Nov. 22, 2013

Balcony gardening at Barrett House

It was when living in Hobart that I discovered balcony gardening or, more accurately, container gardening. I couldn't wait to find a rural property and plant a food garden so I decided to make one on the edge of the front steps of my West Hobart flat. Soon, the steps were a cascade of capsicum, tomato and other edibles grown in plastic bottles, cans and whatever else I could scavenge.

Balcony gardens were not common then. Now, they are. And here in Sydney they are being made more popular by one of seven daughters of a family with an Irish potato farming heritage and a landscape architect from the city's southern suburbs.

Time of the balcony garden

Steve Batley, proprietor of Sydney Organic Gardens and educator in the permaculture system of design, was right when he put it this way at November's Balcony Gardening workshop offered by the 3 Eastern Suburbs Council's sustainability teams at Barrett House: "Gardens are getting smaller and growing food in small spaces is what my business is doing more of".

It's the same for that one-of-seven daughters, Cecilia Macauley, who made an interesting analogy when introducing herself to the workshop: "Gardens are cubby houses for adults".

For workshop organiser Fiona Campbell, council's sustainability educator, bringing these two together paid off. It was a match of the inspirational and the practical, the design and art of Cecilia with the practical, make-it-happen know-how of Steve. 

A creative duo

Some of those attending the workshop had been to previous 3-council workshops or courses. One woman, who had recently done the composting workshop and installed a wormfarm and a small garden said she was " ...happy with the way things are going". Others were new to these free council workshops and courses.

Watching the workshop and making notes for this article, I thought how it is that people often reflect in appearance what it is they do in the world. There was Cecilia, elegantly dressed in her black top, fitted jeans and high black boots, a woman who evidently sees the inside of a hairdresser's salon. Then there was Steve with that fit-looking glow and stubble on chin of someone who spends much time outside and whose khaki shirt and practical footwear suggested a creative, can-do attitude when it comes to garden design and construction. A fitting combination, a creative duo, I thought.

The session covered balcony garden basics like understanding how sunlight and wind will affect your balcony garden, how to prepare a nutritious planting mix of sand and compost or coconut fibre, what to plant and how to irrigate it. 

Imagination creates creative gardens

Cecilia explained how a north-facing balcony garden with dappled shade is the optimum type. If yours' is a south-facing garden in permanent shade, she explained, you won't grow many vegetables successfully but you can still grow mushrooms. 

This demonstrates adaptive thinking as well as the application of three principles of permaculture design:

  1. Understand your site.
  2. Work with what you have.
  3. The possibilities of design open further with the application of free-ranging imagination coupled with practical know-how to meet the needs of the site user.

Celilia described different types of balcony garden: 

  • the 'hot garden', usually north-facing, and in which you need to think about controlling heat gain and keep the soil in your growing containers cool and shaded; choosing plants originating in a hot climate will increase your likelihood of success, she said
  • then there's swamp life, the edible plants that like life in the water margin; these we know as water gardens producing water vegetables like crunchy water chestnut, kang kong, duck potato (arrowhead), Lebanese cress, water cress, water dropwort and other swamp-loving species; water will also attract "those little flying insects that eat our insect pests", said Cecilia
  • shade gardens, for south-facing or otherwise shadowed balconies can produce mushrooms, and who can resist big mushrooms fried in locally-made butter topped with melted cheese? "You can still grow green in some shady conditions but they are likely to grow tall", said Cecilia, who said that such balconies are a good location for your wormfarm as they need to be kept in a shaded environment.

Thinking about needs

A successful balcony garden needs seven characteristics. according to Cecilia. 

First, they need a healthy soil and, after the break, people went outside where Steve demonstrated how to mix your own and plant into it. 

Next, you need containers. Cecilia seems to have some kind of aversion to black plastic pots (although she did once make a 'Gothic' garden with shiny black pots tied with big pink ribbons to appeal to those of the Goth subculture); she's worked out a clever way to encase plastic pots in hessian to improve the aesthetics and give an earthy feel to the gardens she makes. 

Containers might include the self-watering 'wicking' pots available at nurseries or that you make yourself. In the garden, Steve showed how the wicking beds and pots there work (you can find a video featuring Steve making a self-watering container garden at Barrett House at: ).

Your balcony or courtyard will need, of course, water. While Cecilia showed images of ways to harvest, store and reticulate balcony garden water, for most people it will be a matter of using the watering can and mulching your container garden to reduce moisture loss by evaporation. Cecilia suggests refilling the can after use so that you will be more likely to pick it up and give your garden a little moisture more often.

Learning how to check whether your containers are moist enough to support your plants calls for the use of a highly-specialised tool Steve said, as he poked this highly specialised tool — his finger —into the soil. "This way, your finger will tell you whether your soil is dry and in need of water of whether there's enough moisture there", he said.

A "happy soil" is another of those starting conditions for a productive and luxuriant balcony garden. The sand/compost mix Steve got people to make in the garden provides the moisture-retention of the compost or coconut fibre with the drainage of sand, creating a soil which will hold moisture without killing your plants by overwatering.

You need useful plants to put in your DIY soil mix and populate your balcony garden with food, colour and (good) insect habitat. Even if yours is a balcony vegetable garden it pays to include flowers mixed with it, such as the curry tree with lobelias planted below that Steve showed in Barrett House's tiny cottage garden. These not only look good, bringing that splash of colour that feeds the aesthetic sense, flowers are a component of our integrated pest management strategy and attract pollinating insects. Flowers definitely have a place beside the veges and the potted dwarf citrus, bay and other trees on your balcony.

Now comes that necessary component of any balcony garden — the gardener. Someone to maintain, eat and enjoy your plants. As Cecilia said, one of the first things you might do when colonising and vegetating a bare balcony is to put a chair out there and place a tray nearby — you will use this to hold your food when you eat amid your edible balcony jungle. A small table will do likewise. And, added Celilia, that gardener needs a "bouyant attitude" to make best use of the garden and to ride out the inevitable disappointment when plants die, and to enjoy the culinary and sensual exuberance when your plants grow to edible or aesthetic maturity.

"Grow what you need, Grow to pick for your everyday needs", suggested Cecilia. This ensures, first, that your garden will become a part of your daily sustenance in both the culinary and psychological, feeling-good sense, and that you monitor what's going on there so as to keep up the water — pots can dry out quickly — and watch for pest insect infestation.

Getting practical

I like what Steve had people do first when the workshop moved outside and into the cottage garden. That was to spend a few minutes walking around in silence to observe the garden's feel and its smells, colour, foliage texture and other characteristics. This is part of the practice known as 'observation' that is a necessary part of both garden planning and ongoing maintenance. It's like a mental break in which workshop participants switch from the objective frame of mind into a contemplative, flowlike state where they learn by seeing and only later by discussing what they experienced.

If Cecilia and Steve's workshop sounds like a good way to spend a weekday morning in early Summer and you feel that you, too, would like the experience of learning to make your own balcony garden with this couple who mix inspiration and know-how, the workshop will be offered again in 2014.
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Story and photos by Russ Grayson, 22 November 2013

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