Ask the Permie Pro

By Dick Pierce
Photography by Carole Topalian

Permaculture expert Dick Pierce has been a passionate force behind organic, sustainable gardens and designs for over 15 years—with 10 of those spent dealing with the wonders and challenges of Austin’s unique climate, soils and precious-but-intermittent water resources. He teaches the permaculture design course offered through the Austin Permaculture Guild. For a complete listing of his upcoming classes, please see Edible Austin's Event Calendar or visit Dick Pierce Designs or the Austin Permaculture Guild.

Dear Permie Pro,
I’d like to try my hand at a fall garden, but I don’t have a lot of space. Any ideas?
—Lisa M.

Dear Lisa,

While many cities are preparing for frost and a long winter, fall offers Austin a unique, temperate gift. And you can take advantage of the cooler gardening weather (and fewer insects) with as little as an 8’x8’ space! Here’s an easy how-to for a small-yet-bountiful raised-bed garden plot:

  1. Don’t let the size fool ya—Your garden can be in a back or front yard, a vacant lot, school, church, restaurant, community, your workplace, even on concrete—get creative! Just remember: the spot needs eight or more hours of sun per day. See Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew for great examples of “bio-intensive planting” or making the most of tight gardening spaces. For example, an 8’x8’ plot (4’x4’ framed garden bed with a 2’ perimeter foot path) can hold 8 lettuce, 18 spinach, 16 pea, 16 bean, 32 carrot, 9 beet, 9 turnip, 4 parsley, 4 chard and 3 cabbage, broccoli or cauliflower plants! Wow!
  2. Let cardboard do some of the work—Check local retailers for large pieces of cardboard (bicycle/appliance boxes, etc.) to reuse. Place the flat pieces of cardboard on the future garden plot, making sure the sides extend slightly more than 2’ beyond planned garden bed borders.
  3. Framing edible art—Construct your garden frame with lumber, stone, and cement—or invent/scavenge your own material—and plan to accommodate 8”–12” of soil depth. Once the frame is built, thoroughly wet the cardboard, place the frame in position and say good-bye to mowing, weed-whacking and the incredibly invasive Bermuda grass.
  4. It’s more than just dirt!—Now it’s time to fill the frame. Assume that your soil is less than ideal and heavy in clay or alkaline (it most likely is!). Instead, buy high-quality, bag-your-own garden soil from a better garden center. A 4’x4’ bed uses ½ [cubic] yard if it is 10” high (approximately $20-worth, plus the bags).
  5. Fill it up—Fill the bed about an inch from the top, and cover the foot paths with 4”–6” of wood chips or other mulch. Free mulch often can be obtained from tree trimmers/chippers, leaf/mulch piles, dumps, the city, AISD, etc. Add compost mulch to the garden when plants are up.
  6. What to plant?—Choose fall-loving plants, herbs and flowers using the Travis County Master Gardener Planting Guide or consult the planting schedule provided by Travis County. See story on opposite page or go to the Edible Austin resources listing for these and more resources. Pick seeds and plants that will mature in 50–70 days, and plant them in September to avoid Austin’s first frost in early November.

Thoughtful, intensive planting means less space, fewer weeds, less work and more food. Good luck with your fall garden! Do you have a question for Edible Austin’s Permie Pro? Send it to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .