Grow Your Own Food
Following on from our introduction on what permaculture can look like in a rental property, where we talked about the 12 principles of permaculture, here we’re going to look at some of the ways you can begin implementing a few strategies and practices into your everyday life to take your first steps towards something many people have shown interest in this year: growing your own food.
It’s been said that growing your own food is the quickest way to spend $100 and 6 months growing tomatoes that would cost $1.47 in the supermarket, but growing your own food doesn’t have to be hard, or expensive.
Living in a series of 1-2yr lease rental properties has meant that we tend to keep most things in pots these days. It allows for us to take everything with us if and when we have to move (so many landlords want to renovate/sell these days, there’s very little permanence to be had in rental living in Melbourne), and it allows us to continue with succession planting schedules and have long term crops as well. Asparagus, rhubarb, apricots, medlars and white currants are crops that we’ve come to love, but they wouldn’t be an option if we didn’t have a good pot system going.
Now, don’t get us wrong! If you have the space, money, time, physical human-power and the security of a longer lease to set up garden beds in or on the ground, that’s brilliant!! It’s what we’d prefer too, but because of several constraints, it’s just not the most effective use of our resources to set on the work of creating no-dig beds at every new house we have to move to. So, for the next little while at least, pots it is!
Almost every single one of our pots was free, and the ones that weren’t were bought second hand for very little. The free ones were either gifted, found on the side of the road, or traded for homemade preserves – and we fill them with no-dig layers of pea straw, compost and manure, so it hasn’t been expensive to get them all established.
No-Dig vs Potting Mix
Using no-dig layers not only works out cheaper than filling pots with ‘potting mix’: it results in a much more biodynamic and long-lasting healthy soil profile. Potting mix is often just low-grade organic matter with a whole lot of artificial extras added. While this may be alright for the first planting, by the time you plant your second crop, all the nutrients your plants need will have been washed away. Because there’s very little complexity in the physical contents of potting mix, it doesn’t encourage organic decomposition or invite ‘good bugs’. What you’ll often find is that once the added wetting agents and added fertilisers have been washed away, the potting mix just becomes a sad, dusty mess, with no water-holding capacity and next-to-no nutrients to offer your seedlings.
No-Dig layers, on the other hand, are full of high-quality organic matter (pea straw is chockers with nitrogen, and healthy compost is like a multivitamin for soil); they are teeming with microorganisms and good bacteria (thanks to the fertilizer and compost); they’re full of complex nutrients; they’re studded with air pockets which encourage water retention and good bugs; and as the organic matter breaks down, it transforms into healthy, living soil. And as long as you make sure they never completely dry out, keeping your pots healthy and vibrant is as simple as adding an extra layer of compost, fertilizer and straw every time you plant something new. Pretty great, huh?
Managing challenges of growing in pots
The main challenges of growing in pots are: Cost and Hydration. We’ve pretty much covered how to keep costs minimal above, with ‘rescuing’ pots and using No-Dig layers to fill them with, so let’s talk about Hydration.
In Australia, pots do tend to dry out a lot in summer, meaning that you may need to increase your watering schedule during January & February, but because water is such a precious resource (and expensive, if you’re relying on Town or purchased water) it’s important to look at ways of minimizing moisture loss as well.
Position is everything
The first thing you should do when positioning your pots is to look at where you’re putting them. If they’re on stark concrete next to a white Colorbond or corrugated metal fence, you’re pretty much guaranteed the soil will fry once summer temperatures hit the 30’s. Likewise, if you keep all your pots on the northern or western walls of your house, you’re not only condemning them to the brunt of the hot afternoon sun, but they’ll be cooked by the heat stored up in the building itself throughout the day (this is called thermal mass). So in summer, you’ll want to look at somewhere around the property that gets around 6-8 hours of morning sun (usually on the eastern side) – veggies in particular don’t need any more that this.
Come winter though, you can actually utilize these pockets of warmth to help protect your crops. Capturing the sun’s energy in the thermal mass of a west-facing brick wall will create a micro-climate that continues to hold warmth into the cold nights, meaning tender crops won’t be as subjected to frosts. This is one of the reasons working with pots is useful in rental properties: you can move them around to make the most of the seasons.
Consider using shade-cloths, umbrellas, fast-growing plants to create living walls (beans, peas, pumpkins are all great for this) in around your plants to vary the microclimate around them as and when it’s needed. Having birdbaths, frog ponds and bee-baths can be used to cool areas in summer, and in winter, grouping the unused outdoor table setting near frost-sensitive peas can keep them nice and snug. There are limitless possibilities for adjusting temperature zones, so think creatively.
Once you’ve worked out where you’ll keep your pots for each season, have a look at how you’ll group them. Soil is affected by temperature wherever it’s exposed, and this is why smaller pots suffer the most: their surface area to volume ratio is really high.
One way to manage this is to group your pots tightly together. This reduces the exposure of each pot to the elements – particularly those in the middle of your groups – which affords them protection from both heat and cold. It also makes watering much easier. Consider putting your more tender/fragile crops towards the middle of your groupings, and less fussy/temperamental plants around the outsides.
Mulching is also really important. Putting a ‘blanket’ over the soil will keep it warm in winter, and cool in summer, and it prevents moisture from evaporating. You can use pea straw (part of your No-Dig layering) as a top-dressing to provide both nutrients and protection; some people like to use woodchips in their larger systems for long term crops; and you can investigate different options for growing ‘living mulch’ like nasturtium (which has shallow roots and doesn’t interfere much with most crops). And don’t forget that mulch is often just organic matter, so be creative: in autumn, we collect fallen leaves from our neighbourhood to top dress all our pots ready for winter.
Budget Bargain Buys
Once you’ve got your growing areas set up, it’s time to consider how you’ll fill them. This can either be really expensive, or cost you next to nothing, so it’s worth thinking ahead and investigating some options before heading down to the local megamart hardware store and spending a month’s wages on plants.
- Grow from seed which we collect for free, trade with friends or seed libraries, and buy from reputable suppliers who give a damn about heritage varieties and organic processes, like Diggers, Royston Petrie, The Seed Collection, Eden Seeds, and buy from smaller scale local seed producers such as Loganberry Forest;
- Strike cuttings from other people’s plants;
- Trade seedlings for preserves;
- Rescue lots and lots of ‘orphans’ from discount tables at garden nurseries.
Rental Permaculture gardening checklist
These are the sorts of things we’ve found useful to incorporate into our everyday gardening thinking as we moved slowly but surely towards a permaculture lifestyle. It’s not exhaustive, and certain elements may not suit you, but it’s a good starting point, and will hopefully get you thinking.
* Keep your eye on roadside collection piles. Look for garden pots, trellises, chicken wire, stakes, compost bins, and worm farms.
* If you can’t find big enough pots for free, ask the local greengrocer for polystyrene tubs. These work really well as planter boxes as they’re light and insulate well, keeping soil damp and protected from temperature fluctuations.
* Plant in ‘no-dig’ layers. If you can, build up no-dig garden beds on the lawn or concrete, if not (like at our current house), use pots.
* Look for ‘orphan’ plants. Garden nurseries often have marked-down plants which you can pick up for a song. Be choosey though – don’t bring home any obviously diseased or dead plants; just ones that look a bit sad and in in need of nurturing.
* Grow from seed. Swap with friends, seed libraries, buy online. It’s so much cheaper than buying seedlings, and the plants that grow will be better equipped to live in your microclimate.
* Build a compost heap. Ours is a $12 60L bin from Bunnings with the base cut out and holes drilled around the sides, but you can use free wooden pallets to build bigger systems if you have the space.
* Recycle food scraps. Make a worm farm with rescued tubs or PVC barrels; invest in a bokashi system; find a neighbor who has chooks. All these create free fertilizer for your garden.
* Save water. Ask if you can install a rainwater tank, reuse bath/shower/washing machine water to water fruit trees, mulch your garden well to prevent evaporation.
* Build community connections. Check on your neighbours, chat to local groups (gardening, men’s sheds, seed-saving), share what you have surplus of, engage in a community crop swap. Social connectedness is vital at times like now, when physical distancing can leave many people feeling isolated, but it’s going to be useful for much longer than this pandemic.
So if you’d like to grow some food in the uncertain stability of a rental property, but have been put off in the past, hopefully this has helped you see there are fewer challenges than you previously thought. If that’s the case, have a think about what you’d like to grow, check out some books and resources on what grows well in your climate, and start planning now for your spring and summer crops.
Permaculture Principle 2: Catch and store energy; 3: Obtain a yield; 5: Use and value renewable resources and services; 6: Produce no waste; 9: Use small and slow solutions; 10: Use and value diversity; 12: Creatively use and respond to change.