By Heather Jo Flores
There are plenty of good reasons to develop a skill set for growing food in small spaces. Maybe you only have a tiny balcony with sun for half the day? Or a hot, paved driveway but no other yard? Perhaps you're in student housing? Or maybe it's more of a time constraint: You'd like to have an expansive garden but you really only want to work on it for an hour a week. Or perhaps you just don't really eat that many vegetables and you'd rather just keep it small and simple.
Thoughtful, specific design is the primary way to get the most yield from the least square feet. Once you understand the principles of building living layers in time, space and function, you will be able to pull more out of gardens of all sizes. When it comes to designing small and/or container gardens, the three most important strategies are using microclimates, creating vertical space and avoiding waste.
Make use of microclimates.
A microclimate is a spot that is hotter, wetter, cooler, sunnier, drier, shadier, more sheltered from the wind or a combination of any of these. This information is crucial to the design. For example, when you have determined where the hot spot is in your space, you will know where to plant the tomatoes and other summer vegetables like squash, beans, peppers and basil. Into the shady, cooler spots will go the peas and salad greens. Spots with mottled sun? That's where I'd put the kale.
Learn the microclimates of your site. Don't assume that a sunny patio is sunny in every spot, or that it's all the same temperature. The shady backside of a large south-facing rock will be a different microclimate than the space on the other side of the rock, and plants of different needs will thrive in each spot. Or not. You can also change microclimates by painting things white (to reflect the heat), or by placing rocks, bowls of water and other sun-absorbing items next to plants. You can make shade or build a wind break. Use your imagination to create new opportunities.
Maximize margins and vertical space.
Google "vertical gardens" for a fun-filled evening of geeked-out garden inspiration. Build shelves, boxes, hangers, free-standing salad walls. Make note of microclimates up high, in corners, hanging from trees. Make vertical plans. Make plans in every direction. That tiny ledge you didn't notice before might be the perfect spot for a pot of oregano.
Think of the garden in 10 layers: roots, ground-covers, annuals, biennials, canes, vines, herbs, shrubs, small trees and tall trees. You don't have to use every layer but it helps to consider them all. Remember air circulation is just as important as soil and water, so don't congest the vertical space, just use it the same way you would a horizontal garden, leaving plenty of elbow room for plants to mature.
If you already have a garden and are revamping it to make it more efficient, clean out as much as you can so that you can come close to creating a blank slate. Be experimental but don't waste space or time. Make realistic attempts to raise food that already grows in the area. Keep the garden weeded, swept and free of clutter that infringes on the growing area.
In an urban area or a college housing situation, you might discover that gardening in built boxes and found containers is the best approach. You can grow food in just about any kind of container, as long as it has drainage and isn't made of something toxic that could leach into your food.
I do NOT recommend growing food in tires, railroad ties, painted lumber or treated wood for that last reason. I also do not recommend using terra-cotta pots unless you paint both the inside and the outside of the pot with a water-based latex. (Spray paint works great.) The clay pulls water away from the plants and, unless you live a super rainy place, you don't want your containers to dry out so quickly.
There are many pros to container gardening. They're temporary and easy to move, they can be done on any porch, patio, terrace, rooftop, houseboat, flatbed or driveway. If you include beneficial herbs and flowers in your containers, they will beautify your life year-round. I don't see any actual cons to container gardening but there are a few important things to consider:
Soil and Fertility.
The more yield you pull out of a section of soil, the more often you need to replenish that soil with fresh nutrients. This is especially true in container gardens because they are isolated and don't have access to the subtle yet powerful and extensive microbial network in the ground. Top-dress containers twice a year with fresh, finished compost and/or composted horse manure, then mulch on top of that with a mulch appropriate to the crop. (See "Mulch Much?" Nov. 26, 2015.)
Container plants need excellent drainage or the soil will get anaerobic. Drill holes in the bottom of the container and spread a layer of gravel to help the water percolate. Then layer in your fertile soil, plants and mulch. Containers dry out quickly, as do hotter microclimates, so keep that in mind and water about twice as often as you would with plants in the ground.
It might seem like you can get away with it, but container gardens that don't get enough water will not yield. Visit them daily with the hose and tune yourself into the needs of your little garden. And that's one of the great benefits of having small gardens: You have the time to really get to know each plant.
Weeds and Companion Plants.
It makes sense to plant a few different things next to each other in a pot, to create growing guilds that complement each other. Try tomatoes, marigolds and carrots together. But keep in mind that too many plants in one pot will cause all of them to suffer. As a general rule, try to provide at least two gallons of soil for each guild of three to four plants, layered in space and time. Meanwhile, all containers should be weeded meticulously so the chosen crops don't have to compete for water and nutrients. We'll get more into guilds and companion planting next month.
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
How I learned to bloom where I was planted (or, rather, where I planted myself).
I am not the type of person who lives in the suburbs. I love big cities: the vibrancy, the art, the festivals, the diversity, even the chaos of city centres. I love walking and cycling wherever I need to go and I especially love frequenting public spaces like parks, libraries, community centres, and public pools. I love practicing urban permaculture in the collective spaces of dynamic cities (I am the urban permaculture teacher in the Permaculture Women’s PDC).
But something happened in 2011: I feel in love with someone who owned a house in a suburban area of my city. At the time, I rented a house in a central neighbourhood that was nice, but expensive (for me) with a teeny tiny backyard. In order to pay rent I had to work two jobs. In May of 2013 my two kids, dog, two cats, and I moved to the ‘burbs.
Things changed immediately. I started driving a lot, something that made me unhappy. I felt isolated and lonely, even in a big blended family of six. My city is relatively small (350 000 people) but I couldn’t stroll or easily bike to the places in which I liked to spend time. I didn’t see my friends as often and felt disconnected. Worse, I felt out of place, unable to truly be myself.
Eventually, I convinced my partner that I had to move back to the centre of the city to be happy. But two things disrupted my plan. One, my daughter had made some great friends at her neighbourhood school and moving would mean pulling her out of that school. I had already majorly disrupted my kids lives a couple times and didn’t relish the idea of doing it again. Two, my backyard had become a permaculture ecosystem — full of wildlife, perennial plants of all kinds, and a growing medicinal food forest, still in its baby stage. I knew that next person who moved into our house would likely destroy most of it.
Permaculture is about creating relationships in which everyone flourishes. I started to think critically about the lopsided power parents yield over kids’ lives — we can turn their whole live upside down with one decision. I also started to think about the responsibility I have to the trees and perennials I planted and to the animals for whom I created habitat. Don’t get me wrong, mamas need to flourish as well — I don’t think women should sacrifice our own happiness for our partners or children. But I realized that there are special ways that I also flourish in this space.
Yes, some of my neighbours — I’m sure — worry that my forest garden and hippy ways are going to bring down their property values. But, other neighbours use my Little Free Library with enthusiasm, attended the art & eco festival my partner and I put on for four years, and, most recently, voted for my idea for an experiential pollinator garden during my city’s Neighbourhood Decision-making Process.
The bike ride to the university is almost an hour long, but this hour is spent almost entirely along the river. During the long bike ride to and from the university I pass five playgrounds, two community gardens, a dog park, one quirky amusement park, two murals, and get to witness dozens of people enjoying public green space. I spend close to an hour smiling at people as they connect with each other and non-human nature. During my bike ride, I get to admire old willow trees and bad-ass geese who stand their ground, and sometimes catch a glimpse of a bald eagle, skunk, deer, or possum. Plus I have really muscular calves.
I have also discovered that hidden in my neighbourhood are many kindred spirits, also yearning for a better, shared world for all. And so, we’re staying and I am learning that you can create a permaculture sanctuary in the suburbs, and more than that, you can create a sense of community — and can flourish — in unlikely places.
I am a permaculture educator and anti-racist, feminist activist in London, ON, Canada. I am currently a PhD candidate in Geography at Western University, where I study the relationship between people and bees in cities. My M.A. in Anthropology, also at Western University, focused on gentrification and belonging in a community garden in Toronto. I live in a suburban permaculture sanctuary with my family, two dogs, three cats, two bunnies, and thousands of gorgeous, busy bees. I maintain the blog Permaculture for the People.
Want to know more?
I am so excited to be teaching urban permaculture as part of the first online Permaculture Design Certificate taught exclusively by women. If you would like to know more or would like to have me as your permaculture design reviewer, please check out my blog and get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
#suburbs #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns #suburbanpermaculture
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