• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic

Potting up Permaculture / Permaculture in Pots  RSS feed

Posts: 106
Location: Connecticut
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
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?!?!
Posts: 337
Location: PDX Zone 8b 1/6th acre
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
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.

Just my opinion.
Posts: 459
Location: 18 acres & heart in zone 4 (central MN). Current abode: Knoxville (zone 6 /7)
bike books dog urban
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
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.
I am going down to the lab. Do NOT let anyone in. Not even this tiny ad:
Grow Half Your Food - Free Viewing March 20 - From The Grow Network
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!