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Oasis – permaculture and ponds for balcony gardens

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by cecilia.macaulayLeave a Comment

Permaculture edge gardens can happen on balconies, verandas, at the back door – anywhere you need plants and they need you. Creating them gets us out on “the edge” – the edge between indoors and out, the edges of our thinking, our skills, or social connections. Permaculture design emphasises treasuring and increasing ‘Edge’, the rich ‘happening’ place where two different environments meet. The skills and thinking we develop though creating a humble balcony gardens could lead to a life, maybe even a culture, that is utterly extraordinary.

A life-filled pond amongst a balcony garden is about the equivalent of having a happy, fulfilled mother in a houseful of children. If a water source is immediately at hand, the plants will be cared for when they need it. If we have to rely on humans to first notice the drooping plants, then backtrack to fetch something wet, then the only plants that make it will be the tough, delinquent ones, and the paradise we hoped to create on our balconies may either enslave or disappoint us. In a well-designed permaculture garden every element, every creature ‘earns its keep’, and makes a stable, highly interconnected system. My balcony pond keeps on surprising me with the number of benefits it provides – I will let you count them yourself as you wander through this story.

Consider the goldfish in my pond: they eat up the mosquito babies, help keep the water from stagnating (without having to use a pump or filter), and their wastes turn ‘sterile’ tap water into delicious (to plants) nutrient-added water. But here is the most important thing – they get me up on the balcony every day. Neglecting plants may happen, but we can’t make a fish spend the day without breakfast. Especially now that we’re into a three-year relationship: “Since I am up here for the goldfish, I may as well water everything else … what a lovely morning breeze …” Before I know it, I am spending time, noticing how everything is going, and letting the balcony garden delight me – the most critical thing to its survival.

Delight. That’s another goldfish function. The graceful swish of their ball-gown tails, their opulent golden gleam. To get that from a dress or jewellery would cost hundreds of dollars, from these living creatures, around four dollars each.

My pond absorbs the sun’s heat during the day, and slowly releases it at night, making the ambient temperature more stable for the plants, and safe for their friends, the soil microbes. It reflects sunshine onto plants in dark corners, and throws a beautiful shimmer on the roof of my room. That may seem a frivolous function, but the day that I finally got the motivation to put the pond together started with a shimmer from the sunshine on bucket water. It made me recall an afternoon on a riverbank in the French countryside. I had come across a moored rowboat, a perfect nook for reading. I may have been hypnotised by the dappled reflections swirling amongst the willows, and the swaying of the boat. It was like being transported to a 3-D underwater world. Just that memory had me get out of my chair, march down stairs, and lug the waiting barrel up to the balcony by myself. It is almost always emotion that gets me into action. ‘Should’ and ‘good idea’ hardly ever do. I guess that’s why there is ‘motion’ in ‘emotion’.

The Permaculture design strategy illustrated here is this: understand the nature and preferences of the animals in your system, and use them to advantage; including your own impulses. Arrange to seduce yourself, not force yourself, into doing the things that you want done.

Before I got my pond, I used to haul buckets of saved cleanish shower water up the stairs, and dish it out to the plants. I still bring a bucket load up to replenish the pond, every week or so, but because of the goldfish I now use tap water. I leave it to stand overnight, to evaporate some of the chlorine. Fish don’t want to be chlorinated.

I use a retired kettle to scoop out the pond water for pot plants. This system gives the plants nutrient-added water, while keeping the pond constantly freshened. In summer you may need to water daily, especially if you have a sunny balcony. That’s a lot of hauling buckets upstairs though; so I have taken to borrowing the neighbour’s trigger-spray hose, to bring water up from the garden tap. ‘Borrowing before buying’ is a good strategy. It also gets people interested in you garden, and balcony gardens need all the friends they can get, as they are something our culture doesn’t yet know how to do well. Borrowing lets you test things out that might not work. Of course you give your friends flowers and dinners in return.

Finding a container

Permaculture edge gardens can be made from anything that can be persuaded to hold water. From conventional to mind-blowing, these could be glazed ceramic pots, mosaic pond bowls, vintage cooking pots, babies’ baths, washing machine coppers, witches’ cauldrons, or even a 1950s T.V. set (see my fantasy inventors club illustration). We are Aussies, we do way-out things.

Here are the usual ways to make a wine barrel into a pond: if it’s a well-made one, and cut exactly down the middle, just soaking it will make the wood swell up and usually stops leaking. A few weeks of water-changes, and residue will be leached out enough to introduce fish and plants safely.

My barrel was found on the street, over 50 years old with snaggly planks, and holes in the bottom. I must have asked 20 friends, “How can I waterproof my half-barrel?”, before the one who is reliably ingenious turned up with a plastic pot small enough to fit inside. It was cheap because it comes without a drainage hole – perfect. No painting, no sealing, no wondering what materials would poison the fish. I put potting mix down the gap between the plastic tub and barrel to make a ‘riverbank’ fringe of land plants, and filled with water, fish and water plants.

Finding the right plants

My ‘riverbank’ plants are constantly changing: given or received as gifts, dying or taking over exuberantly. The nasturtium is great. I stuck a bit in as a cutting, and it just does its merry, resilient thing, growing and growing, and it performs a function that I hadn’t thought of: pest trapping. The white moths love nasturtium and lay their caterpillars there instead of on my other precious plants, so all the pests are in the one place. Then as I eat my breakfast up there in the Spring, I pluck the guilty leaf-eating caterpillars off the holey leaves, and into the pond they go. It was hard at first – but eating is never an innocent activity. Permaculture reminds me of life’s realities, and I love it for this.

You can source plants from friends’ ponds, nurseries and aquariums, and don’t forget mail order to get rare and amazing things.

Unlike pot plants, water plants won’t need weeding or mulching. Many are submerged, pot, soil and all, and fertilising is via a tablet once a year. Floaties like water hyacinth keep sunny ponds insulated, and goldfish hidden from hungry birds. For aesthetics, combine tall and low growing plants – say, water iris and water lily. Duckweed, although pretty, won’t last long if you want to water pot plants from the pond. I wonder if edibles like water chestnut or rice would taste goldfishy?

My sheltered south-facing balcony is shielded from the high summer sun, but this means that my waterlily doesn’t get enough solar energy to flower. In summertime, west-facing balconies bake in the afternoon sun – deadly for ferns or fuchsias, but enviable if you would like an Asian water garden. It’s my dream to have a bathtub full of exotic, seductively fragrant, delicious lotus, but I am told I can’t do it in Melbourne – not enough hours over 25 degrees in summer. However, if I had a western balcony, and insulated the pond somehow, I am sure I could do it.

Necessary luxuries

Fountain. The sound of falling or bubbling water will mask traffic noise, and puts those feel-good negative ions into the air. Sitting by one can give a massage to the spirit. Hot water bottle: This is a ‘water feature’ that can extend the time you spend on your balcony by six months. Bring one up with your breakfast tray. They also remind you to water things when you find them cold in the morning. Four dollars from the supermarket, for a winter’s worth of spending time somewhere fresh and enlivening – it’s a great deal.

Necessary necessities

Life is about change. Things will be born, get sick, and need special care. It expands your world to know the details. Make friends with other pond-lovers, especially oldies. Learn to use Google, and use ‘image’ and ‘blog’ searches as well. Educate yourself when you see anything going wrong, or marvellously right. In Autumn, I noticed that my fish had slowed down. Looking closer, I saw dark patches on their beautiful tails. Not knowing what to do, I did nothing for a few days (very human). Eventually Google gave me a big education in all the ways a goldfish can die, and I realised that rotting fallen leaves had changed the chemical and microbe balance of the pond. Medicating the water fixed things. Luckily I had just done a course on soil biology; so at least I knew to halt feeding the now-toxic pond water to the pot plants – the fungicides would have killed soil microbes that the plants depend on. Prevention is always better than cure, and now I know for next year.

Too much heavy water on too weak a balcony, and the lot could be lost. Small children need supervision – even a small pond can be deadly. For this reason, balconies are an ideal, isolatable ‘niche’ for a pond, a side benefit is the safety of the fish from fishing cats.

Making it all really happen

  1. ‘One day’ needs to be pinned down, or your dream stays in your head. Go get your diary, make a date for a rendezvous with your balcony.
  2. In your imagination arrange for it to be fun. Close your eyes now and imagine the sunny day that you start and what excites and inspires you.
  3. Call up some friends, and tell them you are going to make a beautiful balcony garden with a pond. Tell them all the things it will have, and all the things you don’t yet know how to do or to get. The act of sharing an intention with another human being is about 50% of the work of making it really happen. Then it’s out of your head and walking around in the world, causing things to happen without you. Friends can then turn up with groovy gadgets or seedlings or good ideas. You can’t resist helping your friends with their charming dreams, right? It’s part of being a tribe of humans.
  4. If you can get just one friend passionate about it, then it’s almost inevitable that your pond ecosystem will get made. ‘Two people plus passion’ is required to create pretty much every new thing in this world.
  5. Expect to get stuck on the tiniest thing. For me, it was mesh. I didn’t know where to get mesh to protect my theoretical fish from Gallagher the cat. So the barrel remained empty for a year. If I had just got in action and bought the fish, I would very quickly have worked out a cat protection method. It’s all about just starting, and not stopping. (Getting stuck is a blessing: it calls you to expand beyond limitations)
  6. Share all your achievements – big or small – with a friend. Count, make a tally of the number of obstacles you come across, yet clamber over. This is called the ‘frequent flyer’ method of becoming unstoppable – the higher the number, the more amazing you are.

Permaculture principles

  • Permaculture principle 1#: Right thing in the right place – set up useful relationships between elements, so they ‘care for’ each other
  • Permaculture principle #2: Every element performs multiple functions, or ‘three birds with one stone’
  • Permaculture principle #3: Zone and sector planning – work out where threats and blessings will come from, and make them work for you. Place things to benefit from wind, sun, slope, human presence. Plant a bamboo windbreak, put up a micro wind turbine, or whirligigs to scare the birds. A Bill Mollisonism is: “Plant a tree where it will grow. Teach people who want to learn.”
  • Permaculture principle 4#: Use biological solutions; passionfruit vines not sunblinds, ducks, not snail poison “In brief, it is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature, of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour” – Bill Mollison


Cecilia works as an eco-illustrator, Permaculture teacher, and Japanese translator. Every year she runs ‘Permaculture Slow life’ and Balcony Garden Creation workshops in Japan and Melbourne. After visiting eco-villages around the world, she set up a creative-life sharehouse for international ladies, where she enjoys Slow living, along with Gallagher the cat and the balcony guard-possum.

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