Permaculture, we all seem to have an affinity for it here. For me it was a description of the way I had felt about the world for a long time but had no words to describe. The three main ethics and boundless wisdom are intoxicating to say the least. I made a couple hugels last year, modified the lawn care regime, and composted outside for the first time ever. It was overwhelmingly a success. However circumstances being what they are, I only have a 2nd story balcony this season. I have read Juliet Kemp’s Permaculture in Pots along with loads of library books, magazine articles, and of course numberless web sites and blog posts. All this research into how I am going to grow some food in pots this summer has lead me to a challenging philosophical problem . . .
There is only organic container gardening, permacultural container gardening cannot (by definition) exist.
The very first ethic “Care for the Earth” is impossible to uphold. Right off the bat most container gardening in done in soil-less mediums. People can make real soil mixes work, but the problems of water logging, compaction, and idiosyncratic pest problems all combine to the effect of making it a practical impossibility.
Also how can I reconcile the use of dry soil amendments, watering, liquid fertilizers and aerated teas, all on a regular basis? These things are only to establish plants in a degraded landscape from a permacultural perspective. Otherwise the soil life is thrown wildly out of proportion, setting back soil building and complex networks of plants and soil life. That hardly sounds like caring for the Earth to me. More like manipulating the Earth as per usual humans.
And what about the plants root profile? In regular gardening the soil goes down through many separate layers of organic and mineral dominance, ending at the parent material or an aquifer. A single veggie plant can have roots wandering many feet away looking for the nutrients it requires. On the last podcast Paul and Geoff were joking about “how can a chicken grow egg shells, fed from a soil said to be depleted of calcium? Chicken alchemy?”, and my answer would be that if there is a pocket of calcium anywhere within the radius of the plants root system then the problem is explained. Even a few grams of calcium in the many cubic feet of soil would be enough to grow generations of eggs shells, calcium is just the “mortar” of the whole shell protein structure. This is a perfect example of how potent the permacultural approach is. But in a pot I will be confining this root system to 20 gallons at best. Hardly the same thing!
And I have no way of telling for sure, but I would bet good money on the fact that the air profile 25 feet above ground level is different from the normal profile of a few feet. Bugs, ratios of air gasses/particles, even wind patterns, are going to be more “man-made” than natural.
Thankfully the second two ethics have more to do with how I treat my fellow living creatures and what I do with the leftovers of my plants. It is still easy enough to share my excess produce with my neighbors, give away cuttings/seeds, and compost what is left in a worm bin under my sink. At least I can more strictly adhere to 2/3rds of the ethics.
SO, having said all that I still need to grow some of my own food this year, on my balcony and in pots. I will not give in to the defeat of city apartment living. If I cannot have the normal vastness and depth of soil, and the free will of plant roots taking care of themselves, I will create something analogous. And my analogy will be this.
- I will grow and nurture the same number of microorganisms in my pots, as would normally be associated with plant roots in the Earth’s soil. In an organic and mindful manner–
My theory is that if I can get as many associations as possible with the plants roots, it will have more nutrients in more forms, than if I simply tried to supply them with organic liquid fertilizers alone. These little guys also help to mitigate pH swings and would crowd out “pest” species.
Now I have no way of knowing how many bacterial and fungal associations a plant has along its entire root system, but I imagine it is more than I could ever grow in a single pot. My challenge will be to maximize the amount of life I CAN support. The use of multi species fungal and bacterial inoculants; and careful additions of aerated compost teas with added humic and fulvic acids, should foster a much denser micro population in the soil-less potting mix. Even the ratio of fungal to bacterial colonies can be adjusted as the nutrients fungus and bacteria share with the plant are quite different.
If I can get my pots teeming with life and complex nutrients from before there is even a root in it. . . I hope I can use the power of the soil life to make an “explosive jet” of plant life come forth. Like a rocket stove uses small twigs to create tremendous heat, but soil life energy to create abundant plant produce.
What do you all think?
Am I being too harsh saying container gardening cannot be Permaculture?
Does this soil life approach seem reasonable?
Should I just eat pasta and canned tomato sauce all summer?!?!
It seems to me that growing plants and caring for soil in a way that encourages life to visit your balcony would be considered caring for the earth. If you lived on an acre and only grew in pots then you'd lose a little bit of 'care' since you are no longer maximizing (or even improving) the situation around you.
I think it is definitely possible to grow in a more permaculture fashion in containers, though without the large spaces that acreage provides there are limitations. I have done some permie-style stuff in containers for plants that are inside or on a balcony (either because they can't handle cold or because I like looking at them or because of living in an apartment at the time). We have gotten some monster basil crops this way.
Some thoughts / experiences:
* Compost, as you mentioned, is very important. I've had excellent luck using good homemade vermiculture compost (also doable in an apartment) as medium in containers -- either straight or mixed with topsoil or ordinary compost/topsoil mix. It's full of the kinds of microbial life you mentioned. And even if you try to pick out the worms, a few always seem to slip through. Then those worms keep working on the compost in the containers , aerating the soil, etc. Of course you have to add organic material periodically (I add more compost) but you would expect to do that anyway when growing anything.
* Container-scale no-till. I've had good luck reusing containers full of soil without removing the roots, just letting them be and planting over them. I do loosen the soil as necessary (just like large scale no till). This takes the addition of nitrogen-rich fertilizer (e.g. diluted urine) and compost layered on top -- especially if harvesting -- but our results have been nice.
* Fish water. The water from goldfish tank changes has lots of nutrients in it. Of course if you've been adding salt or whatever due to a problem in the tank this won't work, but otherwise it's gold.
I'm sure other folks will have more and better ideas but I think you should go for it and let us know what works for you.
As someone who hasn't had any land to work with previously I currently only grow in container or self contained raised beds on my Terrace/balcony in my rented 1st floor flat. I call it permacultre in pots, I don't mind that it's not technically permaculture because I follow the principles of permaculture. :)
I've created a micro climate and small area of diversity with regular insect and bird visitors to what would otherwise be a bare tile balcony with no life.
I have two worm bins which supply me with compost for both spreading and compost teas. All the post are done notill all the pots/raised beds have worms in them and when I move away the mulch there are all sorts of insects and fungi doing their thing in creating a living soil. So I have no problems calling it permacultre, I even have comfrey in a pot which is said to have very long deep roots but is doing fine. I've even build a hugelkultre raised bed which is currently in it's first season, and doing very well.
One thing I have found from my 10+ years of growing in pots is that they work better with constant compost teas. As the OP said there is a limited space and nutrients in a pot so but constantly having mulch and compost teas I'm revitalising the soil and trying to not let anything get delpeated.
That said I'm learning everyday as always in the garden everyday is a school day, but I try not to let my idea of what something should be stop me from creating awesomeness :)
I would encourage anyone who is thinking about it to do it.
My next step now is to buy some land and expand into some 'real' permaculture. :)
By turning an otherwise bare terrace into a terrace with plants in pots you are doing your bit to care for the earth, with what you have to hand. We lived in a string of apartments with small terraces before purchasing land and when we did get that land I was glad for the experience and the stock of plants/seeds to start the plot off with. I grew peas, beans and corn in pots you could lift with one hand even when full of soil, of course yields were low, but it worked. For the peas especially it was useful as at first they would not grow in the heat of july or august but after a couple of years of resowing from the best plants we got pea plants that would grow in pots even when the temps went over 40C. This seedbank was invaluable when we moved to a house with a garden.
chillis and tomatoes are of course easy but i've had palms that have been in pots for years, they dont grow much but they stayed healthy and shaded the peas.
Maybe you could experiment with an hydro/aqua ponic setup using a cheap solar fountain to grow tomatoes, I had hydroponic tomato cuttings frutiing mega quick but had problems keeping on top of the algae buildup with such a small system. My thinking is more towards aquaponics than hydroponics these days but as for most of spain water is sparse so only small scale experiments so far, working on securing a more reliable water supply before risking fish in a small pond, but toying with the idea of a smaller aquarium system at home. Could you have say a 300 litre fish tank inside the apartment with water circulating thru a couple of your terrace pots?
If you don't have any land, container growing would allow you to: participate in growing your own food as much as possible, contribute to carbon sequestering by growing plants, experiment with different methods of soil building in preparation for a later time when you might be able to purchase land.
There is a movement going on right now to grow crops for sale inside buildings, it is viable as a method of food production, even though it is not thought of as sustainable agriculture it does allow closer to home food for city people.
Never discount a method of food growing just because you don't own or have access to a hunk of the earth mother, if you are growing items for food or just because they are pretty, you are also supporting pollinators that would otherwise not have what you offer them.
There are always going to be others that do more, simply because they are in that inviable position of having more and or better resources than you, that should never stop anyone from doing what they can or want to do.
Permaculture is a contraction of permanent agriculture it was originally a tree food crop method, this was expanded upon and has become what we know as permaculture today, it is a method.
We are all here to be stewards of the earth mother, our job is to care for her as best we can, as long as you do this you are doing your job as a steward and you will leave it better than it was so future generations will be able to continue the stewardship role.