No Land, No Problem: How to turn an empty backyard into an urban market garden

Written by Maria Diaz, 28 Sep 2021

Abi Byrne is a Cohort 4 graduate of FoodLab Sydney and is the founder of Ocean Grove Farm in Collaroy on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Abi is on a mission to re-wild the city with organic, locally grown produce… her big secret: none of her land is her own.

“I believe the future of food is local. The biggest compliment I get is when people rave about the taste, the fragrant smells, and freshness of the produce they get from Ocean Grove.”

Abi Byrne

It all started in 2019 when a retired neighbour overheard Abi’s story and her unbridled love for growing clean, chemical-free food. It has been organic food that has kept her healthy from a chronic illness diagnosed in her late teens that makes her extremely sensitive to chemicals.

Falling in love with the power (and taste) of organically grown produce, Abi immersed herself in the world of regenerative farming, studying to become a horticulturist, permaculture consultant, and bush regenerator.

“I would have loved to live on my own farm in the country, but I’ve needed to stay in the city to care for my family”, she reflects. “Things are really expensive here and I’ve been a tenant my whole life and have struggled to find my own land to grow produce on”.

Abi’s ‘inner farmer’ was crying out. She was growing food in every corner of her apartment building she could find. She quickly began running out of space, telling anyone who would listen that she would rather be tending a tiny farm and producing fresh, healthy food to share with her community. 

“I found myself talking to one of my neighbours, Phil, about my lack of growing space and he had an idea. He said if I was willing to take on the task of clearing the overgrown and weed-infested yard at his house, I have permission to build my own mini market garden.”

That was when she consciously began understanding what goes into her stomach. She decided to turn to Abi’s heart leapt, and she quickly got to work.

The green transformation

It took Abi two weeks to clear out the weeds and grass that have taken over her neighbour’s overgrown backyard. She also had to hack into many feral papaya and banana plants, with lots of heavy lifting to dig out rocks buried deep below old garden beds. But it became worth it in the end.

“A food garden is my happy place. What’s more, I really value caring for the needs of landowners who might need interaction from the community in a time like this, and they can take pride in a brand new, bountiful backyard.”

Abi Byrne

Abi was so excited and planned for a sustainable farm system from the beginning.

From minimising water consumption through a drip irrigation system to employing a no-dig, no-till planting method, to building an army of compost bins and worm farms around the property which takes on kitchen scraps from local cafes and homes in the community.

Ocean Grove Farm soon came to life, measuring a meagre 16 metre by 10 metre plot that crams in a total of 14 garden beds.

Abi planted for diversity, which is the key to organic growing principles: broccoli, spinach, chard, kale, Asian greens, shallots, kohlrabi, English spinach, radishes, leeks, celery, fennel, leafy salad greens, rockets mizuna and mustard greens.

“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 beautiful pollinators,” she said.

Abi’s love for creating edible landscapes enables her to be a part of the rhythm and cycles in nature and works wonders on her mental health during the pandemic.

“Horticulture therapy is real, and it works. I think it is exactly what our community needs during one of the most stressful events of our century, and I believe this will be a key part of Ocean Grove’s future business model”.

FoodLab provides essential business training

When Abi realised the market potential of the farm, she knew she needed business and marketing training. She decided to join the FoodLab Sydney program after spotting a callout via a friend’s social media post.

“The program helped me understand the business side of running an urban farm.

They helped me to tell my story, which often food business owners can’t do on their own.”

“FoodLab gave me a strong support network of like-minded people who are very passionate about food and food entrepreneurship. Having mentors who believe in what I am doing has made all the difference and given me the confidence to keep going with my project.”

Feeding the local community

Today, the once-idle Northern Beaches backyard is teeming with fresh, organic vegetables that Abi is now selling through one of her local cafes, The Outpost, located less than 100 metres from the farm.

“I believe the future of food is local. Food miles are minimal here.”

Based on her experience growing in an urban setting, Abi saw that people are showing more awareness and interest in the source of their food. She has a vision to try to scale this model by connecting with like-minded residential landowners with overgrown or tired backyards.

“I believe this is one solution to the problem of food security. From my conversations with customers, they really want to connect back with the land and the farmer who grew their food.”

“They know what where their food is grown and this it is chemical-free, fresh and full of nutrition and life. That is special.”

Abi is also supplying five families in her local community with produce through a subscription service. She also gives a portion of the produce back to Phil, the landowner, making it a win-win result for both.

“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.”

a growing community movement

Since starting the market garden, Abi found herself becoming involved more deeply in the community. She was able to give more produce away whilst also finding more people willing to help her.

“During my first year when I had a lot of surplus produce, I gave a lot of fresh vegetables to my neighbours and the food bank. I feel it’s really connected me to people I never knew who live just across the road from me.”

Today she’s also getting a lot of calls and offers from people who want to help her in the plot.

“In the future, if I was able to access more land and apply for some grants, I would love to employ local youth who are becoming more interested in market gardening.”

But for now, while customer demand is growing, Abi looks for more idle lands to be converted into productive food gardens.

“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 to my local community, and I really hope this can become a movement across the entire Northern Beaches of Sydney and beyond.”

Abi Byrne

To learn more or contact Abi, head to the Ocean Grove Instagram account.