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Permaculture in Pots?

 
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Hi,
I was wondering for a while how to do some permaculture gardening in my flat terrace/balcony. I already have some pots with some vegetables, but I am afraid they are being cultivated the agroecological way, not the permaculture one.
Why's that? Well, I really depend on inputs from outside. Tap water, liquid fertilizer, bags of substrate, mostly plastic pots, aphids fought with potassic soap water, etc.

I learned about plant guilds, soil regeneration, compost making and all that, and though I found a community garden where I can put that into practice (included the social aspect), I keep wondering how to make it work in my terrace. I recently saw the Geoff Lawton documentary about urban permaculture, and he showed some small spaces were pots were perused. Now I am confused. I thought that it is not possible to recreate in a small pot the conditions for a self-regenerative soil, maybe a small urban raised bed would work, but that thing does not fit in my terrace. Here it is window boxes or flowerpots. Made of plastic, in addition.
I even tried to turn a window box into a wicking bed, but it doesn't work, nothing grows there, not even weeds.

Now I want to try something else. I'd like to build a 3 tier container, 50 cm deep, 50 cm tall, up to 100 cm wide. The containers I've seen use geotextile fabric to separate the tiers, so they behave like three independent window boxes. This fabric is made of plastic, I think, so I'd rather not use it. I'm thinking of having the three espaces connected, so it is actually one large bed with the shape of stairs. In the base I would place some wood planks and cardboards to keep to substrate in place, and a drainage with some gravel. I'd also treat the wood with some oil so it stands better the humidity.

My questions.

1. What is your opinion of growing food in pots when you just have this little space in your apartment? Can this be really sustainable? Can it be labeled as permaculture somehow?
2. What do you think it is the minimum volume for a planter to behave like real soil, supporting earthworms and such, not like a flowerpot?
3. Do you know what can be the drawbacks of growing in this 3 tier planter, compared to just using three different window boxes of different sizes?

Thanks in advance.
 
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Abraham, I've done some growing in pots, both in the past when I was an apartment dweller, and now too, for plants that need to be brought inside during the cold weather of winter. It is true, that a natural soil ecosystem cannot be replicated in pots, but I think there are enough advantages to make it worth while. Rotating the potting soil through composting and vermiculture systems can certainly be of great benefit and a step in the right direction. Some of my larger pots contain earthworms! Whether or not it's technically permaculture, will likely depend on who you're talking to and how they define permaculture. I think some folks have very strict definitions, while others understand that there is often a need to adapt techniques based on one's situation.

One thing we all have to go through is figuring out what works for us and our circumstances. There are no one-size-fits-all answers to growing food. What works on a balcony or patio in Manhattan, may or may not work for someone in Seattle or Houston. I think every gardener has to go through quite a bit of trial and error when seeking out the best plants, varieties, and growing techniques for their location. In the end we make a start and do the best we can, always with the goal of improving our system.

I'm really interested in your 3 tier container idea and hope you give it a go. And I hope you'll share your progress with us as well.
 
Abraham Palma
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Thanks.
So your point is, more or less, that even if it is not the ideal, it's better than nothing.

Here's the sketch of what I had in mind. I've researched a little bit on the net and it comes out that this is also called a pyramid planter, usually made for strawberries. I modified my design so it fits better the balcony. It's one big terraced lot of potting mix, the planks are there to keep the terraces in place.

You see, my balcony is very long but thin, it's 1 meter wide 7 meters long. I cannot allow the planter to be deeper than 50 cm. I can't have it longer than 150 cm either, or it would conflict with other elements. The balcony is facing south-south-east. I know the pyramid should be faced south, but if I did that I could only make room for 2 long tiers. Facing east is not that bad, especially since our highest problem here is the summer heat, and the constant wind from the east. This thing I draw has 5 different areas of the same size with different humidity and different space for root development, but they are all connected. It's like a gardening table for a variety of plants, but in the same soil. Being a planter, it requires a drainage. It has a volume of 200 liters, I hope that's enough for some underground habitat.
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I made these in the summer, for our strawberry plants next year. Repurposed plastic barrels.

Most of the problems I have seen with pots come from having too small a pot. The plants rapidly deplete the soil of nutrients and they periodically dry out. This is huge so has plenty of space to both store nutrients and water for long periods. I filled it with a mix of well rotted woodchips, biochar and chicken manure.
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Leigh Tate
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Abraham Palma wrote:So your point is, more or less, that even if it is not the ideal, it's better than nothing.


Exactly! I'm a huge fan of "something is better than nothing," especially when one considers the alternatives. You idea and plan look good, and I'm sure that by making a start, you'll learn a lot. I figure, if something doesn't go as I hoped, I still gain a lot of valuable information. Sometimes it takes several tweaks, but there's something deeply satisfying in the problem solving process and in working toward a viable solution. Sharing the information with others and helping them on their journey toward similar goals is the icing on the cake!

Abraham, I'm looking forward to your progress and discoveries.
 
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My mind immediately goes to "schemes for water harvest". Does rain ever fall on your balcony? If so, where? Can you capture it creatively? You mentioned a nearly constant wind from the east. Does this lead to rain falling on the western side of the balcony more often? You might want to make a shaded rock pile to harvest humidity through condensation, which could than run down to the top of the pyramid bed. the less humidity you have, the less well it will work, though.
 
Abraham Palma
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Myron Platte wrote:My mind immediately goes to "schemes for water harvest". Does rain ever fall on your balcony? If so, where? Can you capture it creatively? You mentioned a nearly constant wind from the east. Does this lead to rain falling on the western side of the balcony more often? You might want to make a shaded rock pile to harvest humidity through condensation, which could than run down to the top of the pyramid bed. the less humidity you have, the less well it will work, though.



Hi. Rain is not reliable here. It usually rains very heavily for a few days, then it's sunny weather for weeks, and we even have 4 months where it doesn't fall a single drop of water. I can't storage that much quantity. There are more balconies above mine and even with heavy rain, only a small part of it gets the water. For aesthetic reasons and to avoid problems with my neighbours, I can't build any water collecting structures.
In my city, we have an average humidity of 70%, and on several nights we have a small fog rain that doesn't permeate the soil and is evaporated when the sun rises. I don't see how such stones can gather water during the night into a container for later watering use, but will investigate. My guts tell me that this is just a small cup of water at best.

About the wind, this is not really an issue. I have already small olive trees that can shade it a little bit, and besides, it's not a strong wind, just constant. When it comes from the East, it comes humid and fresh, when it comes from the West it is hot and dry. That's why it is better to face East here.

I have improved the design so it can be made with salvaged Europalets. Will post drawings soon. My concerns now are the weight and the wife approval.
 
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When I see a small space like that, I immediately think vertical garden.  You might not get a vast amount of food out of it, but you can certainly get some.  Lettuce, herbs, and other things can do really well in the vertical hydroponics.  Not exactly permaculture but definitely cleaner food than you get the grocery.  Other plants to look at are the climbers like pole beans and peas which can do really well in a vertical environment.  Vine type tomatoes and cucumbers are a couple of other ideas and so are vining veggies like squash and gourds.  If you want a strong, sturdy and inexpensive trellis look at hog wire mesh.  It comes in panels at a lot of hardware and farm stores so it should be pretty easy to get even in an urban environment.  Its got a nice industrial look to it and a lot of folks use it for garden fencing even in urban and suburban areas.  Get some snips and can you can trim it to fit your space easily.  It will need some support but you can do that pretty easily with a couple of 2 x4 sticks of lumber and lean it up against a wall. Washers and screws or the special clips are plenty to hold in place.  

Since your space is so constrained you will likely need to do a lot of supplemental watering.  Large plants + minimal soil = high need for water.  Probably daily watering.  My personal recommendation is to get one of those adapters that lets you hook a water hose to the kitchen tap.  Its pretty easy to put on and pretty easy to remove when you move out.  If you save the current faucet bits you remove, you can just put them back when its time to move on.  Keep your hose leak free and your landlord will likely never be the wiser.  

Google "DIY Vertical Garden" to get some ideas on the kind of thing you can create.  You might also want to Google "DIY Drip Irrigation" to see how to operate a drip irrigation from a  plastic bin that you can refill from that hose to prevent water from cascading onto your downstairs neighbors.  That will definitely help you operate in stealth mode with your balcony garden.  
 
Michael Cox
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I have been mulling this.

Permaculture is not just growing stuff. It’s about the whole cycle of plant to food to waste to plants...

Small land areas like balconies don’t lend themselves to growing meaningful amounts of food, so why not tackle other parts of the system.

Do you have an active composting or work bin for food waste? What about grey water?
 
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Juliet Kemp from the UK has written a book about permaculture in pots, You can find an review at:  https://www.permaculture.co.uk/book-reviews/permaculture-pots-how-grow-food-small-urban-spaces

There is also a quite expensive Spanish translation at https://bookdepository.com. Search for "Permacultura en macetas"
 
Abraham Palma
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Michael Cox wrote:I have been mulling this.

Permaculture is not just growing stuff. It’s about the whole cycle of plant to food to waste to plants...

Small land areas like balconies don’t lend themselves to growing meaningful amounts of food, so why not tackle other parts of the system.

Do you have an active composting or work bin for food waste? What about grey water?



Hi.
Yes, I'm trying to cover what I can in the other parts of the system already. Beware that in a city there's not too much that can be done, we don't have access to lumber for example, and some things that people do here at permies are too expensive or too much work for a city dweller. In addition, most of us live in apartments. Whatever measure we take must be balanced by convenience and impact. Grey water would reduce our consumption of water, but not by noticeable amounts. In an apartment grey water can only be used in WC, and we already have a water saving device that controls water discharge. I would save 12 liters per day, 360 liters per month, the average consume for us (3 people) should be 11700 liters per month, though we usually consume half that quantity. So we are talking about saving 3-6% of tap water at the cost of installing a water pump (more stuff), a water container (where could I put that thing in my small apartment?). No way. Maybe for suburbs, where people live in 3 tier houses with a small garden it can be a good idea if you can reuse that water for gardening, but in apartments that's too much. Even for gardening pots.

When we talk about urban farming, we know that this can't keep people fed. We must rely on the fields for most of our consume. But it makes sense to produce some fresh food at home. Fresh food can't be easily moved and preserved, so having a source of fresh food nearby as a diet complement is good for a few reasons: security, if supply chains ever fail, fresh food is the first thing to be missed; less spoil since the veggies come directly from the soil to the table; better waste management, so we have a way to use that rich compost we've made; less energy used, no fridges, no trucks, no plastic containers. And it tastes better when you can eat fruits that mature in the plant.

I have a tumbler composter that I put in the local shared garden (wife didn't want that stuff at home), but that garden has no access to water, so I must bring water bottles to keep it moist. But yes, that part of the waste management is covered, at least the small part that we can reasonably achieve in a city.

 
Michael Cox
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I notice that you are located in Spain. I think black soldierfly are in your area, which are fantastic for fast composting in small places. Plus the larvae themselves can be a valuable product (used for feeding reptiles, birds, fish etc...)
 
Abraham Palma
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Michael Cox wrote:I notice that you are located in Spain. I think black soldierfly are in your area, which are fantastic for fast composting in small places. Plus the larvae themselves can be a valuable product (used for feeding reptiles, birds, fish etc...)


Interesting.
I don't think I've ever seen that flies. Here flies are to be avoided since they can pollute food and are annoying, especially Musca Domestica. Our earthworms in the shared garden die too easily, maybe these flies are a better option?
 
Abraham Palma
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I was wondering what wood I could use for the planter and I realized that it should be best to salvage some for free. Here it is not difficult to salvage some planks from pallets. The standard one is called Europalet, and it comes with 11 planks and 9 dices. Discard the dices and fetch the planks carefully, removing their nails.
Here is the schematics. All measures are in International System. It is just a pile of five boxes. Place one box, fill it with potting mix, pile next box and repeat. It is best to treat the wood with some safe to eat oil.

I have yet to check if the balcony can stand the weight, since this thing might weight around 250 kg when moist, not counting the plants. It might not pass the wife test, but I'll leave you it here nonetheless, maybe someone can find it useful.
pyramid-planter-with-europalet.jpg
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Could you have the top layer as a worm bin? and then let the juices trickle down through the other layers? If weight is to much of an issue you could fill the very middle with an air space or some waste polystyrene or something to reduce the overall weight but not the surface area, it would of course reduce the volume as well.
 
Abraham Palma
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Skandi Rogers wrote:Could you have the top layer as a worm bin? and then let the juices trickle down through the other layers? If weight is to much of an issue you could fill the very middle with an air space or some waste polystyrene or something to reduce the overall weight but not the surface area, it would of course reduce the volume as well.



Good idea! I was wondering what to put in the top layer, since it is too deep for any herb. A shrub would love the place, but then it is too close to the wall for shrubs to develop correctly. A worm tower is much more interesting. You have to feed and water the tube anyways. I don't have worms since it's too sunny and hot for them, but if they are buried in the pyramid planter they might be safe.
Yes, I was thinking the same about the weight, maybe a wood panel in diagonal, hanging from the third tier to the floor in a 45º angle, would leave an empty space so each terrace has 25 to 35 cm deep. That would reduce volume roughly by half. 100 liters, and 150 kg is still a nice farming table.
 
Abraham Palma
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Ok, an update.

Since I've managed to get a couple of basic palets (not the Europa let I was hoping for), I had to redesign the planter.

Here's a pic of the already cut planks. More or less ordered.
IMG_20210102_134019.jpg
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Leigh Tate
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Yay, an update! Nice to see the start made. I'm guessing there will be a number of adjustments along the way. Keep us posted!
 
Abraham Palma
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The structure is almost done.
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Wicking tubs might be a consideration. "Gardening with Leon" on you tube has a pretty good description.
wicking-tub.jpg
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Abraham Palma
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Tons of screws and calluses later...

It's done! Here it is, ready to serve.

Features:
It is a big box with 4 different heights, measuring 120cm wide, 40cm deep, 60cm tall (the higher zone). It's on a south facing wall, and the slope of the planter goes higher to the west, meaning that the smaller plants will receive some shading for the hot evening sun. It is still not well protected against winds, but I will take care of that later. The deeper zones will be more dry, while the shallower ones will be more humid. That will make easier to keep letuces alive, maybe tomatos will be less damped too. It is elevated 25cm, and has just one drainage in the shallower zone.

Construction:
2 pallets, geotextil fabric, lots of screws, wood saw and screwdriver. Wood oil and a brush. A rubber pipe.
18 blocks with 6 planks from the pallet were used for the table legs. The rest went into the planter, more or less as shown in a post above.
I planned to use a upholstery stapler to fix the fabric, but that tool failed me and I had to rely on small screws to hold the fabric to the planks. Also, one plank was thicker than expected and I had to buy longer screws just for that plank.
The drainage pipe is hold in place because the hole is not perfectly round.

Potting mix:
Mostly cocconut fiber, with worm castings and perlite. And some old potting mix I had to finish.


Now, I'm on my way hydrating seeds. Exciting!
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