Saturday, March 8, 2014

Permaculture in pots

When I bought my first ever batch of vegetable seeds, I hadn't put any thought into designing my balcony garden. My focus was on reducing my epic wishlist to something a little more manageable.

However, since my seeds have arrived, I have started putting a little more thought into how and where I am going to plant them, and this has led me to think about the design of my little corner slightly differently.

I am not very familiar with the principles of permaculture but I have generally associated them with rather larger-scale enterprises than mine. Moreover, my record with plants is not great - what is the opposite of green-fingered? - and I'd rather start small and build up, so embracing sophisticated new systems seemed just another complication.

However, I've been doing a little reading and a little browsing and I'm intrigued by the permaculture design priciples, and by some of the examples of applying them to even a single planted pot (Exhibit A). It is most definitely possible to encorporate at least some - if not all - of these in a balcony garden. I've done a little musing and a little research, and slowly my end-goal is taking shape, along with a clear set of slow and simple stages to take me from here to there.

One of the things I am particularly excited about including is biodiversity. At first I thought that there could not be any wildlife up here, several stories up in a built-up area. But it seems that insects can cover a wide surface area, there are several parks within a few km of my flat and I know of at least one bee hive within bee-flying range, so my flat could definitely attract bees if it had the right plants. While soil in pots will surely never be as diverse as that in the ground, there's no reason I can't make my little balcony a wayside inn for insects travelling between green spaces.

I already had some bee-friendly plants in my list - lavender being the best example - but I thought I should maybe think about improving my balcony's appeal to wildlife.

One of the principles of permaculture is to create a yield. At first glance, that means a crop such as beetroot or radishes, but the more I think about this, the more different kinds of 'yield' I am identifying. There's the fun of this whole adventure, experimenting with plants I have never tried before. There's the development of skills to care for and manage a range of plants. There's the improved aesthetic of my little outdoor corner, something I will definitely appreciate on warm weekends. And why can't flowers be a yield or a crop just by themselves? Whether enjoyed outdoors, cut for a vase or for a gift, or even eaten, there are clearly many ways to benefit from growing flowers.

That's me convinced. I've put in another seed order for a few bee-friendly flowers, favouring those which are edible in some way (homegrown sunflower seeds, anyone?) and trying to include a range of plants of different heights - some bushier, some tall, some ground-cover.

By planting mixtures of flowers, herbs and vegetables together, I will be able to create tiny little modules of biodiversity. I hope to add some sort of improved birdbath as well (still mulling on the best way to do this).

I think that's definitely taking on enough for the first year, although the temptation to keep adding another plant or concept here and there is very tempting. There are several steps - such as growing heirloom plants and saving seeds, or making my own compost from kitchen scraps - that I definitely want to try and will make the whole endeavour more cyclical (and also cheaper in the long-run) but I expect this year will be enough of a challenge as it is.

In the meantime, though, I've had a go at my design for the 'end-point' (or at least an interim point!) and I thought I'd share it with you.

My apologies for the shite drawing - although I hope at least you can tell which are the sunflowers - but I think you get the idea of using height, both the height in the space and the height of plants. There's a minarette apple tree to the right, and climbing plants - perhaps peas and honeysuckle - on the trellis and wire strung either side of the concrete pillar (which is otherwise just a block to sunlight). There's a flat bit on the right of the apple tree pot which is supposed to be a shallow pool of water tucked in between some bee-attracting plants. This is obviously a long way off, and there's more balcony I haven't tried to capture, but on the whole I'm very pleased with what I've mocked up. This is just the beginning of my permaculture design journey, after all!

(By the way, it's only just occurred to me that learning about permaculture principles and practicing them by applying them to my balcony is also another 'yield' from this exercise - as is my growing enthusiasm!)


  1. New reader here. A friend linked me to your blog and over the course of a few days, I caught up from the very first 2009 entry. Am so pleased you have got round to 'Grow!' Just a few quick thoughts: If you've got enough light for lavender, what about rosemary? All-year interest, bees love it and more useful in the kitchen. Do you know the load bearing capacity of your balcony? Soil is heavy so be careful with too many big containers - though I'm convinced that in the West we over-estimate the size of containers needed .Here in Japan, people grow the most amazing, productive crops in tiny pots - eg a vine with fat bunches of grapes emerging from an old tin probably equating to a 10 inch container.

    Finally, you may already be familiar with Mark Ridsell Smith's 'Vertical Gardening' and Alys Fowler (The Thrifty Gardener, among other titles) . Both have loads of useful ideas - when you wrote about needing to buy seeds I thought of their suggestion to plant dried peas - just the type you buy in packets for soup. Sown very thickly in something like an old wine crate, they produce those delicious pea shoots which upscale markets sell for a fortune in little cellophane packets. (Presumably dried peas are obtainable in Belgium?)Best of luck and I look forward to following your adventures in urban gardening!

    1. Hello and welcome! Gosh I hope my archives aren't too embarrassing, I haven't checked for a while.

      I know Alys Fowler's BBC series on the Edible Garden (it's on youtube) but haven't checked out her books. Dried peas are indeed obtainable and something I'm thinking of having a go at, space and time depending.

      Regaring rosemary, that's also something I'm thinking of but reckon buying a small plant from the garden centre might be a better bet than trying to start it from seed. In fact I'm really not sure why I'm bothering with lavender from seed either...

      On load-bearing-ness, I've just this week discovered a fabulous allotment area not too far from my flat, and the waiting list is only 6 months, so I'm thinking that fruit trees are maybe something to have a go at there. I'll stick with herbs, lettuces and flowers on the balcony for this year at least and see if I feel up to the commitment of an allotment a little later on. Thanks for the thought - important to consider!



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