How do you get thriving permaculture garden while you're renting? There are particular challenges, but there's also a whole lot of great ideas for creating abundant temporary gardens and flourishing community spaces.
In our 20s, Evan and I lived in rental houses for years before we moved to Crystal Waters ecovillage. We grew a fair bit in pots, in the yard and along the footpath, but we also became avid community gardeners and helped to organise a food box system for the other foods we needed. Our sense of permaculture gardening embraced the community - the city farm, friends places and verges (amazing macadamias and tamarinds).
Maia checking out the community garden at Maleny Neighbourhood Centre's community garden - one of the many local community gardens where I run regular free permaculture workshops.
Not all renters move regularly of course and some landlords are happy for you to create an flourishing edible garden. My grandparents rented the same house for about 40 years. They always had a lovely vegetable garden out the back. Generally however, renters or not, people do move more often now. Almost half of the Australian population moves every 5 years. In Australia, government statistics show that people in their 20s and 30s move multiple times in that 5 year period.
So, whether you are a renter or just a regular mover, here are some ideas for you...
Mesclun Greens Pot
Create a fabulously productive salad bar in a pot. Densely seed up a pot with a mix of things like lettuce, rocket, mizuna, endive, coriander, asian greens, spinach, basil and mustard greens. As soon as the leaves grow big enough, start snipping a leaf here and there - a pot full of nutrients, colour and flavour. To keep the plants thriving, regularly water them with a natural fertiliser - diluted worm liquid is great.
Lettuces, radishes, rocket, basil, mustard greens all grow so quickly. Very soon you will be plucking fresh leaves for your salad bowl or stir-fry.
For getting things going in your temporary pot gardens, I recommend using a few bigger pots rather than lots of little pots which dry out so quickly. Using self-watering pots or mini-wicking gardens is also a benefit. Here's a few ideas to try:
Herb Garden in a pot
In large pots you can also grow a wonderful diversity of herbs together.
Try themes - teas, asian spice, pizza pots...
For a nice tea - try mints and lemon balm.
For an spice pot - try chilli, lemongrass, coriander, vientamese mint ...
For a pizza and pasta pot - grow sage, rosemary, oregano, parsley, chives, mini basil and thyme together.
Mix of basils and tomato in a large up cycled pot. (source www.yougrowgirl.com)
Fruit tree guild in a pot
If you are in a temporary garden, it's still wonderful to be able to have fruit trees, but you most probably want to be able to take them with you when you move.
Even the smallest garden can support a dwarf fruit tree or two in a pot. So many fruit trees are now available in dwarf varieties and they do really well. However, you do need to remember that these plants are entirely dependent on you for their water and nutrients - they cannot send their roots off in search of more food and water. Plant the fruit tree in a big pot - remember that in 2 years you'll need to trim roots and add fresh potting mix, so choose a shape of pot that you can slide the tree from.
Some good fruits plants for pots - dwarf lemon, pomegranate, acerola, finger lime, kaffir lime, jaboticaba, dwarf apple, dwarf mango, dwarf avocado (need another to cross-pollinate though), tamarillo, strawberry ... just to name a few.
You could also try a multi-grafted tree to get a few different varieties on one root stock - for example mandarin, orange and lemon.
Make sure you mulch the pots well and add complementary plants such as nasturtiums (edible leaves, flowers and seeds), herbs to repel insects, flowers to attract pollinators.
Nasturtiums add great colour. It attracts pollinators, is a living mulch and has edible flowers, leaves and seeds.
Worm farm in a pot
In the middle of a large pot, sink a mini worm farm. You can feed the worms directly and the worms take the nutrients to the plant roots for you. You can simply use a large lidded yoghurt container with holes drilled in the base. Bury it in the centre of the pot, put in a little soil, add a handful of worms then start feeding them.
Use grow bags or sacks
Fabric grow bags are an interesting lightweight and affordable alternative to pots. I have a collection of old sacks and chicken food bags that are good for this, but I have also seen grow bags for sale. These grow bags are better outside than the balcony as they seep.
Old potato sacks can be reused as grow bags - chicken feed bags also work.
A type of grow bag available - shopping bags also work in this way.
Not pretty - but a simple concept. If you need to buy in soil anyway, why not use the wrapping it comes in.
A temporary potato garden can also be made in a tower of wire netting. A potato tower is a great way to grow backyard potatoes in a small space without digging up the soil. Keep adding compost and mulch as the plants grow. When the tops die back - undo the tower and harvest the spuds.
Sprouts and Microgreens
You can have a constant source of greens all year round even if you have no garden at all. Right in your own kitchen you can have a mini desktop garden. Microgreens are the shoots of vegetables such as lettuce, beetroot, rocket, celery etc that are picked just after the first leaves have developed. I love sprouting too - particularly mung beans, alfalfa and buckwheat. They are so quick, easy and nutritious.
Turning your scraps into food for the soil
In a small space it is possible to set up a worm farm, compost bin or tumbler. They are compact and can move with you when you need to. Collecting your food scraps and sprinkling it with a bokashi mix can really reduce the smell and activate your scraps for composting. Have you considered a community compost system. The city of Sydney even has some helpful guidelines on how to manage one.
Caloundra community gardeners separating the worm castings and collecting worms for a new worm farm
Growing on the verge
Verge gardening is growing in popularity. People are taking their gardening endeavours to the streets and claiming some public space in common areas for edible landscaping. It's a way to grow food together and build community. A nearby town, Buderim, has a great example called Urban Food Street, so does Sustainable Chippendale in downtown Sydney.
Join or form a community orchard group
Cities can be places of abundance with fruits and vegetables growing in many of the underutlilised spaces. Public parks and community gardens can become community orchards - places where people can grow, tend and share locally-produced fruit. Some cities such Seattle are actively encouraging this. Often the harvest from one backyard fruit tree can be too much for a person or family, so sharing a range of plants makes good common sense. The Urban Orchard Project in Melbourne links over 200 households to do just this.
A gorgeous community food forest Evan and I stumbled across walking about Ljubljana, Slovenia many years ago.
I love gardening with other people. I learnt so much this way. Big jobs just seem to disappear amongst the laughter of working with friends in the garden. Sharing the work, sharing the produce, sharing ideas, sharing knowledge created greater abundance and a sense of amazing possibilities of what we could achieve together.
Some of the lovely participants from a recent workshop I led at the city farm - some just beginning their gardening journey. City farms and community gardens are great places to learn.
We started Northey Street City Farm over 20 years ago now - and as a small community group we not only filled a public park with herbs, vegetables, fruits and perennials - we regenerated a segment of urban stream, planted a woodlot, developed a bush tucker corridor, created a vibrant community hub that continues to thrive today with an organic farmers market, permaculture nursery and fabulous education programs. There are no fences - people can wander, smell, taste, feel, enjoy and learn from the space. Now there is also market gardens and an allotment garden section - no fences still! Fabulous.
Our involvement in setting up the permaculture educational gardens at Northey Street City Farm inspired the way we developed our garden here at Crystal Waters - which we offer too as an educational space.
These are just a few of the many many ideas for growing food in small spaces and temporary situations. Please share your favourite temporary permaculture ideas.
Living a simple life and having a thriving edible garden helps us to live a healthy life, reduce our impact, diminish the waste we produce, scale down the debt we are in and simply connect to nature, the seasons, our community and our selves.