One of the core principles of permaculture design is ‘get a yield.’ Plan for long term returns but get something started now. A lot of people I talk to say they would love to have a garden but their yard is too small, too full of tree roots or faces the wrong direction so they don’t get enough sun. Some say they can’t garden because their back is too bad or their hips or knees. Others tell me they live in an apartment and only have a balcony. And I say those things don’t matter. Maybe you can’t have a garden if you are thinking of a garden like most people think of with long rows of peas, beans, lettuce and potatoes. But there are other ways to garden besides row gardening.
One of the things that frustrated me when I was a kid and had to help in my mother’s garden was digging up the garden every spring and every fall only to turn around and walk on all that lovely soft soil and pack it all down again. That seemed like a total waste of time and energy. But for many years as an adult, I gardened the same way because that is what I knew. My efforts were less than stellar. I would start off full of plans and energy and with my long rows, but often became overwhelmed with the upkeep of it all.
Then I read about raised beds and container gardening. To me, that made so much sense, mainly because I am a very lazy gardener. If there is a way to garden without having to dig up the entire garden plot every spring and fall, I wanted to know about it. There are a whole lot of other benefits to gardening in raised beds but for me that was the key to gardening in raised beds. Like I said, I am a lazy gardener.
It was when I discovered Mel Bartholemew’s book Square Foot Gardening that I really started to realize that it doesn’t take ½ an acre to have a garden. What that book did for me was show me how you can grow an amazing amount of food in a very small area. It taught me how to plant just the right amount of my chosen vegetables so that I didn’t end up with way too much of it all at the same time. Think of it… you plant a row of lettuce and it is all ready at the same time. Really, how much lettuce can two people eat in three weeks? I had already learned about interplanting various crops like radishes and lettuce but his book went even further and showed how you could get two or even three different crops from a single square foot space.
Some people complain that Mel’s insistence that you use the grid he describes in his book as being somewhat anal. And I must say, I agreed… at first. But when I decided to try it, I discovered that it helped me learn how much of something to plant and where to plant different things that may or may not play well together to get optimum yield. I discovered that bugs do not decimate my entire carrot crop if they are not planted all in one place.
Another thing I learned from Square Foot Gardening is when you use a good soil mix and put a bottom on your container, you can place these containers anywhere you want. It doesn’t matter if you have hardpan or gravel or tree roots to contend with. You don’t have to dig that up. Just make your boxes, place them where you want for optimum sunshine, fill with the planting mix and plant away. There is no digging and almost no weeding. For a lazy gardener this is perfect.
For someone with only a balcony, plant in containers. Hang planters on the railing and fill them with herbs instead of or along with your flowers. There are so many examples on the internet of vertical gardening or gardening in small spaces. Did you know that you can grow carrots in a container? In a 20”x20”x24” container I experimented with carrots one spring. I planted them around April 20th even though there was still snow in the back yard covering the garden and normal planting times for our Zone 3B area is the May long weekend. But my front steps got sunshine all day. Even though it would freeze most nights, it would get nice and warm there every day. Within three weeks, I had carrots sprouting. My yield was about two pounds of carrots out of that box.
Flower beds beside the house are great places to grow tomatoes and cucumbers but they can also be grown quite easily in containers. Because they are protected by the house, you can often get them in the ground sooner than if they were in the garden plot and leave them later in the fall as well. It is easy to rig a framework up that you can drape material over to cover them on cold nights and so extend your growing season a couple of weeks at each end of the growing season.
If you are concerned with the quality and kind of food you are eating from the produce you buy or if you just want to grow something yourself then you need to just get growing. Start SMALL but START. Grow some herbs. Grow a couple of tomato plants. Grow some lettuce. Even in the city, on a very small lot, you can grow a lot of your own food. Besides feeding your family, your garden will be helping to clean the air, maintain plant diversity and offer food and habitat to birds and insects. It doesn’t have to be huge. You just have to start.
What kinds of things would you like to grow? What keeps you from planting something?