Are you a keen gardener who jumps into growing an edible crop by sourcing dazzling fruit, veggies and herbs, then just hopes that they survive on your two-metre-square shady balcony? Do you have your green sights set on an ecologically transformative home-grown farm, but struggle to keep your spindly windowsill mint alive? Well, we’re here to help you turn those limp lettuces into glorious bouquets of greenery.
We chatted with Belinda Thackeray, the manager of the sunny urban plot at Sydney City Farm, about growing food in small spaces. Turns out there are a lot of farming factors to consider when setting up a small inner city patch, especially if you want to help the planet by creating a miniature farm sustainably.
If you need to hone your digging, planting, fertilising and harvesting skills before setting things up, volunteer or attend a workshop at one of Sydney’s urban farms. Then visit our favourite plant nurseries and get your crop growing by ticking off these six essential balcony farm steps.
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The first step is to think about where you’ll be sowing your seeds. The aspect of your plot – where it faces and how much light it catches – will impact what kind of crops you can effectively grow.
“Edible plants prefer more sun,” Thackeray says. “You can still grow them [in the shade], but you might focus more on leafy greens and herbs as opposed to tomatoes, zucchinis or capsicums – those fruiting crops that you would traditionally grow more in the sun.”
And don’t pretend that short-lived glimmer at golden hour is enough sun for a ray-loving plant, because if these summer lovin’ babies aren’t properly lit, they won’t bear fruit.
Okay, you’ve found the perfect crop suited to your outdoor space. Now you need to figure out what you’re growing the plants in. If you’re working with odd angles, you might think about building your own custom plant home. Keep it eco-friendly by sourcing materials from Sydney recycling pros like Reverse Garbage or furniture-focused op shops like Salvos Minchbury.
Thackeray says getting creative with the space allows you to take advantage of sunlight and fit in a surprisingly large crop.
“You can do something that’s vertical, stack your plants, use lots of little pots that run up a wall, use plant stands to increase what you’re able to produce in a small area – there are lots of different options.”
It might not have the colourful appeal of a fruiting plant, but soil is arguably the most important part of a mini urban farm. Thackeray encourages people to start with the most nutrient-rich soil.
“If you have good soil with lots of organic matter, you won’t have to add heaps of fertiliser as you go along, and healthier plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases. So you set yourself up for success.”
Worm farms are ideal for filling your soil with nutrients, and also make use of kitchen scraps that would otherwise be lost to the red bin. Thackeray says worm farms are the most useful tool when breaking down organic matter when you are backyard-less.
“With compost, you have to have kitchen scraps, that’s called green waste, but then you also need the brown, [which is the garden clippings]. In an apartment situation you don’t necessarily have a big garden where you mow the lawns and add those kind of things in. Worm farms just take the kitchen scraps, and will give you a liquid, like a worm tea, which is great to use as a fertiliser.”
Ahh Sydney, that sunny disposition is making every home farmer’s life easier. Like sands through the hourglass, the seasons do affect what crops will grow best, but our eastern seaside position means most varieties are growable.
“Because Sydney is pretty temperate we’re lucky – there are things we can grow all year,” Thackeray says. “But there are plants that really are for either the cool or warm seasons.”
In the warmer months, you’ll want to focus on fruiting varieties like tomatoes, zucchinis, eggplants, cucumbers and berries, then towards winter grow leafy greens like kale and cabbages. But other species like silverbeet, spinach, beetroot and radishes you can grow all year in Sydney.
Compared to your forest of succulents, most edibles are quite water intensive, especially in hot weather. If you’re watching your water consumption (and we all should be), there are a few things you can do to minimise this impact on the environment.
“We don’t generally use grey water on edible plants, but if you’re doing things like washing your lettuce or emptying bottles, putting all of that onto your plants is a great thing to do to reuse water.”
“You could also put mulch down, which helps to hold the moisture in the soil and, depending on the type of mulch, can also add a bit of nutrients,” Thackeray says. “If you have organic matter in there – some compost or manure – that holds moisture as well.”
You’ve set up the plot, planted the seeds, nurtured them to maturity, and now you’re ready to reap what you sowed. There are a few ways to go about the harvest and ensure that your farm’s lifeblood – the soil – remains healthy.
For annuals like lettuce, you can pull them out and plant fresh produce. Thackeray says a good way to approach this is with succession planting.
“Once a fortnight or even every week, you just pop in a few more seeds, which means you’ve got a succession of the crop. So it’s not like you’ve bought seedlings and have seven lettuces that are ready to eat today, and next weekend you’ve got none at all for your salad.”
You could also harvest little bits as you go, and effectively collect a bag of mixed greens or fruit salad while the plants keep flourishing. The other option is doing a crop rotation.
“If you finish growing a leafy crop, look at planting something different in that spot. If you’ve had a lettuce come out, then you go, ‘great, now I’ll grow a root vegetable like a beetroot or carrot in that space, or fruiting vegetables like capsicums and tomatoes’. Otherwise it uses the same nutrients and you run out of it in the soil.”
And don’t forget that home-brewed worm tea: feed the soil with the liquid fertiliser every fortnight or so to keep it pumped full of goodness.