Beginning Permaculture – Ideas for Renters
So you’re renting and think why bother working on the garden when you’ll only have to leave. In my experience it’s always worthwhile. For one you may end up staying longer than you think, and much can be done in a short time for not much money. When it is time to move on I always think of my gardens as charity for the next person and for the earth and its creatures. There is great saying — whoever “plants a tree, or sows a field and men and beasts and birds eat from it, all of it is charity from him” (Sahîh al-Bukhârî (2320), so whoever or whatever is fed from your plantings is in your favor also.
Pots are of course a great solution for some plants. Some plants actually grow better in pots. Strawberries can be protected from slugs and snails in hanging baskets. Figs and Bay leaf trees can be easily contained in pots. While they grow huge in the ground they will happily grow to a small size in pots with regular pruning. To get good fruit production in pots, water regularly with liquid fertilizer or compost tea. To reduce water usage, self watering pots have a section at the bottom to collect water that roots can grow directly into. If making your own pots, look for two containers that fit snugly and just cut holes in the inner container at the bottom and one larger hole in the outer container about 10cm from the base, so water will overflow if it gets too full. Otherwise just use old plates and dishes under the pots — this can greatly reduce the amount they dry out in summer. Mulching of course helps with water loss too. A major benefit of pots is not just that they move house with you but you can move them to get the best aspect in all seasons — to get the early spring sun and avoid the hot afternoon summer sun.
If you are using potting mix I have found it is always much better to use a good quality one, and also mix in some compost. Cheap potting mix is just composted pine bark and sand with barely any nutrients. Re-pot herbs every few years, by cutting back the plant hard — roots and leaves — or by taking a cutting from the plant and starting again by mixing some fresh soil or compost into the pot. This will mean you get lots of yummy fresh growth.
Another idea is to plant fruit trees in the nature strip in the street next to your house — you can always come back to harvest after you’ve moved on!
Quick and easy compost container, made from chicken wire
If you’re not hot composting but just composting kitchen scraps, etc., a frame for heaps can be made with chicken wire. These are easily movable and also good for aeration.
If you’re lucky enough to have a landlord that lets you have chickens, make a chicken coop that will fit on the back of a trailer for easy moving.
For a quick-start vegetable patch I like to invest in some top soil and sheet mulch as it takes too long to slowly build the soil. Old bits of wood and bricks make excellent edging. Plant your veggie patch densely to get the most of a small space. We use succession planting where small seedlings are planted under existing plants which will be pulled out by the end of the season. For example we planted tomato and lettuce in the shelter of broad beans, and then we just cut off the broad bean stems leaving the roots to disperse its nitrogen into the soil for the next plant. Silver beet seedlings can be planted under broccoli that has nearly completed its harvest. Squeeze lettuce, spring onions and seasonal herbs (e.g. basil) in anywhere you can. Compost is then just laid on top around seedlings as we go and covered with mulch to mimic natural soil formation. With this method in a small patch none of it ever has to lie fallow.
It’s also important to keep a seed bank while renting so when you move you can easily begin to establish a new garden — lettuce, parsley, calendula are easy to collect from and will quickly go ‘wild’ and start self seedling in a new garden.
Water barrels are the alternative to tanks for the renter. Ask at food factories, so the plastic will be food quality and not have held any chemicals. Ours is 200L and came from an antipasto place — they were originally full of olives. We use it for any hand watering we do. To put in a tap, drill a hole then screw it in and seal with glue. (The barrels are thin plastic meaning there is not much thread so taps need to be glued also.) We collect water from a leaky gutter (these are often found in old rental houses). Our barrel came with a screw-on lid with a large hole in it, so to keep out mosquitoes and muck from the gutters we put old fly screen under the lid (this could also just be tied on top).
Just to give further encouragement, we recorded our harvest over 12 weeks, from September to November. While this is not even a peak harvest time we had an average of 2kg of organic produce a week, plus 113 eggs from 2 chooks! About 4kg of the produce was from silver beet alone. From the frequency of what was harvested you can also see it is best to have herbs and leafy greens closest to the kitchen as these were harvested the most often — a further refining of Zone 1. If these are all you can grow while renting, every day you can still harvest something fresh and organic.
So get planting! The best way to learn is by doing it and each new place will give its rewards and challenges and you can sleep easy knowing you’ve left a little trail of vegetable patches behind you.