Vegetable Gardening in Cities & Urban Permaculture
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
“Our way of eating and producing food can be very violent, to other species, to our own bodies, and to the Earth. Or our way of growing, distributing, and eating food can be part of creating larger healing. We get to choose.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat
How do you grow vegetables at home, if you live in a city apartment? Here are a few ideas for growing a garden in the city to inspire your health, connection to nourishment, community, and sustainable lifestyle. Regardless of the type of urban vegetable garden that suits you - a DIY-balcony-garden or community-organized farm plot - this article shares information and inspiration to jump-start your city gardening project.
Two Ideas for City Gardening
1. Create An Apartment Balcony Garden
This step-by-step guide explains how to easily grow vegetables in a container on a balcony, doorstep, or rooftop using a method created by renowned permaculture farmer, Sepp Holzer.
Use these options and resources wherever you are - Auckland to Amsterdam, Sydney to San Francisco - and create an easy-to-maintain and small kitchen garden!
When your landlord makes it taboo to grow fruits and vegetables on the 10th or 20th floor of an apartment, Holzer's perspective will challenge you to break the norms and do it anyways. Dubbed as the 'Rebel Farmer’ and famous for the Hugelkultur method, Holzer has unrelenting determination, brilliant gardening techniques, and reverence for nature.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture describes a self-reliant container garden that is well designed for your apartment balcony or other small space.
Four Components of Your Self-Watering Balcony Garden
Organic Soil & Compost
Plants and seeds, Mushroom Spores, Worms, etc.
1. Water Tray Base: This small permaculture garden sits on bricks over a water tray. The water tray can be larger than the garden container so that it naturally catches water. It is even possible to create a water catching system that funnels to this basin, so long as the source is not polluted. Place masonry bricks to raise the container well above the water so that the garden is not sitting in water and it can properly drain
2. Log: The purpose of the log is a bridge between container and water, acting as a wick. The water seeps up the wood when the soil needs hydration; so long as the water trough is full, the garden's watering will take care of itself. The log can also act as a base for a mushroom garden, or a trellis for climbers like kiwi fruit and beans. Select your log appropriately. In permaculture, there's no need for perfection, only consideration! Choose one long enough to extend from the bottom of the water trough to the top of the garden, over the plants, and fulfill any trellis designs.
3. Container: Find a deep container, at least 2 feet deep, which is wide enough to accommodate your garden vision. Simplest container options are to recycle a plastic tub or use a wood container. The container will need drainage holes or netting.
Cut a hole for your log in the bottom.
Water needs to be able to drain from the bottom of the container. Add a layer of gravel to encourage good drainage. Gravel can be paired with activated charcoal and moss to help manage moisture at the bottom. Be sure to drill large enough holes for adequate draining. Container gardens often incur moisture problems.
4. Soil and Garden: Holzer makes a good point that packaged garden soil is often poorly or destructively sourced; he recommends creating your own soil from a local organic farm or unpolluted ground, building it up by adding compostable scraps and worms. This extra intention will create a thriving soil ecosystem, which will benefit your garden for years to come.
There is a multitude of diverse produce you can grow within your container - design it to fit your lifestyle and practice companion planting! You can also find an excellent companion planting guide here.
“With the increasing access to nature, people’s empathy for each other will grow. Urban permaculture can improve the climate of the town literally as well as figuratively by promoting interpersonal relationships.” - Sepp Holzer
2. Join A Community Farm
Community gardening is becoming common!
The Golden Bay Sustainable Living Centre offers allotments for rent, and it’s not a new idea. Parks and other community spaces are popping up with gardens around the world. For good reason; gardens encourage local ecosystems, build wholesome homes for bees and butterflies, improve air quality. Most importantly, a garden will connect people to nature. Experiencing the intricacies and harmony of nature has been proven to build empathy in people of all ages and ethnicities.
Want to get started in your city? Call a local non-profit or the chamber of commerce to find your closest community garden or find out how you can do to start one. Community gardens need a leader, people, good soil and seeds; check out this article for more tips from Founder of City Slickers Farm, Rodney Spencer.
A Dose of Inspiration: Famous City Gardeners
Need some inspiration? We’ve found fantastic stories of individuals who have built community gardens that are changing their communities. In conclusion, we’ve shared encouragement and resources on how to bring permaculture into an urban lifestyle.
Pam Warhurst and Incredible Propaganda Gardening
Propaganda Gardening is a hardcore alternative for traditional English gardens. A group of friends living in Todmorden, England crafted a plan one evening to begin creating gardens in unused spaces around their city. They wanted to start a revolution, and they didn't ask permission.
"We tried to answer this simple question: Can you find a unifying language that cuts across age and income and culture that will help people themselves find a new way of living, see spaces around them differently, think about the resources they use differently, interact differently? Can we find that language? And then, can we replicate those actions?...
And the answer would appear to be yes, and the language would appear to be food." – Pam Warhurst, TedX
Witty and inspiring, Pam Warhurst's story is worth hearing. The results rock: they've founded Incredible Edible and even increased the city tourism with visitors interested in their street gardening.
The Old Stone House Community Permaculture Gardens
A historic landmark from the first battle of the revolutionary war in New York City has been transformed into a teaching garden based on permaculture principles: care of the community, sharing, and education.
“Permaculture on this site is a program that implements human interaction with the natural landscape…Often in permaculture, we talk about the use of the commons, but we infrequently design models that can actually use the commons."
Claudia Joseph runs a garden in the backyard of the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, NYC. Watch a short documentary about how this community-oriented garden operates, created by INHABIT documentarists.
Rob Finley and the Gangsta Gardeners
The 'Gangsta Gardeners’ of South Central Los Angeles. Ron Finley plants vegetable 'gangsta' gardens in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. This revolutionary project is offering an alternative to fast food in his community, where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys.” He grew up in the area and decided to make a big step towards a healthier community.
"We're driving 45-minutes round trip for apples impregnated with pesticides".
His first garden received a warrant for public obstruction. This didn't stop him. He started a petition, changed the city ordinance, and now organizes a non-profit called Green Grounds.
Britta Riley: Window Farmer Extraordinaire
A do-it-yourself hydroponics revolution that swept New York City in 2010 was led by Britta Riley. She began the project by transforming water bottles into salad gardens and was inspired to share the project by the desire to stay ahead of Monsanto-like monopolies who try to patent self-reliant food initiatives. She and her team developed a prototype, started an open-source platform to gain feedback, and spread their innovation. She tags their method as R&DIY (research and do-it-yourself). Now people around the world have developed their own models, and although it's clear on their website the operation halted hears ago.
Growing your own food with the permaculture approach is the best step towards a sustainable lifestyle. You’ll be a change-maker for greener cities. Gardening is the best therapy. And you’ll probably meet great people; everyone knows gardeners are good company! There are plenty of reasons for the garden; we hope you’re more inspired and learned a few things from our post! Check out our blog or sign up for our newsletter if so.
The Golden Bay Sustainable Living Center is a New Zealand non-profit education center that is creating a greater sense of hope and direction for the world by leading renowned classes on alternative building methods, organic growing, and permaculture design.
Check out our Sustainable Living Course.
Written by Samantha Hardisty & the Sustainable Living Community