There is a growing need to bring food security into the cities and to urban areas throughout the country. One trend that reflects the permaculture principle of ‘using edges and valuing the marginal’ is the utilisation of small spaces in our urban areas to grow food.
There are enormous opportunities and potential to turn living spaces such as balconies, courtyards, rooftops and small backyards into productive food-growing and mini permaculture living foodscapes.
Vertical gardens and stacking, utilising recycled materials, wicking bed designs, water harvesting, trellising, teepees and multi-functioning elements are all features in a productive small space design. Even if you start by having a few herbs in the kitchen to take as little or as much as you need, so ‘producing no waste’- we start creating food independence with just the baby of steps- for our Baby Permaculture Paradise.
- Weather exposure
- Water access and drainage
- Regenerating organic matter into the soil
- What to grow and when
- How will the project be maintained?
- Sourcing Materials
Take some time to observe how susceptible your garden will be to the sun, wind and rain with the current open space. You may need to create shade or a wind break to protect your precious plants from harsh conditions- particularly on a balcony or a south to west facing aspect in any space.
Water access and drainage
Plants living in small containers and pots do not have access to ground water. They lose connections with the earth and will need extra water to survive. Think about how you can water your plants, or use methods such as the wicking design to decrease the urgency. Mulch also reduces this desperate need- decreasing water evaporation, as well as adding organic matter to the soil- feeding the micro- organisms in the soil and protecting them from being killed by sun damage or having them blown off in the wind.
Drainage is also an issue- the wicking design is perfect to deal with drainage issues as the water is all contained inside the garden bed. The design works by having a solid based garden bed- made of polystyrene boxes, a bath, a boat or even a fridge! Anything that you can salvage that has a solid base can be used. A layer of gravel, glass bottles, or any chunky material that won’t leech is placed in the bottom third of the bed. A pipe is inserted vertically to reach from the gravel layer to just above the soil. This is where to henfill the bed with water. A hole is also made in the side of the bed just above the gravel level, which water will overflow from when the bed is full. Lay hessian bags are laid on top of the gravel to hold the soil in place, which is added on top of this. The plants will draw up the water that they need, and means there is less watering and worry for you!
Regenerating Organic Matter in the soil
In addition to the mulch, there are other ways and methods needed to feed the soil. We must think about how the plants will receive the nutrition that they need to grow. A compost system could be incorporated into the design, such as burying your compost, covering it with soil and then planting into this. Humus will form- but watch out- you may have seeds popping up- pumpkins and other Cucurbits particularly like these growing conditions and tomatoes often pop up too! You could also have incorporate a worm farm into the design- feed your scraps to the worms and have delicious worm wee and castings for your plants!
What to Grow and when
We must have a look at what’s in season if we’re to have any luck with growing an abundance of food- check out your climatic zone- Tropical, Sub tropical, Warm temperate, Mediterranean or Cold temperate. But you may also find that your little space has a micro climate of it’s own and may have some variations from the greater climate outside the space- for example, if your live in a warm temperate zone and your little courtyard or backyard is north facing, you may have luck growing sub-tropical species such as Kangkong or Okinawan Spinach- which are both perennial and flourish in moist conditions- plant these in a Wicking designed container. When thinking about what to grow when, have a look at seed websites such as Green Harvest and Diggers and the website http://www.gardenate.com/ has a lot of info about plants too.
For just a few ideas…for my sister’s balcony garden, I have planted:
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snow peas (in winter)
- English Spinach
- Cherry tomatoes
- English Spinach
- Sunflowers for sprouts
How will the project be maintained?
In a functioning Permaculture system, nature does most of the work, with just a little helping hand from it’s custodian. Where plants may lose their connection with the earth, they may need a little extra help to thrive. Regenerative soil practices are particularly important, as well as providing an environment for beneficial insects that will pollinate your garden, so flowers are an important addition for a productive crop. Directly sowing seed will benefit both you and the plants too and keep up to date with what to plant and when for a beautiful abundant garden of food!
There is also the great ethical dilemma for me when it comes to getting what you need for a project. Quality, salvaged, locally sourced, sometimes hard to find, time consuming, environmentally friendly materials -verse- Cheap, mass produced, convenient, Made in China materials. I think it’s really important if you’re growing food in an organic way- for the whole project to take on an organic form. Making the choice to create some food independence for whatever reason you have- could be contradicted by spending money on the materials that does not reflect the same values.. just a little thing to think about!
Make time- or there is no rush! Make your own compost, or support someone locally making their own instead of buying from chain hardware stores. Go to your tip and see what they have you can make a garden bed out of, pick up a few pallets and get some green waste too for your garden- turning waste into a resource! Use bamboo for stakes or trellising instead of buying these types of things. Visit your local fruit and veg shop and pick up some polystyrene boxes to plant a garden and some hessian bags- you can grow potatoes in these too! Try your Local Seed Saver Networks to get seeds and cuttings, or support your local nursery or friends at the community markets. Take this opportunity to incorporate an organic flair into your life- and maybe it will become apart of everything you do- a way of life. Grow food and you will grow too.