We’ve already talked about permaculture, a planning method that optimizes even the most limited resources. And it’s exactly in urban environments – seeing the limited amount of space available – that making the most of every square metre becomes essential.
Windows, small balconies, classic tiled or asphalted yards are probably the environments that we most often have at hand, when not even the smallest of gardens is available: we look at them, holding our usual cup of herbal tea, sad and frustrated, dreaming of wide open green areas.
But that’s exactly where apprentice permaculturists can let their creativity loose against the difficulties, inventing unexpected solutions that not even Bill Mollison has come up with yet!
Now I’ll take the liberty and responsibility of giving you a brief summary of some of the basic design principles used in permaculture, which become essential in difficult situations such as the urban areas we’ve just described:
observe everything you have available
evaluate and aim to create an equilibrium that balances the resources used and their yield
let yourself be inspired by nature’s forms
try to integrate each element in such a way as to create reciprocal support with the others, both pre-existing or that we will add: in permaculture we say that each element must perform various functions
prefer a slow, small-scale approach: it’s more sustainable and allows you to evaluate the effect of your actions… after the thoughts have settled
love diversity; beware of monocultures: in agriculture, in culture, in your diet… Diversity is a resource!
Have you just got one window?
The least adequate situation. Ok: around the window you can hang some light-weight pots, in which you’ll grow cut-and-come-again salad leaves, if you plant them one after the other at intervals they’ll be ready in the same order, so, while the first you’ve eaten is growing back, you can cut the next one, in that way you’ll have fresh salad for several weeks! Or, why not, you can create a plant curtain: put a window-box in front of your window and stick a small trellis in it so that chili peppers and tropaeolum (commonly known as nasturtiums) can climb up it; they’ll look and taste great, as well as decoratively shading your room! You can also grow tomatoes, hanging downwards, in plastic bottles: they remain small but it's a good creative recycling experiment, they look good and you'll be able to boast about it with your friends! Obviously you’ll also keep small pots with the aromatic herbs you use for cooking, such as rosemary, sage, chives, etc.: always ready and within reach!
Have you got a balcony?
This already gives many more possibilities. First of all it’s essential that you make good use of the precious vertical space: the walls, with the use of brackets and shelves, and the side that opens onto the street, using trellising that will also create nice slightly shady areas, a sort of barrier against the outside world. On the floor it’s important that you put the taller plants behind the shorter ones – in order not to create competition – as well as using light-weight containers (which will then become pretty heavy when full of damp soil!): old plastic buckets, jute sacks, fruit boxes, old saucepans and even Tetra Pak cartons – cut in half and with holes made in the bottom – which are fine for small plants. It’s amazing to discover how much good food can be grown on a simple balcony: tomatoes in the deepest buckets with basil and French marigolds planted around them; green beans climbing up the trellis, together with aubergines and peppers, carrots in deep boxes of loose soil, lettuce in pots, garlic, chives and parsley all over the place! And if you’ve got a cool slightly shady spot, why don’t you allow yourself a small strawberry harvest too?
Have you got a yard?
Even if you share a yard, and it's sadly asphalted over, you can do miracles! You can ask if you can use part of it to grow food or maybe, better still, organize a vegetable garden together with some of your neighbours. Besides using the systems for small spaces already described above, you can have a go at some ideas that maybe require a bit more room but that also guarantee a higher yield of produce. For example you could create a beautiful spiral shaped bed of aromatic herbs using jute sacks; or get a few bales of straw and start growing vegetables on them: you need to make little holes, which you then fill with soil and you plant tomato plants, salad leaves and basil in them. With recycled pallets you’ll find it’s easy to build raised beds for growing aubergines and beans, peppers and parsley, carrots and onions, lettuce and mint! If you want to have a go at growing potatoes you can do so in bins or drums, or once more in jute sacks, or even in used car tyres: all discarded materials that get a second life!
The yard, full of greenery and flowers (because the vegetables flower too!) will come to life: you might see some ladybirds, or butterflies or even some precious bees!
Water and compost
In each of the cases above you’ll need to face the issue of a supply of water: in the communal yard of the building in which you live tanks can be connected to the gutters in order to collect rainwater (maybe camouflaging them with climbing plants: some beautiful ivy or star jasmine), on balconies all you need is a bucket for this purpose.
Even in the city you can make compost, with a little extra indispensable care in order to avoid unpleasant aromas and irritating swarms of flies. Creating a good, highly varied, mixture of materials at various degrees of decomposition, using a container that permits the passage of air and making sure that the waste is well broken up or shredded, are tricks that speed up and optimize the process. We’ll take a more detailed look at this issue in the future, to give you all the information you need.
Lastly mulching, which can be really useful in the city, because it helps keep the soil cool and damp during hot urban summers! So get hold of plenty of leaves, grass cuttings, bark – whatever you can find, even in the city, as long as it’s not contaminated – as well as the classic and always popular straw!