The other day I came across an episode of Stuff You Should Know about Permaculture. I knew about the concept since the days I worked with a social startup in sustainable agriculture, but those guys on SYSK did a fantastic job of jogging my memory and colouring it rainbows.
They talked about how to design farms with hedges, livestock, ponds and so on. I don’t have the capacity and space for any of those, but I couldn’t help wondering what permaculture designing principles I can apply to my balcony garden. So I set out to do some research, but first, let’ talk about permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”Bill Mollison
In a nutshell, it is a culture that takes farming holistically and sustainably, so that we people can grow enough food to eat and don’t exhaust the natural resources, poison the water and future generations. It is not just about avoiding chemical fertiliser but about observing and discovering the best ways to work with nature.
It all goes down to designing ecosystems that use (and waste) the least of land, energy and other resources (including labour) and grow enough food for everyone.
Of course, there’s always the question of “How much is enough?” Depending on how you look at things, greediness or efficiency begs another question: “Is that “enough” more or less than what is made in other food production systems (like monoculture)?
I am not here to answer big questions, though. I am here to extract joy out of my tiny space in the city and add more fresh produce to my kitchen table. After some research, I’ve found a few tips that might help this year’s growing more productive, fun and of a permaculture style.
Choose the plants for the place
The first principle they mentioned on SYSK is to watch the space. Spend a year to observe your land: its sunspots, windy corners and areas where wild animals frequent. Once you map out your space, you can pick the most suitable spots for each plant that you want to grow.
For example, tomatoes love the sun and water, so you want to place them at a sunny spot closed to the water source or highly visible so you will never forget to water them. If your tomatoes don’t get enough water, they split, then become less juicy and sweet.
For most balcony garden, you won’t just have sunny spots. You have shady areas or hidden corners that the sun can’t reach. It is wise to mix in plants that also thrive in the shade, under other taller and leafier plants.
If you don’t have much room, don’t fret about not having large containers. Some plants can thrive in small-sized pots. You just need to know which ones.
Observe the sun, feel the wind and learn as much about ideal growing conditions for plants that are native to your region.
Wild animals are probably a no-no with most urban farmers. No deer can climb up to my balcony garden, but I do have bees and ladybirds visiting last year. I also spotted birds who came to eat my sunflower seeds. A city garden can attract its share of visitors if you pick the right plants.
Maximise the space in harmony
If you can’t expand on the ground, then you have to go up. I haven’t tried growing vertically, but I’ve seen this principle playing out my whole childhood in Vietnam. We have the narrowest of the narrow houses adding one floor after another as the family inside has more members.
If you want to grow vertically, you can set up ladders, build trellises or use hanging baskets. Grow vines and fruit trees on sun-baked brick walls and save the semi-shade spots on the ground for herbs or strawberries.
Variety in the height of each plant
Pick plants with different heights so you can create a garden with more layers. In the permaculture concept, there are seven layers in a food forest. First comes canopy (large fruits and nut trees), then low tree (dwarf fruit trees), shrub (currants & berries), herb zone, rhizosphere (root vegetables), soil surface (like strawberry), and finally, the vertical layers where climbers and vines start.
I think I would make it a challenge this year to create these seven layers in one corner of my garden and see how many plants I can squeeze in.
Make use of natural helpers
Let’s get back to sunflowers. They are magnificent. Their height and massive flower heads are a statement in any garden. And they are also a natural helper. The flowers attract ladybirds, which eat aphid, mealybugs and other harmful insect pests. The seeds attract birds they might carry seeds of other plants to your garden. And of course, the bees love sunflowers.
Marigold is another example. Last year, I grew marigold in the same pot with tomatoes as the garden tales say its pungent scent discourages a variety of pests such tomato hornworms and whiteflies.
If you have room for composting, get a worm farm. I saw a few while doing my bee-keeping course and they would be the first thing I buy once I have a bigger garden space.
The worms can make liquid organic fertiliser by from your kitchen waste. They also leave in worm castings which are full of micro-organisms, and nutrients. The idea of hundred worms might sound a bit off-putting for some city dwellers, but standing outside a worm farm container, you will hardly notice an odd smell or seeing anything usual but some healthy plants.
So that was that. Should we all go permaculture this year? Personally, I will.