It would be great if we all had an acre or two, the time, and inclination to grow our own food, but the realities of the day are that the majority of people have moved into more confined, urban and suburban settings in order to be closer to jobs, entertainment, school districts, conveniences, and whatever else tickles our fancies. It’s the world as it is: Over half of us live in cities and suburbs.
While this can be a bit restricting when it comes to home food production, it certainly doesn’t spell the end to it. For every suburban lawn, there could be a beautiful herb spiral providing fresh, medicinal ingredients for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For every bathroom, kitchen window, or sunny corner of the living room, there could be productive, edible houseplants. Then, those small outdoor spaces like patios and balconies can be amazingly abundant as well.
In fact, with the right mindset and a little upfront effort, it’s possible to design an amazing outdoor space in which to rest and relax, enjoying those few and far between leisurely hours amongst the likes of wonderfully delicious produce. You can eat from the patio everyday and even to create layers of floral (and fauna) on that 10th floor balcony.
Questioning the space
As with any permaculture design, it’s important to first observe the space in which you plan to grow things. Think about what aspects might affect how plants will develop. Is one corner of the area particularly sunny? Is the other shady? How is the space affected when it rains? Is it possible to harvest or use some of the rainwater? Are there rails, walls, or posts that could be used? What about the space above the area? Could a trellis go there? Using all the surfaces available, not just the floor, it’s no stretch to double or triple the amount of planting area there is to work with.
Then, there are questions in which honest answers will serve you well. How much, if any, of the space actually needs to be left for lounging? Would you be better served by a lush garden balcony than a couple of deck chairs you never use? You may find that you actually take advantage of the balcony more if there is a garden to tend on it. Or, if those deck chairs are important, how can they be incorporated into the design? Once we really begin analyzing the spaces we have and how we use them, we often discover that we could be doing so much more. If most of the patio space is bare concrete that gets swept every so often, what’s the point?
Considering the plants
After becoming more acquainted with the balcony or patio, it’s time to start becoming more familiar with the plants that might work on it. Most likely, the space will have a wide variety of microclimates, cooler spots versus sun-sapped strips versus rain-soaked drip lines. For each one of these environments, there are plants suited to thrive in that climate. The trick to successfully growing is finding and accepting the right plants for the space you have. Essentially, spending more time planning means less effort will be required in maintaining the garden.
Of course, there is also the environment in a grander scale to consider. A tropical plant will be much harder to grow successfully in Chicago than will something suited to that climate. So, even though you may love passion fruit, it probably isn’t going to work. Grow something that will. There are other vines that can provide something delicious to eat. Especially at the beginning, it’s better to be realistic, to make things easier, and get the space producing. Start experimenting with more challenging plants once you’re up and running.
Also, having a good mix of types of plants will make for a fuller, more diverse garden. There are dwarf trees that can be grown in pots, vines that can climb along the ceiling or up rails and posts, leafy greens that can provide salads for each season, and edible flowers to bring aroma and color. Here are some varieties to help with starting your search.
• Edible vines: Grapes, kiwi, passion fruit, kudzu (edible but super invasive), jasmine, vanilla, climbing nasturtiums
• Miniature trees: lots of citrus—lemons, limes, mandarins, kumquats, oranges—are small and work well in containers but there are dwarf varieties of many types of other trees, including fig
• Shade-tolerant plants: mint, garlic, ginger, chard, kale, chives, different berries, onions, beets, radish, leeks, salad greens
• Sun-loving plants: Most annual plants—the stuff we typically find in the supermarket—enjoy the sun. Think cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants, melons, green beans, peas, chilies
Making the Most
A good way to further make a garden space useful and efficient is to think about how other things might affect the space. Rather than always using more fresh water, can gray water be collected in the kitchen, that water used to boil potatoes for dinner saved to later water the potatoes growing on the patio? Is it possible to have a small worm composter set up somewhere to use cutting board scraps (from the garden) to feed worms that will make a great fertilizer (worm juice) and rich soil (worm poop) for the plants that will feed them again soon. The more useful cycles that can be created the better and more rewarding and “self-sufficient” the garden will be.
Additionally, there are opportunities to make more environmentally friendly choices in building the garden components. Perhaps plant pots can come from old bottles or jars, something that might otherwise be garbage. Shelves can be built from reclaimed wood. Crazy things are being done with pallets and leftover cinderblocks from building sites. This sort of thinking will serve to create less waste, to save energy in producing new products that need not be, and to create a more dynamic, unique garden that reflects not just eating habits but personal tastes and inventiveness.
Brainstorm. Search the Internet, sites like Pinterest, for new ideas: self-watering planters, hanging gardens, vertical planting, small-scale water catchment, using old mirrors to spread sunlight throughout the garden, creating stylish garden beds from upcycled furniture. There are many, many ways other than buying everything new to create the materials needed for a fantastic garden. And, it’s certainly great that it’ll save the world’s resources, but it will also make the whole project a bit lighter on the pocketbook. It’s one more step in the right direction.
Designing the garden
Now that the space has been explored to make the most of its potential, and a dozen or more plants have been settled on, it’s time to start compiling all the information, designing a garden that makes for a diverse, productive, colorful, and enticing patio. First, think of what components don’t produce food and figure out where to put them: chairs, a composter, a table, a bicycle, personal decorations. The next step is to start filling in the empty spaces with potential plants, adjusting positions to benefit the system as a whole. Keep asking why that plant or chair should go there, and when there are two or three reasons, something is starting to work right.
When developing a plan for how it all will be interspersed, see if each thing can function on multiple levels. A pot of lemongrass decorates a table, which holds it up high enough to get plenty of sun and from where it can repel mosquitoes that might bother people that are sitting at the table; in turn, the people will sit at the table more often, noticing the lemongrass and supplying it with whatever care it needs. Likewise, notice that the balcony rails or patio posts make for perfect stakes for sun-loving vining plants like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and green beans, which will green up the space, create shady spots to play with, provide wind protection for weaker plants, and provide abundant annual crops for the kitchen.
Additionally, there are some other things that can make the garden more complete. A small pond, just the size of a plant pot or old aquarium, works wonders for attracting beneficial animals to work as pest control, as well as a good place to attempt water-loving crops like watercress, to put a fountain for soothing sounds. Shelves can be added to the wall so that many layers of pot plants can be grown up the wall, or lattice work can be tacked to the wall and/or ceiling for vines to climb up. Boxes can be added to the top of rails. There are hanging plants. A space enclosed by abundant plant-life is a pleasant environment in which to simply be, relax or work or have dinner. Don’t be afraid of overstuffing it. In this sort of garden, things can always be moved or removed.
Settling into the new environment
One of the most important elements of a garden like this is our involvement. While we’ve tried to recreate natural systems, mixing species, inviting wildlife, and even dealing with worm poo, the fact of the matter is that these plants are somewhat reliant on us. That can be a scary proposition, having one more thing to attend to; however, it needn’t be. A good garden will give far more than it gets. Be sure to incorporate some fast-producing crops like loose-leaf lettuce or radish so that there are some early harvests to keep spirits high.
To make things a bit more effortless, though, it’s sound policy to include the garden into daily routines. Ideas like watering the plants with grey water from cooking or composting with worms not only equates to harnessing the usefulness of our waste, but it also takes us out into the garden for just a moment, enough to notice that mint needs cutting back (perfect for some tea before bed) or the pond is running low on water. In this way, gardening doesn’t ask for major weekend commitment but rather tiny tidbits of time here and there.
Then, something amazing happens: When our own gardens start producing some of our daily diets, it feels empowering, and with that comes the desire to grow more. And, if we could just start doing that, producing food on a smaller local scale, using more efficient means to do it, and utilizing the spaces we do have, the world might find itself in a much better state.