When one thinks about food production, it is a natural inclination to imagine a rural scene. Fields, forests, orchards and farms are the most likely pictures that spring to mind. But the majority of people on the planet live in urban settings, so how can permaculture food production be applied to our towns and cities? There are, in fact many techniques that allow urban dwellers to grow food the permaculture way.
Perhaps the archetypal material associated with modern urban architecture is glass. Apartment blocks, especially, tend to make a lot of use of it. However, it can be turned to the permaculturist’s advantage. Glass is very good at letting in sunlight and heat and you can utilize this by creating towers made from recycled plastic bottles that allow the light in and make use of the full length of your window. A more traditional option is to start window boxes. You can grow all kinds of herbs in window boxes, and even smaller fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce.
Tall apartment buildings are a feature of modern urban life, and they don’t often come with much outside space. One place where it can be available however, is on the balcony. Even in the small space of a balcony there is scope for growing food, and the same kind of analysis that you would undertake on any site should be performed before you ‘plant’. Observe wind patterns, strength and direction of sun hitting your balcony, which areas remain permanently in shade and which get a lot of sun, how much rainfall penetrates into the balcony. Of course, you won’t need to do a soil analysis, but you will need to ensure the soil you use in growing pots (the vessels you will use to grow plants on a balcony – which can be recycled containers of almost any kind) is rich in organic material and well drained.
There are many species that can be grown in pots on balconies, given the right conditions. Tomatoes and beans will climb towards sunlight (provide a trellis for them to hold on to), while root vegetables like potatoes and radishes are also feasible. Leafy greens such as kale and broccoli are very adaptable to pot growing, while salad greens and herbs are likely to give you the quickest rewards. You could also consider a small citrus tree if you have sufficient sun and it is protected from strong winds. Make the most of the height of the balcony as well by putting up baskets, in which you can grow low-lying fruits like strawberries. You will need to ensure that you keep the soil well stocked with organic matter, but you can practice composting on a small scale with the scraps for your kitchen, or even start a worm farm if space allows.
The other place in apartment buildings that can provide growing space is the roof. Often the rooves of apartment buildings are jointly owned by all the residents and, while you would need the agreement of your fellow inhabitants, can be converted in whole or in part to a permaculture system. As long as drainage is ensured and the structure of the building is robust enough to take the extra weight you could build raised garden beds, as well as plant in pots. Species that thrive with a lot of direct sunlight – such as sweet corn, collard greens, eggplant, lettuce and tomatoes – are ideal. Just be aware of potentially high winds and seek to mitigate their destructive impact. Barrels to collect rainwater are also a good idea so you are not using mains water to irrigate.
You might also consider having one or more beehives on the roof. Bees are very adept at finding sources of food and can thrive in urban environments. Obviously, if you institute a hive as part of an overall permaculture roof garden, food is available for the bees in close proximity, and they will be instrumental in pollinating your crops.
Land prices in urban areas are typically much higher than in rural areas, meaning you get less space for your money. This can mean that yards on urban plots are small. So you need to look at methods of maximizing the productive space in the garden in order to grow as much food as possible. Keyhole garden beds are one method of doing so, but you might also consider vertical planting, such as espaliered trees along fences, as well greenhouses to prolong the growing seasons.
Whether you have a small backyard, a balcony, a window box, or, in particular, no space at all at your urban dwelling, getting involved with a community garden is a great way to practice permaculture and connect with other like-minded gardeners. Many towns and cities have initiatives that are turning underused or derelict land into viable plots for growing food. Your local council office will be able to tell you about initiatives in your area, and if there are none, lobby to have one started!
Another option in urban areas that involves making connections with other people is land sharing. This initiative puts people who have land available but not the time or inclination to cultivate it in touch with those who are in the inverse situation – they have the drive to start a permaculture garden but lack the space to do so. It could be anything from a backyard to an underused allotment, and the landowner gives the gardener permission to transform the site in exchange for, typically, a small share of the harvest. Everyone wins!
Strictly speaking, you would need to get permission from the city council to plant on curbsides and on median strips, but there unlikely to be many objections to planting edible species in areas of dirt on public land. Herbs and even fruit trees have the potential to thrive in places such these, they will add to the greenery of the city and help with air quality, as well as providing local people with food. It would have to be a pretty hard-heading council to object to that!