money and energy with others?What if instead of just growing some annuals we considered the whole of the site and the potential for restoring wildlife habitat, for feeding native birds and for cooling the heat sinks that our roads have become?
Legacy gardens: dream and describe
I saw a post on the Permaculture Australia page recently where someone recommended against planting perennial trees in a rental garden because the tenant might not live there long enough to harvest from them. I spent many years renting and always planted trees where I could. I considered them to be a gift to the earth and a legacy to future tenants. I chose trees appropriate to the context that wouldn’t invade drains or lift foundations. When I still lived in Sydney I would take great delight in wandering past a previous rental and noticing that my wildlife garden that replaced the front lawn was now filled with birdsong, and the avocado I planted in the back garden was sharing its abundance with anyone walking through the rear lane. I have seen a single street tree I added to a verge become the pioneer that encouraged a whole street full of trees. Any amount of gardening by one of us results in gardening by more of us. It’s a human thing.
I seem to be endlessly defending permaculture against allegations of ugliness. There are certainly some ugly permaculture gardens, just as there are ugly gardens that have nothing to do with permaculture, but ugliness is not compulsory. When designing a rental garden its important to consider aesthetics. This might mean some compromises between what you would like and what you know a landlord will consider appropriate. Some simple tricks like keeping things balanced or symmetrical, making sure utility areas are screened and staying on top of weeds and maintenance can go a long way. Avoid ugly planters like polystyrene boxes and old tyres. Remember that future tenants may not have any interest in maintaining the garden and seek to design a stable system, something we should be aiming for in permaculture in any case.
Plan and prioritise: a few creative options
There are three styles of garden that are particularly well suited to rental properties. The first is a tropical looking garden. I say “tropical looking” because you can create this look well beyond tropical climates. You can happily incorporate arrowroot, galangal, turmeric and edges of edible herbs and leafy greens into this design. If you have the space, the shiny leaves of a citrus will fit right in. Consider something with multiple functions, like a Tahitian lime, which subs in for limes or lemons in any recipe, or plant a mandarin for children. Easy annuals like rainbow chard, mustard and daikon radish will thrive in tiny gaps without detracting from the overall look of the garden. With its lush, holiday feel and exceptionally low maintenance, a tropical look is my number one pick for rental properties. Done well they can add value to the property and that makes for a happy landlord.
The second style is a formal looking garden. I say ‘formal looking’ because true formal gardens are energy intensive and require endless pruning. To achieve the same look, cooperate with nature. I have stretches of agapanthus through my garden to show box hedge lovers that a similar look can be achieved without all that work. Go for symmetry with this type of design and replace the purely decorative with the edible. Low plantings of land cress are more beautiful and useful than mondo grass. Pineapple sage and basil happily form low, fragrant hedges. Thyme and oregano both come in all kinds of varieties and make wonderful ground covers. There are few hedges as beautiful as rosemary. Add dahlias for their spectacular colours and edible flowers and tubers, or a neat square of edible day lilies. A pair of cumquats either side of a path will give you fragrance, fruit and easy care symmetry. Just prune lightly when you harvest. Add a back row of Jerusalem artichokes somewhere for the joy of sunflowers and the delights of autumn soup. Plant any annuals in symmetrical patterns throughout this garden, knowing that if future tenants don’t wish to grow food it will still have good bones.
The third style is an Australian bush garden. This one is less about food and more about earth care. With increased land clearing, the devastation of fires and our unenviable record for species extinction, Australian native birds and animals are desperate for habitat. Buy your food from local regenerative farmers and use your home garden to create a gift for the planet. Permaculture can be used to live somewhat self sufficiently but I prefer the concept of community sufficiency. It harnesses economies of scale and leaves more land available for other living things. Native gardens used to be notoriously messy but selective breeding means you can now find grevilleas, lily pillies and banksias that need only light, occasional pruning. You might like to incorporate some midgen berries, finger limes, lemon myrtle or other Australian edible plants, but that’s not the focus here. Add a box for microbats to keep the mosquitoes down and a pile of discreetly placed rocks for lizards. Make sure there’s a water bowl close to a tap and replace the water often.
In all cases, whatever you design, remember that perennials will require less water, time, energy and nutrients than fast growing annuals. They will also feed you, or those that come after you, for years to come. My current favourites are fig leaf gourd (eat it young like zucchini), Madagascar bean, hazelnuts and arrowroot but your choices will depend upon where you are.
All three of these designs are scalable. You can fit them to just about any sized yard. Remember to consider your aspect, climate zone and soil before you finalise your design and if you plan to grow food it’s worth getting that soil tested. For those without gardens there are still plenty of opportunities for container gardening, verge planting, community gardening and guerrilla gardening (where you plant trees on public land but please make sure they are appropriate to the site). Start with the thought that we are earth gardeners and then look for opportunities. If you cannot garden where you are see if you can find someone within walking distance that would love a garden and your company.
Implement and maintain: we never stop learning and sharing
I don’t agree with the saying “It is better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” when it comes to rental gardens. In most cases it is definitely worth asking permission. Remember that your landlord wants a tenant that looks after the property. I have heard stories about people improving gardens only to have the property sold out from under them. I would suggest that it is rarely the case that an owner makes the decision to sell based only upon a slight increase in value due to a garden. It’s more likely coincidental that the property was sold.
Connect with your local community to access all kinds of cheap or free resources, including seeds, cuttings and advice. Find your local permaculture group or start one. Any group of us are richer, smarter and more resourceful than any one of us.
If you are renting a place with a patch of earth I can recommend gardening as an antidote to the fear of suddenly having to move. It may well be that you won’t be around to harvest those avocados, but imagine if every permie in a rented property with the space to do so created a legacy garden. We would have significantly increased biomass, drawn down carbon, improved soil, reduced waste, improved our diet, created habitat, cooled the air and contributed to the conditions that are essential for preventing drought. More than this we will have plunged our hands and feet into the good earth and reconnected with our natural selves, perpetual gardeners and designers that we are.