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Planting in Pots and Other Ways of Playing with Permaculture in the Big City


Growing your own food doesn’t require expanses of acreage. It doesn’t require a tractor. It doesn’t require complete self-sufficiency. As we all well know by now, it doesn’t require chemicals, either. It doesn’t even require a garden, at least not in the way we’ve come to picture one. In some instance, it doesn’t even require soil. There are so many things they are not necessary for anyone to start growing their own food, and that’s good news.

Not so long ago it became official that most of the world’s population had migrated into urban settings. It’s a strange thing, really: In a global society that has been battling world hunger and poverty for decades now, the bulk of people are relocating into cities, where land is at a premium, soil—especially healthy stuff—is harder to come by, and the food available is more apt to be nutritionally deficient. Our migration may not be the most logical of moves, but it isn’t without its own possibilities.

There are lots of permaculture newbies wanting to join in on the game, throw a little greenness into their lives. It’s no wonder, really, because it isn’t so far back that growing our own food was fairly standard practice, and even more recently that a sort of first-world disconnect with what we eat has occurred. Eventually, the pendulum does swing to a returning dawn of awareness, an old direction worth moving, so it’s no surprise that even just the thought of growing a few herbs for ourselves strikes a harmonious chord.

But, of course, for all the things we don’t need in order to grow our food, we do need some motivation to get it going. We most certainly need some basic knowledge (but not a Geoff Lawton’s intricate interworking of the earth type knowledge). Time will be a factor, as will warmth, light and water. But, we don’t need much, really, to start producing some of what we eat right at home, even if home is on the tenth floor of an apartment building in downtown wherever. And, truth be told, if over half the population is going to be in cities, the world needs it.

Gardening in Containers


Courtesy of Becky Cortino

When it comes to growing food, the obvious first deterrent for most urban people is a lack of space. Some don’t even have access to patch of earth in which to plant anything, let alone grow their own produce. It’s not uncommon for a city-dweller to have no yard at all, maybe an apartment with direct access outside at all, not a balcony or patio. Well, believe it or not, this situation is but a small hiccup in otherwise healthy start to growing your own food.

Lots of our favorite annual vegetables can be grown in containers right inside the house. Herbs have no problem with pots. Lettuce just loves to spread out in one of those oblong planters that fit nicely on a shelf or hanging from a balcony rail. Tomatoes are content reaching for the curtain rods, soaking up the sun, and potatoes can seem almost tailor-made for buckets. Squash and cucumber vines will happily cling their way up a corner or a wall. There are all sorts of things to plant indoors. Truth be told, much of the produce we buy at the supermarket was grown inside anyway.

When growing with containers, it’s important to choose an appropriate size for the plant (or plants) you are potting. For instance, a root vegetable like beets or radishes might want for a bit more depth to grow in whereas mint or lettuce might need only a few inches but a little more surface to expand and flourish. Obviously, bigger things like trees require bigger containers. But, the short and sweet of it is to be mindful of which plant you are putting in what. As well, don’t be afraid to get creative with the containers, making them from recycled stuff like plastic-lined dresser drawers, deftly painted plastic bottles, or a collection tin cans.

It’s all in the Soil


While it is possible to grow plants without soil, by and large, a healthy soil goes a long way in making a healthy plant, so the next step is filling that fleet of containers. It’s important, when doing so, to realize that growing in containers is different than in a garden bed. It’s really important that the potting mix in your containers contain light and absorbent material that is slow to breakdown, not just topsoil or compost. You don’t want those roots to rot or the soil to be so heavy and compacted that young roots struggle to get down.

There are lots of theories on what constitutes the best potting mix, and most of these DIY mixtures assume ideal spacing, such as a spot to let leaves and sawdust rot for a year or two. That’s all well and good, and setting up your own compost system is an entirely possible and great idea, but as this is a fledgling urban project, it’s probably best to assume there is no nearby compost pile readily at your disposal. Likely no quality soil is nearby, so acquiring the right resources will likely mean bring them in.

In general, the components that make for a good mix are something that will soak up water and hold for the plant to use when it chooses, something that will keep the soil airy and light, and something to provide nutrients. If it’s available in your area, coconut fiber is amongst the best things for moisture, but some chopped up leaves from the doorstep could fill in in a pinch. When choosing something for airiness, it’s important to consider what will happen over the course of the plants life, seeking out inorganic materials—like sand or pea gravel—that won’t break down and compact the mix. Lastly, nutrients are important, so organic compost from a nursery will work for now, while your own composting system is getting up and running. I also like to put a layer of mulch on the top, some straw, grass clipping, leaves…whatever.

As good permaculture practitioners, it makes sense to try different recipes and find one the best for you and your plants. The basic principles are always there. A nice thing about pots is that each one’s soil can be tweaked to be better suited to its particular plants. And, always try to find something you’ve already got: For example, coffee grounds are a popular gardener’s friend and a sprinkle around tomatoes or spinach might be quite nice for them.

Choosing the plants for the place


Another thing to consider when doing a container garden in and around the house is the climatic factors. Even with the plants inside, there are certain spots that are better fits for certain plants. Factors like windows (for sun-lovers) and bathrooms (for moisture lovers) can help to determine where to put plants, as well as which plants might best for your house. The permaculture way is to try to consider such factors and take advantage.

So, when growing our ginger plants, an easy must have for all container gardens, we should be aware that they are shade-tolerant and prefer hot, humid weather. We should also consider the plants dimensions. In the case of ginger, they are usually a couple of feet tall, without too much wingspan to worry about, a nice flash of color and good aroma. With these conditions in mind, a bathroom or laundry room might make a good spot. These rooms don’t typically have lots of windows, thus are a little darker than a living room or kitchen. They get hot and humid. In fact, with a daily dose of shower steam, the ginger is more or less self-watering. It seems worth a shot.

All of the answer might not come to you immediately, but the idea is to be thoughtful about the process, choosing the right plants for certain spots and the right spots for certain plants. Make a list of the crops you might like to grow, research the conditions they like, and wander around the house seeking out good locations. Tomatoes, sun-hungry and water-thirsty, might work well in a kitchen window, where it’s easier to remember to water them regularly. Lettuce likes water and doesn’t mind shade, so maybe the dining room table works. The point is to plan and have a reason or two why each plant is where it is, is in what it’s in, and is getting certain soil amendments.

Arranging the plants just so


Courtesy of Ruth Hartnup

How you arrange plants can also be quite relevant and effective way of utilizing small spaces for maximum output. This usually translates to using vertical space, finding ways to stack plant pots or hang them, such that the container garden is not strictly limited to the floor space. Wonderful things can be accomplished with shelves (doubling, tripling, quadrupling the area where plant pots can go) and balcony or stair rails (great trellises). Hanging rows of upcycled plastic bottles (reusing something that otherwise would produce waste) or utilizing the balcony ceiling for food-producing vines. The more plants you can fit, the more food you can grow, so think vertically and design the space accordingly.

Another good thing to consider is creating tiny guilds. Many of us are familiar with the notion of growing corn, beans, and squash together, how each plant is providing services to its neighbors. Well, pots have the potential to work the same way. Carrots and onion help each other with pests while loose-leaf lettuces can fill the space atop the root veggies. Tomatoes, garlic, and basil might make a friendly trio. These can all go into one pot or be positioned near to one another. Other times, plants are really grumpy and function better as loners.

Additionally, the eventual size of some things, say a lemon or avocado tree (both possibilities here), is also good to consider. That tree may work well on the windowsill for the first year, but come year three, four, five, if you want it to produce, it’ll have to get some size to it. Then, As well, when planting vertically or in close proximity to other plants, consider the little microclimate you are creating. Is that tomato plants blocking out the sun for the pot of basil behind it? Don’t be afraid to rearrange if it seems a good idea.

A final pep talk and token advice


Courtesy of Karen Blakeman

It won’t all be correct the first time. Accept that. Use that. The things that don’t work help to lead us to the things that do. If lemongrass doesn’t grow well next to the TV, then move it over by the window where those beet greens are looking a little too wilted. Try something else—maybe those beets—over by the TV. Maybe you forget to water something, so you move it closer to a sink (water source), maybe where it’s a bit more visible to remind you. And, in the end, if something just completely fails, don’t fret. Just grow something else. There are plenty of edible plants out there.

My advice is to start small. Choose one spot, say the area near the kitchen window. Make a plan for getting the most of the space. Can the pots be staggered, stacked at different levels? Is there the space for growing vines up the sides of the window, creating a nice framework of greenery? How many pots can you fit? Choose some famously easy things to grow — lettuce, radishes, herbs, beans, ginger—and fill in your design. When you are satisfied, move on to the next nook or cranny that might be more useful as a food source.

And, finally, when it’s all propagated and growing, use it. Eat from the garden as often as possible. Remember that was the whole point. That massive purple cabbage is gorgeous but don’t let it go to waste by just looking at it. You can grow another and another and another. Sprinkle those fresh herbs over dinner. Make tea from that ginger. Harvest the potato bucket and start anew. It’s a simple but great feeling eating something you’ve grown. It’ll likely make you want to grow more. And, from a permaculture stance, that’s the point.

Some plants to consider trying

Herbs: basil, mint, cilantro, lemongrass, oregano, thyme, stevia, peppermint, sage, tarragon, chives, rosemary and on it goes.

Vegetables: beets, radishes, lettuce, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, carrots, cabbages, kales, cucumber, eggplant, pea, peppers, squash, tomato…Follow this link for some specs.

Fruit: pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelons, lemon, mandarin, orange, strawberries, blueberries, figs, apples, cherries, peaches…Click here (and here) for help.

Medicinal: aloe vera, ginger, turmeric, gotu kola, marsh mallow, marigold, lemon balm, tea tree…and click here for more.

That’s over fifty edible, useful plants to get going, likely more than the average house to hold. Choose five or ten to get started and go from there. Best of luck.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Thanks for the article, that’s exactly what I need! I live in a small appartment in the middle of a city. My luxury is a balcony (facing east), next to a busy street. I already startet to plant herbs and lettuce etc. But I’m a bit worried about the air pollution, which is quite high next to the busy street. I am considering planting some non-food-plants on the front of the balcony, and the food plants rather in the back, so the non-food-plants might filter some of the pollution out of the air. Has anyone tried this before, experiences to share, best practices about growing food in air-polluted cities?
    All the best from Germany

    1. I haven’t tried “filtering” out pollution the way you describe, but I just wanted to say: Keep in mind that most edible plants need quite a lot of light to produce properly. If you put them behind other plants, they might not get enough direct sunlight anymore, especially in an east-facing balcony that only gets a few hours direct sunlight in the morning anyway. I say this because I live in (north-eastern) Germany as well, and lack of sunlight is always my main problem, except on one roof-inset-balcony that faces south-west and doesn’t have a roof to shade the back of the balcony. Compared to that, my large, east-facing windows are barely usable for anything but hardy and shade-tolerant decorative foliage and slow-growing succulents. Remember that most of the people contributing on this site are Australians or Americans, who get a lot more sunshine and longer growing seasons than Germans do. (We may have comparably mild winters because of the Gulf stream, but we get about the same amount of annual sunshine hours as Alaska or Southern Canada. The only part of mainland US that comes close to Germany in terms of how little solar energy reaches the ground is famously rainy Seattle.)

      Also, is the pollution really so bad? We’re thankfully not using leaded gasoline anymore, and if you’re a few levels up, potentially toxic dust from the road shouldn’t be that much of a problem anymore. But if it worries you that much, maybe grow something that can be washed more thoroughly than little herb leaves, or something where the edible part is underground, like radishes or onions.

      You could also construct a little greenhouse from clear foil or old sheet glass to protect your plants. I’ve also seen people set plastic windows into the edge of their balcony to create a small greenhouse space. (Most favorite summer vegetables, like tomatoes or cucumbers, are in dire need of the extra warmth anyway, and protecting them from rain will reduce the problems with mildew, brown rot and other fungal diseases that usually wipe them out when the rains start in September or during a bad August. Just make sure to let in the bees on sunny days for pollination. Radishes can tolerate quite a lot of heat in my experience (over 50°C) as long as you water them a lot and keep away the white cabbage butterfly. And there are heat-tolerant salad varieties – usually labeled “schossfest” in German.)

  2. Love this article. So many tips and techniques I can adopt – and so easy.

    I save the water from vegetables I cook and using it to water my indoor veggies and house plants. They also love the left over leaves from herb teas…micro-mulching!

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