My first balcony garden was in Tokyo – a complete eco-system with tomatoes, herbs, wisteria and a solar-powered indoor fan set-up. I got edibles, I got ‘beautifuls’, and I got cool without using nuclear-powered air-conditioning in summer. Pest control was via a ‘frog box’. Any afflicted plants were put into an empty covered aquarium, where there was a jewel-like tiny frog, waiting to clean them up.
The system worked well until autumn. Then the pest population disappeared, and there was nothing for my frog’s breakfast. I could be seen below the cherry trees, waving plastic bags about in the hope of finding something winged for my skinny frog. He was sent back to the pond in the end.
I was pretty proud of my system then, but still inexperienced, and didn’t know that one reason the pests were there was stress – the wisteria windbreak hadn’t grown up yet, the pots went to the brink of dryness every few days, and they just couldn’t exude their own natural ‘pest repellent’.
Few plants ever wish to be reincarnated as a balcony plant. Blasted by wind and sun, or maybe subjected to shaded, sun-starved places where they can’t get a wash or even a drink … and with nowhere to go but their own pot for nutrition and water, their pre-occupied human caretakers forgetting to feed and water them till they see something wilting. A hungry, thirsty plant can’t defend itself from pests, and things start looking quite sorry. At this point, human love turns to guilty disappointment. The owners are at a loss for a solution. The victims are sent to landfill. With ‘permaculture’, there’s a different story. Permaculture uses the power of design, or ‘right thing in the right place’. It uses the power of systems, or ‘elements that nourish each other’, and it uses the power of dreaming … an under-utilised, free, totally renewable resource! ‘Happily ever after’ is the aim of a permaculture balcony.
Five essentials of a permaculture balcony:
The dream, or story you tell yourself, comes first. Its like the roots that draw resources to a project, sustain it during hard times. If you ‘can’t be bothered’ doing something, don’t try using willpower. Using willpower is like pushing water uphill, not a permaculture-approved method of getting anything done. Just make your dream bigger, to seduce yourself into doing … whatever. Here are some lines you could use to get yourself going:
- “I could create a little Singapore up here. Orchids, vanilla bean tree, Chinese slippers and rattan chair to snuggle into. Butterflies! Maybe the zoo would sponsor it. A pond in the corner, a trailing edible vine to shade me as I take breakfast there. Imagine how that would surprise a special guest!
- “Having a jungle retreat may reduce my need to jet off so often!”
- “The rooms in my inner-city house are $50,000 or so each. By investing a few hundred dollars in pots and pretty pond, I can get a whole new room. It is as big as my view is big. I may start to do things here I just don’t do in other rooms: diary writing, meditation, escape from loved ones.”
- “This can be my ‘intimate permaculture laboratory’. Here I learn how to make kitchen scraps to plant food, learn how to save seed, manage pests, plant seedlings to share with friends, find allies to advise me when things go wrong. Better doing trial and error in two metres square before I go for my dream of a farm.
- “First I succeed at creating a sustainable balcony, then I go on to creating a sustainable world!”
Classic permaculture would have you choose edibles. Choosing rare breeds makes it even more motivating – chocolate capsicums, Echinacea, tiny fragrant strawberries, mmm! But if what turns you on, gets you in action, is growing flowers, then that can be permaculture too. Urban Australians occupy a rare ‘ecological niche’ where both money and organic food are readily available. You may decide to spend your florist money supporting organic farmers, and delight your friends at Christmas with pretty home-grown bunches or seedlings. Permaculture is for everybody – even people who wear suits and vote Liberal!
I learnt that good intentions don’t go as far as a jug of water kept beside plants. Then they get watered on the spot, instead of left for the fatal infinity of ‘when I get around to it’. I scoop water daily from my goldfish pond, and replenish when it gets low. Pots that dry out in summer get water-repellent, and love to go for a dunk. It works with some pests too: a quick bath. Hoses with trigger guns work well. Plants have pride and love a wash.
Keeping kitchen scraps out of landfill is virtuous, but we are easily stopped. When you have setbacks with your worm farm, your balcony garden will give you the incentive to persist with it. A system built on self-interest outperforms one of altruism every time! Soon all that rubbish will be fragrant herbs, luscious fruits. If you think a commercial worm farm is too expensive, too cumbersome, maybe so do lots of other people. Learn the principles of good worm farming, then create your own out of something charming – it could all happen in a wicker picnic basket, if you get clever enough. A kitty litter container, mesh seedling trays and a cover to match your cushions have worked well for me, and totals around $20.
The more time you spend in your permaculture balcony, the more certain your design will succeed. Use a comfy table, chair, and a big tray so you can clamber up there with lunch, knitting, laptop, and Japanese textbook. This intimacy is priceless – you notice change on a daily basis, see when things are going wrong in time to ask friends for solutions, and really start to care, which makes all the difference.
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