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
with Becky Ellis
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agrarian landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in re-imagining how cities might become places in which humans and nature co-create and co-operate. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces in our individual lives and in collective spaces.
Lack of access to land is often raised as a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in North America, both rural and urban, is prohibitively expensive for many people. Many permaculture practices are based on land ownership including the creation of perennial gardens, the growing of food forests, major earthworks such as berms and swales and the building cob structures.
In cities, access to land is one of the biggest obstacles for people hoping to practice permaculture. Land in the city tends to be very expensive and zoning rules mean that some practices may be forbidden in certain parts of the city (for example, animals considered ‘livestock’).
In this mini class we will discuss strategies for accessing land in cities.
Although access to land for urban agriculture projects can be an obstacle, people have found a variety of creative ways to overcome this barrier.
Additionally, there is a growing movement around the world for public food forests, community farms and collective apiaries. Collective projects in public spaces can be an important way to begin to reclaim the commons and can help to disrupt the concept of private property. This is an important part of beginning to grapple with what it means to decolonize our cities. We can begin to shift our language and practice from one of ownership of land to one of care-taking and attachment. I have found it very useful to, while retaining my community activism and grassroots organizing, find some allies within city governments whether that be staff or city councilors.
Now that we’ve discussed strategies for accessing land in cities it’s time for you to explore these strategies first hand. A recommended way to start would be to find an urban permaculture project and volunteer for one hour. Do whatever is needed but be sure to talk to people about their experiences while you work alongside them. If you can’t find an urban permaculture project, find a community garden or urban farm.
This miniclass is excerpted from the Urban Permaculture module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Becky Ellis.
Becky Ellis is a permaculture educator and community activist in London, Ontario, Canada. Becky is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Western University. Her research project is focused on the relationship between people and urban bees. Becky maintains the blog Permaculture for the People https://permacultureforthepeople.org and regularly gives workshops and presentations about urban permaculture, community gardening, and gentle beekeeping. She embraces the challenge of bringing permaculture (and honeybees!) to the suburbs.
Further reading on this topic:
Thomas, Pandora and Starhawk. “Black Lives Matter: A permaculture perspective”. Permaculture magazine. July 11, 2016. Accessed December 8, 2017. A statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter activists. A must read.
Flores, Heather. Food not Lawns: How to run your yard into a garden and your neighbourhood into a community. Chelsea Green, 2006. A fabulous, in-depth guide to permaculture, especially focused on cities by our very own Heather Jo Fores. This book has a very good focus on community organizing - unlike some permaculture books it does not simply focus on transforming private spaces. It’s so inspiring that it spawned, Food not Lawns activist groups throughout the continent.
Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. Poor People’s Movements: Why they succeed, how they fail. Vintage Books, 1977. This is another older book that is a classic. In this book Piven and Cloward examine movements of and BY poor people. This book has been deeply influential and also puts forward the argument that poor people’s movements must be self-organized not implemented for them by well-meaning (or not) do-gooders. One of my favourite activist organizations is part of this movement - the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.
#urbanpermaculture #communitylandtrusts #guerrillagardening #publicland #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agricultural, rural landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in co-creating cities that are filled with multispecies abundance. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces both individually and collectively.
People have lived in cities — large, permanent settlements — for thousands of years. Since the turn of 20th century, the rate of urbanization has increased steadily throughout the world, with an especially intense growth after the 1950s. Currently, the majority of the world’s people live in cities, a trend that is expected to continue into the future which makes the potential impact of urban permaculture huge and far-reaching. There are multiple problems with cities but at their heart they are dynamic, vibrant, and diverse. Cities have the potential to be destructive and to increase people’s sense of alienation from each other and non-human nature. But they also have the potential to be lively and vibrant places filled with collective innovation and creativity. Creating ecologically regenerative and socially just cities is one of the most important tasks of permaculture.
Although urban permaculture can be limited to private, backyard spaces, many practitioners either have no access to private property or, want to extend beyond the limits of their property to collectively envision and create vibrant and revitalized collective spaces.
Benefits of Permaculture in cities
The flourishing of urban nature
While cites are sometimes dismissed as concrete jungles they are in fact filled with an abundance of non-human nature. In fact, some animals and plants thrive in cities. Recent studies by entomologists, for example, have found that some species of native bees prefer cities to the countryside due to the presence of less pesticides and more floral and habitat diversity. When we consider that many rural areas are filled with oceans of monocultures with islands of intense animal agriculture, it makes sense that many animals and plants flourish in cities.
Urban permaculture is especially important in co-creating spaces in which non-human urban natures thrive alongside people. The regenerative urban ecosystems we create will be filled with an amazing variety of insects, mammals, birds, and a wide diversity of volunteer plants.
This relationship is not one-sided — we can also benefit from the diversity of non-human nature in cities. For example volunteer plants — commonly known as weeds — can be important sources of food and medicine.
Access to Resources
Cities are wonderful places to practice permaculture because they contain a wide variety of resources, sometimes in the form of other people’s garbage. In many ways cities epitomize the permaculture principle that the problem is the solution. The things that people consider garbage — or sell cheaply at garage sales and thrift stores — may prove to be very useful in permaculture projects. For example, all kinds of containers useful for gardening can be found on the curb on garbage day.
Cities also contain other resources that are under-utilized. For example, cardboard boxes can be used for sheet mulching, newspapers can be used for vermicompost bedding, and leaves make perfect mulch.
Lastly, cities contain anywhere from thousands to millions of people. Many people have both resources and skills to share. This has led to the development of a true sharing economy with the creation of little free libraries, tool libraries, seed libraries and co-operatives of all kinds. Although still on the edges of mainstream society, people have experimented with the sharing of skills in a variety of ways including community resource mapping and bartering networks.
Communities of difference
One of the most important benefits of creating permaculture projects in cities is that urban neighbourhoods can more easily develop into vibrant communities based on difference.
This reaffirms one of the most important principles of permaculture — that diversity creates resilience. Perhaps the most exciting thing about permaculture in cities is that it allows us to collectively imagine a different kind of world, one that is ecologically regenerative and socially just. Join the permaculture movement and actively create a regenerative future shared by all.
Thanks for reading!
I'm 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 email@example.com.
#growyourown #foodnotlawns #urbanpermaculture #permaculture
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