The following post is adapted from a workshop given at the Green Renters Expo in association with the City of Yarra, May 17th, 2011
I was challenged by my friends at Green Renters to put together a short talk about food gardening for people with limited access to an established garden. Trying to squeeze in as much as possible into such a short presentation (I really only had about half an hour) was pretty difficult, so I had to pare down the volumes of information about growing plants to the bare bones. This is what i came up with.
Gardening without a garden
Getting by with what you’ve got
Not everyone has a garden, and in the past, only the extremely wealthy could afford lavish gardens. Landed gentry had teams of gardeners on their estates tending to exotic plants collected from all around the world. As the middle class grew, smaller versions of these elaborate status symbols replaced the purely utilitarian vegie plots and orchards in suburban private gardens, and even in government owned properties. Status is fine, if you actually can afford it as the old fashioned lords could: they had their own productive land as well as the extensive show gardens. The average person does not have that luxury. In some cases, a patch of soil is not even available for any kind of garden.
The front yard of a nearby neighbour, every year it's full of vegies.
So, where can we put a garden? As one version of things goes, before all else: Let there be light! A successful, productive garden needs at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight. There are plants that can grow in less light, but as our focus is on food for people, the less light there is, the fewer meals you will get from the space. Light is essential for plant growth, plants take energy fromsunlight and convert it into chemical energy which we can eat. The light should be preferably in the morning, as the afternoon sun is generally hotter, and will tend to stress the plants a bit more, but in the end, any light is good, as long as there’s enough of it.
If a garden bed already exists, choose it to start with. It’s easier to dig out old plants you dan’t want, and replace them than start a whole new garden. Sometimes, anyway. There are problems, especially with established woody plants, which can cause problems, but in most cases, an existing garden is a good place to begin. The next best place is a lawn area. Lawns require a lot of sun, so a healthy patch is a good indication that there is enough light and water to grow most other plants, including food!
But what if there’s no soil at all? Any open space can be used as a growing area. In the inner cities, large areas have been paved, conreted or covered with hard surfacing like asphalt to reduce maintenance. These places are perfect, if they get enough sun, we just have to consider options for growing in containers, which I will come back to. In actual fact, the ground may not be the only place to put containers, and anywhere there is close-to-level space, such as balconies, roof tops, or even stairways can be considered, taking safety and access into account, of course.
Containers don't have to be "plant pots"
Another thing to consider is access to water. Is there a tap nearby the area you are going to use? It makes it so much easier to keep things going if you aren’t having to lug heavy watering cans up and down stairs or hoist them on to roofs to alleviate the thirst of your garden, and they are thirsty. In summer you may have to water every other day, in containers, maybe every day. There are automated ways of doing this, but a hose and trigger spray nozzle are the easiest.
There are other advantages of inner city gardens such as a potential lack of frost, due to being off the ground, or surrounding bricks and paving keeping things war at night. There are also often lower populations of weeds and pests, due to the absence of other gardens nearby for them to migrate from.
What can you grow? Anything you like, really, the number of plants that can be grown are limited by climate, but in any location, there are hundreds of species of plant that can be grown productively. the first thing to consider is what do you like to eat? There’s not much point growing things that you don’t like, it takes just as much work to grow them, but you don’t get anything out of it. Everything is seasonal, too. Some things will grow all year, but most plants have an optimum time of year in a particular area. This usually means they are in season when they are also cheapest in the shops, so find unusual or expensive things, or things that don’t transport well for starters. Soft fruits, fresh herbs, tomatoes and salad vegies are my first thoughts, but it’s really up to you.
You can grow whatever you want in your space
So how can we grow a garden without garden beds? The first option is raised beds. These can work on lawns, if you don’t want to dig them up, but they can work on concrete or other paved surfaces, they behave just like large containers. Basically, you build a wall around the area you want to use, and fill it with “soil”, but I will come back to this. Of course you can use plant pots, or any other kind of container, polystyrene fruit boxes are easily obtained, usually for nothing, from local grocers, or markets (if you can find one). But really, you can use anything as a container, with a few important provisions.
Firstly, it has to hold “soil”, and I keep using scare quotes, because bringing in actual soil from somewhere else is expensive, and basically unsustainable in most cases, but we can work around that. Cheap potting mix is a good option. Supermarkets and big variety stores have potting mix for less than $5/25 litres. The one thing to note is the Australian Standrad logo. There are two standards for potting mix, Regular, which does not have to contain any fertiliser, and Premium, which contains enough for a few months. The standard means you are sure the mix contains no toxic chemicals, retains water and nutrients, drains okay, allows air down to the plant roots: all the things you need from a potting mix. The container itself must also have holes at the bottom to allow water to drain away, or roots become waterlogged.
Logo for the Australian standard (regular grade) potting mix. Premium grade is the same in red.
You need to fill up the container almost to the top, but not quite, as there needs to be some space, a “reservoir” for water to collect so it can filter into the potting mix. Don’t squash it down too much, either, it will settle when it’s watered in., and too much pressure will squash out all the air spaces in the mix, and suffocate your plants.
But where do we get our plants? If you’re buying plants, seeds are the cheapest way to do it. You’ll get more plants than you know what to do with from most packets of seeds. It’s best to buy things that are “open pollinated” if you can find them, which means you will be able to save this year’s seeds again for next year. But there are plenty of other ways to get plants. Division is one way, there are a lot of plants, like Mint and Oregano, and Thyme, where you can just dig a little bit of the plant from an existing one, and plant it where you want it to grow. A bit more complicated it taking cuttings, where you cut a small stem from an established plant, strip most of the lower leaves off and stick it in some potting mix. Eventually, if the cuttings are kept moist, and out of direct sun in a warm spot, like the top of the fridge, new roots will grow from the base, and you can plant the cuttings out. Rosemary and Sage work well this way.
Not too little, not too much, this Apple seedling finds things just right. Maybe I'll call it Goldilocks.
Fertiliser = Plant Food. Plants produce their own energy, but they need certain elements to build the machinery to do it. These come from the nutrients found in fertilisers. The most important are Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, or “NPK” in their chemical symbols. These can be found in both synthetic chemical fertilisers, or in organic fertilisers. Chemical fertilisers are easy to apply in small amounts to deliver large doses of appropriate nutrients, while organic fertilisers, mostly animal manures, require much larger quantities to be applied for the same result. For this reason, along with the issue of odour, some people choose to use chemical fertilisers. It’s a personal decision, really, it makes little difference to the plants, though organic fertilisers increase soil organic matter and microbial activity, which is a good thing, while chemical fertilisers are much easier to overdose on and produce undesirable effects.
Pests and Diseases are often the cause of much discouragement. Grubs and slugs and bugs can eat away plants literally overnight, but there are simple solutions. Firstly, the best defence is healthy plants, healthy plants seem to be attacked less by pest and disease, so keep them growing strong. Growing many different plants together, mixed up rather than in neat rows, seems to confuse any critters looking for a free feed. Lastly, there are plenty of low toxicity sprays that will knock back the baddies. Just remember they will also knock out any beneficial bugs as well, like ladybugs and hoverflies.
Grow as many different plants as you can in the space you've got, it helps confuse the pests, keep out weeds, and produce more food!
Weeds take up empty space in the garden. If you have weeds, it means you could have more plants you like. Pulling weeds makes more weeds! By ripping them out, you are bringing more weed seeds to the surface, and allowing more sunlight to warm the soil, and more water to germinate more seeds. Mulch reduces weeding and watering, by shielding the soil from the sun, evaporation is reduced, so more water stays in the soil for plant roots. Organic mulches provide some nutrients as they break down, but very woody mulches can use up some nitrogen if you are not careful. Any mulch is better than nothing, even stones or plastic could help stop weeds and hang on to water.
Many plants produce more when harvested, like beans, peas, salad greens, even broccoli, so keep picking! Keep sowing seeds, too, on a regular basis, so plants can be replaced when they are slowing down. Most of all, keep trying, take notes so you can look back on what works and what doesn’t, and don’t get discouraged. No one is good at something the first time they try. Remember learning to cook?
The golden garden rules
- Healthy roots = healthy shoots
- Plant what you like
- Keep planting
- Keep picking
- Learn from mistakes
- Have fun!