Tag Archives: small space gardening

Soil Workshop

Last Wednesday, we had an amazing soil workshop led by the lovely Jill Dalton. She works with LifeCycles, has worked on organic farms and went to UBC for agriculture, so she had plenty of knowledge to share with us. Now is the perfect time to learn about soil because it is time to prepare for the coming seasons. There are leaves everywhere to collect!

I have to apologize for not bringing a camera to the workshop. I did find some helpful images to help explain the information on the internet though. I also want to share the credit for this summary with Life Cycles, because I used some of the notes that Jill gave us to write this post.

Jill began by explaining the two ways to approach soil fertility. The chemical route feeds the plant directly with soluble fertilizers. The biological, or organic way, feeds the soil to let the soil organisms provide for the plant. Before you can begin to work with soil, you’ve gotta know what you are working with. There are three categories of soil type and structure:

Sand: fairly large particles that keep the soil open for air and water to pass through; they get warmer and drier earlier in the spring than other soil types.

Silt: medium sized particles, in between the characteristics of sand and clay.

Clay: very fine particles that hold water and provide a rich store of nutrients.

Right: Clay mixed with organic matter. Middle: Dream soil mix of sand, clay, silt and organic matter. Left: Sand and organic matter.Image from : http://georgiarox.com/plantproject/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Soil-types.jpg

Knowing your soil type is important because it determines drainage and the ability to take up nutrients. If you think about it, the more surface area, the more nutrients and water it can hold. With so many smaller particles, clay has a larger gross surface area. Sand on the other hand, doesn’t hold much water or nutrients and often results in desert like conditions. Soil type is also important in choosing which plants to grow, as some plants grow better in certain soils than others. Dream soil is made up of all three types of soil mixed with a fourth component: organic matter! Ideally, organic matter should not make up more than 10% of soil. Although compost feeds the good micro-organisms that help plants to grow, it also feeds the bad ones that can cause disease.

Preparing for the next growing season is important because it replenishes the nutrients and re-establishes soil structure. One way to do this is through planting cover crops. Bare soil gets compacted and loses nutrients from rain, plus cover crops add organic matter and nutrients when done right. Some of the many fantastic cover crops include clover (a natural mulch and nitrogen fixer) and rye (you can use the stalks as a cheaper alternative to straw).

If you already have a crop, mulching the soil helps to keep moisture in and acts as a cover to avoid compaction and nutrient wash-out. However, there are potential problems to mulching. It can become too wet and the decaying matter can become a breeding ground for slugs and other pests. Weeds can also be imported with mulching materials, especially in straw or grass clippings.

An idea of what lasagna gardening layers looks like. Image from: http://pinterest.com/pin/126452702008193235/

If you do not have good soil to work with, you can create it through lasagna gardening (otherwise known as sheet mulching). It is good not to dig into your soil unless you need to; disturbing the soil causes compaction and nutrient loss when it gets wet. It is called lasagna gardening because it is made up of many layers. The bottom layer, or your existing surface, is covered in cardboard. Make sure that you overlap the pieces of carboard to ensure that the weeds cannot get through. For the next four layers, alternate between a straw/leaves and compost/manure. The greens (nitrogen from your compost) and browns (carbon from the leaves, straw and cardboard) will mix together over time to create a nutrient rich, fluffy soil that is ideal for growing plants. The cardboard takes longer to decompose, keeping the weeds out during the competitive stage of plant growth.

It is also good to know a bit about the chemical make-up of soil, so that you can diagnose problems. The three main nutrients include:

N- Nitrogen facilitates plant growth, especially in the leaves. If there is a nitrogen deficiency, some signs might include stunted growth or yellowing leaves. To fix this, you can add manure, alfalfa pellets or blood meal.

P- Phosphorus helps with plant maturation. If leaves seem more reddish-purple than normal, you can add rock phosphate or bone meal to re-establish the right level of nutrients.

K- Potassium is in charge of cell division, the processing of sugars and root development. Potassium deficiency is difficult to identify, but bronze or brown spots can be a good hint. Add Sulphate of potash or Sulpo-mag to help make the soil healthy again.

The last thing Jill told us about was pH. Unless there is a mystery reason why your garden is dying, it is not necessary to know much about pH. 6.2 to 6.8 is the optimal level for most plants, soil microbial life and bacteria that work with legumes to fix nitrogen, but it is nearly impossible to identify the pH of your garden without a soil test.


Book Review! Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

This book is amazing!  I got it from the library, but am seriously considering buying my own copy:  such is the radness contained herein.  Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen also wrote The Urban Homestead, which I dug, and I think this book is even better, or at least a fantastic follow-up.  In the intro to Making It, the authors talk about how The Urban Homestead was basically a book of ideas, and they wanted to follow that up with a practical toolbox.  I’m all for this line of reasoning — we need broad and inspiring visions for the future every bit as much as we need the nuts-and-bolts skills for how to get from here to there.

Coyne and Knutzen have a pretty epic urban homestead from the sounds of things, but many of these projects will also be completely within reach for folks who live in apartments and are just starting to learn how to garden or compost or become do-it-yourself makers of stuff.  I like how approachable they make the process of learning:  the book is organised into five sections:  day to day, week to week, month to month, season to season and infrastructure.   Each individual project gives you a very clear idea of the time commitment you’re making by taking it on.  If you’re working from the day to day section, you can start with what the authors describe as “gateway projects that may addict you to a more homegrown lifestyle,” such as homemade oil lamps that take five minutes to make, simple homemade tooth powder, styling gel (just flaxseeds and water, amazingly enough!), and the like.  Week to week tackles anything from easy one-pot meals to old-fashioned vinegar-based sodas like the adorably named switchel to basic sewing skills.  Month to month will school you on indoor gardening, tinctures, cloth menstrual pads and many other handy things.  Season to season contains more ambitious projects like soap-making, saving seeds, and how to espalier.  Basically, this book will inspire you, but also give you the practical tools and instructions needed to turn that inspiration into concrete results.

If you’re feeling inspired already, but your copy of Making It hasn’t appeared o the library hold shelf, I would recommend checking out Coyne and Knutzen’s blog, Root Simple.  They are mega frequent bloggers, posting anything from cool random DIY links to more involved tutorials or descriptions of their projects.  Definitely worth adding to your list of places on the internet machine to check out from time to time.

My initial quick browse through Root Simple turned up some inspiring and varied projects that I wanted to share:  Our New Earth Oven and How We Built It, Ditching the “Flushie” for a Composting ToiletHow to Roast Your Own Coffee in a Stovetop Popcorn Maker, and 3 Things To Do With Citrus Peel are all pretty totally fascinating, clearly presented, and look really fun to work on.  

Re-growing vegetables

If you’re looking for a creative way to make your food budget stretch further and get a bit of gardening into your life, you might want to try re-growing your used up veggies!

I recently read about re-growing green onions on a windowsill, and was amazed at how simple the process is.  You just use the onions normally, leaving the bottom white part and roots intact.  You plunk the roots into a jar of water, forget about it on your windowsill for a week or so, and then come back to harvest the regrown green parts.  I gave it a try at home, and was stoked on how ridiculously easy it was.  This would be an especially great way to extend the life of your food in the winter when you’re often forced to buy most of your food at the grocery store rather than pluck it from your garden.

I was so excited about the success of the green onions that I started looking into whether this technique could be used for other plants.  Apparently there are a ton of other plants that can be re-grown this way — who knew?

Here is a rad tutorial on re-growing celery.  Like the green onions, you start the stalk sprouting in a dish of water, but after that you transplant it into a container, and it keeps on keeping on from there.  Mary and Tim of the blog 17 Apart who put together the celery tutorial also have amazing how-to guides on re-growing sweet potatoes and bok choy on your windowsill.

If bok choy and green onions aren’t exotic enough for you, you can even try re-growing a pineapple in a container!   This is a pretty posi way to enjoy tropical deliciousness while keeping the travel distance of your groceries reasonable.

Have you ever tried re-sprouting any of these plants or others?  I would love to hear about your experience with this cool technique.

Creative container gardening

I’ve been seeing a lot of amazingly creative container gardens around lately, so I wanted to put together a post to showcase some of them.  This is the time of the year when folks with an outdoor garden space start to feel excited and inspired to get planting.  For those of us in small apartments or houses without yards, it can be hard to get motivated to start new projects just because it’s spring — after all, the time of year doesn’t make a huge difference for container gardens.  The flip side of this is that, well, the time of the year doesn’t make a difference, and we can keep growing inside year round without having to spare a thought for frost or snow.

Anyhow, for the lawn-less, the balcony-less and the transient folks, here are some amazingly creative and cool looking options for planters.

When I first saw this photo, I got so distracted by the gorgeous candy colours of the planters that it went completely over my head that they were old toilet tanks.  You might not be able to find the same amazing array of vintage tanks that this woman has, but I’m sure you could track down some plain old white ones and they would make amazingly sturdy and and functional planters.  I would try Used Victoria or the Habitat for Humanity Restore, and I bet you’d come up with lots of free or mega cheap options.

I’ve seen a few different variations on pallet planters (everything from how to re-purpose the lumber to build a standard container garden, or just plain plunking the pallet down in your garden and planting into it), but this one is my favourite because of its ingenious use of vertical space.  Fern Richardson, who created the planter in the picture above (as well as creating a great looking book about small space container gardens, that is available at the library) has a full tutorial about how to transform a pallet into a garden.  One word of caution:  please make sure that any pallets you scavenge have not been pressure treated.  The process of pressure treating  puts some seriously nasty chemicals into the wood, and you definitely don’t want them leaching into your food.

If you’re gardening indoors only, check out this fantastic tutorial about creating a kitchen herb garden that hangs right in your kitchen.  Even when I have lots of outdoor garden space, I try to make sure that I plant my herb garden close to where I cook.  Otherwise, I find I just don’t bother to make the trek out to the other end of the garden to grab a few sprigs of parsley (especially if it’s raining or dark out).  This project is a fantastic solutions to that problem, and is a great way to make sure your tasty culinary herbs are exactly where you need them:  in your cooking space.

Bottom line, you can get as creative as you want to with container gardening, so don’t feel limited by a lack of money, building skills, or space.  Container gardens can be in any kind of container.

For some great books on container gardening and lots more inspiration, check out the public library.  I’m particularly fond of The Edible Container Garden:  Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces by Michael Guerra; Apartment Gardening:  Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food in your Urban Home by Amy Pennington, andThe Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible:  How to Grow A Bounty of Food in Pots, Tubs, and Other Containers by Edward Smith.

Embracing Gardening in Small Spaces

Thanks to everyone who attended last Saturday’s Portable Permaculture workshop.  The image to the left shows participants braving the cold evening to mix up a batch of potting soil for our container gardens.  It was really inspiring to hear about all the creative small space gardening and permaculture projects everyone had on the go, and exciting to share ideas about our epic future plans (home greywater systems!  tool share collectives! backyard ducks!).

I also wanted to share this great book I found at the Victoria Public Library:  it’s called Fresh Foods From Small Spaces:  The Square Inch Gardener’s Guide to Year-Round Growing, Fermenting and Sprouting, and it is an amazing resource for those of us measuring our garden space in feet rather than acres.   It has great tips for maximizing your food production while minimizing the amount of space you need and amount of stuff you need to buy.  There are DIY projects like an improvised self-watering container, info on sprouting and delicious recipes to use the finished sprouts, instructions on cultivating oyster mushrooms indoors, and even ideas for survival during resource shortages.  In short, you will be a far better nourished and informed person for having read this book and I highly recommend snagging it at the library!

Urban Permaculture: Small Space and Portable Solutions, Saturday March 3rd, 4:30-6 pm

Fascinated by permaculture, but wondering how you can possibly implement all those great ideas in an apartment that changes every 8 months? Drooling over other people’s giant backyard food gardens, and wishing you could grow more food on your balcony or windowsill? Wondering what this permaculture thing is anyway? Then this workshop is for you! For so many of us young people who are passionate about living sustainably in the city and growing our own food, it can sometimes feel impossible to implement it all in our transient lives and small, temporary living spaces. This workshop will tackle this conundrum as we work together to discover ways to implement permacultural principles and grow food in the small, and ever changing spaces of our lives. We will be doing some hands on work with container gardening and sprouting to get you started, and all participants will leave with a planted container that will grow food as well as a jar of seeds that will grow yummy sprouts.

Cost: $5

Location: the straw bale building at the Greater Victoria Compost Education Centre, 1216 North Park St

Please email slugs.coordinator@gmail.com to register.