When planning A food garden, understanding your site is the key to success. Analyse the conditions of your site and you'll be harvesting tasty crops in next to no time.

Gardens based on permaculture principles and "zones" are a great way to think about your space. The closest zone to the house will feature plants you'd like to pick from regularly, such as veges and herbs. Further out you have the orchard or food forest zone, then beyond that will be mixed shelter and woodlot.

In an urban property with little room, design ideas can be pared back to the essentials. Base your decisions on requirements such as light levels, aspect and shelter.

Designing for your garden's microclimate
In an urban setting, get to know the sheltered microclimate created by your house and neighbouring buildings. Also take into account the seasonal shade caused by buildings.

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Protecting your garden from cold southerlies is a must. On a cold, windy day, work out where you would rather be standing, and put your more sensitive plants there. Deciduous trees can cope with some southerly exposure as they drop their leaves and become dormant over winter and hardy evergreens provide shelter to the south. Shrubs such as feijoa will also provide shelter for other young fruit trees and can be hedged.

Our property has a neighbouring two-storey house on the northern boundary, so the garden is much colder and darker in winter. During these chilly months the sun ducks behind this building in the afternoon. In summer the sun is high, so the garden gets much more light and heat.

This is the case for many small properties, which makes for a tricky spot to grow veges in winter, but is fine for taller fruiting trees.

We have a 4m-wide strip (including path) between our house and the neighbour that is highly productive. Our house is elevated with a veranda on the north side, so trees don't shade the windows. Bear this in mind when you design your garden, as winter sun should be able to warm your house.

Garden Rooms
Think of your garden in "rooms", each has its own microclimate and aspect. Make the most of vertical space by espaliering fruit trees against a wall, or growing berry crops and vines along fencelines.

We replaced our muddy lawn with a courtyard with seating and a water feature surrounded by lush greenery. Here, we have bananas, a cherimoya tree, lemon, mountain paw paw and babaco. A huge Abyssinian banana gives even more of a jungle feel to the garden. Through a feijoa arch we reach the more exposed side of our garden where hardier trees grow. We have 34 fruiting trees including hedges, comprising 15 different species on our 400sq m property.

Getting started - building healthy soil for success
For an easy, low-dig way to convert your lawn to a food garden, cover grass with overlapped brown cardboard, then cover cardboard with a layer of compost and mulch. Cut holes through the cardboard to plant your pioneers or deciduous fruit trees into loosened soil, and keep mulch away from the tree trunk.

After a few years of applying tree mulch, the food forest will recycle nutrients and carbon within its own ecosystem and will "mulch" itself. On occasion we spread seaweed and basalt rock dust to give the soil a mineral boost.

Use comfrey as a clumping groundcover, as this potassium-rich plant draws nutrients up via tap roots. The leaves of this plant can be spread on the soil surface to help to feed shallow-rooted, heavy feeders such as citrus.

If you have a large rural property, frost-hardy pioneer trees such as alder and tagasaste (tree lucerne) will fix nitrogen and provide shelter. Plant fruiting trees once the pioneers have established. Leaf litter from these trees will help build your soil and over time they should be thinned to allow light in.

Although they don't produce edible fruit, the giant 3m leaves of Abyssinian bananas at our place provide a canopy and can be chopped back and laid on the soil surface to boost the organic matter. The chopped leaves and trunks of fruiting bananas are just as valuable for the soil. As they break down, the fertility and biomass of the soil is improved. Our heavy clay soil is now crumbly, dark and filled with life.

All you have to do is let nature do the work, decaying plant material is recycled by insects, fungi and bacteria. Nature is inherently tidy if you give it a chance. There will soon be little trace of this material, but your soil will become rich and fertile with very little effort on your part.