Edible cities: how urbanites can grow their own food

A new book showcases ways of growing fruits and vegetables in flats, on balconies and inside abandoned buildings

Going green: plants can be grow in the most unexpected of places

Going green: plants can be grow in the most unexpected of places

Living in a city often means being cut off from the source of one’s food – unless you’re lucky enough to have a garden.

But there are other ways to grow your own fruit and vegetables, even in the confines of a tiny flat. A new book, Edible Cities, celebrates the urban individuals who have embraced growing their own – be it through a balcony garden, or more unconventional means.

Many of them are adherents to the idea of ‘permaculture’ – sustainable agricultural practices that are based on nature’s own processes.

In this extract from Edible Cities, three individuals from different parts of the world explain how they have brought nature into their homes.

Vienna: an inside garden

Tomatoes climbing a window

Where there is light, there can be veg. This domestic project in the heart of Vienna shows how this can be made true even in very little space.

Idea: Doris S. (36) runs a bookshop

Place: 60m2, south facing 2-bedroom flat, top floor of an old tenement block, 2nd district, Vienna

Project: Indoor crops

What inspired you to create your edible flat in the middle of Vienna?

Doris S: “I learned from my grandmother how much fruit, vegetables and herbs can be grown in a garden. I still remember the taste of freshly picked fruit in my childhood. These days, the stuff I buy at the supermarket never tastes as good as that. In my city flat I used to have cress, parsley and basil in pots, which I threw out as soon as they were harvested. Then I watched some videos about urban gardening in New York, which showed that I could do things differently. So I bought big planters and put them on every available surface – on the windowsills, above radiators, on shelves. I painted the planters white which made them look good in my flat. Then I filled them with soil partly from outside, partly from a garden centre, and sowed tomatoes and lettuce.”

What does your indoor garden mean to you?

DS: “It’s great to always have something growing in my flat. Tomatoes are climbing up inside the window like a curtain made by nature. It’s like being in a garden. I also like knowing where my food comes from. I don’t have to buy dried herbs any more, the air in the flat is better and more moist in winter. The tomatoes deter mosquitoes, so I don’t get any of them in the summer now. I thought it would be a lot of work, but it works almost by itself as long as I remember the watering – and the big pots don’t dry out very quickly.”

Do you compost your kitchen waste?

DS: “Yes, and it means I don’t have to replace the soil in the pots nowadays. I simply dig in the scraps or mulch them with fallen or cut-off leaves. It all rots down and I can go on harvesting. My flat gets an awful lot of light, which means I get up to four tomato crops per plant, each year. After each harvest I cut the plants back to a third of their size. I also grow chives and cabbage, and all sorts of herbs.”

Switzerland: a balcony garden

View from the balcony

This is something of a classic for city flats that have no access to a garden but do have a balcony of their own. The planting opportunities shown here should encourage anyone to try the same on their own balcony.

Idea and implementation: Fabienne Frölich (45), theatre promoter, and Markus Poelz (36), permaculture designer

Place: Eisengasse, Basle, Switzerland

Project: Balcony crops

Fabienne’s balcony faces North, so there is not much sun to play with here. Rainwater captured from downpipes is not an option, and the neighbourhood is very tidy-minded, so most of the surrounding balconies look very sterile. Problem or opportunity? Fabienne Frölich’s delightfully designed garden is the visible result of her love relationship with permaculture designer Markus Poelz, whom she met via Facebook.

Markus, what is your background?

Markus Poelz: “It started in my childhood. I grew up in a small village near a lake, where people were always used to producing their own food, timber and firewood. The village had a sawmill, a flour mill and my mother’s little grocery store where she sold produce from the surrounding area. In a way, it’s always been permaculture. I did many different jobs and came to permaculture as a profession in 2002. That was when I had the chance to help with the establishment of the nearby Berta project [Berta is a holiday resort for disabled people and their families, offering activities in nature.] Later I attended courses with Permaculture Austria and Permaculture in the Alps (PIA). The experience of working on a complex project like Berta helped me develop my own practice. Three years ago I moved to Basle and wanted to find out how permaculture could be applied in the city. Fabienne’s balcony was the start. More projects have come up in the meantime, for instance an alpine permaculture farm and some large-scale agricultural businesses. Organic and biodynamic farms are reaching their limits of productivity, so permaculture is the next step.”

Fabienne, how did you end up with a permaculture balcony?

Fabienne Frölich: “I joined a permaculture Facebook group, where I met Markus. When he saw my balcony he suggested turning it into a permaculture garden. There was no soil, so we had to start from scratch by making compost. We also had to put up a screen, because the neighbours don’t want to see a mess from their windows.”

In brief, these were the steps to create Fabienne’s fairy garden:

Screen: Willow branches were gathered outside the city and stripped of leaves. If you have metal railings you can weave them between the bars as shown in the picture, or turn them into a hurdle. This also serves to shelter the garden from the wind.

Soil: Old baskets and other containers were lined with cardboard and filled with a mix of shredded garden waste, leftover bits of willow, dust from the vacuum cleaner (including lots of cat hair!), old soil from flower pots and hay. A few worms were also added. A few months later the mixture had turned into excellent compost.

Floor: Initially, Fabienne spread leaves gathered in a nearby forest, later she added pebbles. This makes for a very pleasant texture when stepping onto the balcony barefoot.

Planters: Custom built trays house standard flower pots, without damaging the building fabric.

Irrigation: A plastic bottle turned upside down and filled with water can be put into the pots. Other options are commercial drip irrigation or medicinal drip-feed bottles.

Plants: Mostly shade tolerant herbs and vegetables. Potatoes were tried without success, due to the lack of direct sunlight. A selection of plants:

Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)

Vervain (Verbena officinalis)

Mint geranium (Tanacetum balsamica)

Chinese artichoke (Stachys sieboldii)

Mustard cress (Lepidium sativum)

Lovage (Levisticum officinale)

Scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis)

Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris)

New Zealand spinach (Tetragonia tetragonoides)

Parsley (Petroselinium crispum)

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Lettuce (Lactuca sative)

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica)

Celeriac (Apium graveolens)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)

Welsh onion (Allium fistulosum)

Sun-loving herbs were placed on the kitchen windowsill, which catches more light.

Fabienne’s small but impressive garden is completed by beech logs with shiitake mushrooms, an insect hotel and a herb dryer made from left-over willow branches.

Fabienne: “The best thing was when I harvested my first own crops – those little potatoes were the best I’ve ever had, and I was pleased as punch.”

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