Growing Your Own: Beginners and Balcony Gardeners

Here are a few useful tips to growing your own fresh organic food when you are low on space, time and gardening know-how.

If you love the idea of a food forest but are seriously lacking in space and knowledge, you might consider starting out with a few pots of green leafy vegetables and herbs. Fresh organic greens and herbs are not only nutritious and delicious but often decline rapidly in quality as soon as they are picked. These are all excellent reasons to devote them a little spot of soil at home! Below are some tips and plant recommendations from a gardening novice. All of the plants need sun and regular watering, as often as daily in a pot, but should not require much more effort from you at all.

When you buy leeks or green onions (the latter is also known as shallots and spring onions) from the market, cut off the root end leaving a few centimetres for good measure and plant in the ground or in a pot. Some say to soak the cutting in a glass of water for a day but it will work without this step. After a few weeks those green onions and leeks will have shot up considerably and can be harvested. Just cut off what you need and leave the root in the ground. Plant a small patch of green onions and you likely won’t need to buy them again for years!

Acquire some beets, plop them in the soil and you could be eating their nutritious leaves for months. I found this out when some old beets went soft and were no longer very appetising. It was a last ditch effort and a very successful experiment. I don’t recommend trying to eat the beet as it will likely be very woody. Remember that the older and larger the leaves become the tougher they can become, so use them regularly or keep them trimmed.

Malabar spinach

Plant some Malabar spinach. This climber will repay you a dozen times over. It has more iron than English spinach, is full of calcium and other vitamins and minerals and is the easiest thing to grow since dandelions. This plant does not mind too much heat, staying fresh and crisp when everything else has wilted. It has no pest or disease problems other than the occasional caterpillar, and just keeps growing! It also self-seeds very well. This plant is great for small spaces because it is a vertical climber. Give it some trellis-like support and room to grow; it can easily climb to five metres with a minimal amount of soil. The texture when cooked is not for everyone, being rather like the slimy okra. I find it perfect raw in sandwiches, salads and burritos; anywhere salad greens are welcome.

For greens that are good raw or cooked, English spinach and Swiss chard are easy to grow and delicious. Just cut off what you need from the bigger leaves and they will keep growing more for you.

Plant a herb garden — whatever herbs strike your fancy, but give preference to the hardy and the perennial. Simon and Garfunkel had it about right — Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme will serve you very well. They will last longer than basil and coriander which go to seed quickly in warm weather and, though they are worth growing, will need you to regularly pinch off flower buds and replace plants to keep producing.

Being self-sustaining can be difficult, especially in the city where, unless you have a community garden or are planting out the nature strip, the only soil available is in balcony pots! While encouraging these other growing options to become more widespread is exciting and critical, we can certainly bide our time munching on home grown spinach. I find it practical to focus on certain plants or types of food that I can easily grow myself with my lack of space, experience and time. It is so rewarding and handy to eat your own little crop of greens and herbs. Additionally, the money saved doing so can also be put to good use buying organic foods at your local co-op or market which are more difficult to grow on your own. So, to recap: fresh and easy to grow food from home and yet more money to support local organic growers? Sounds like a win-win permaculture plan to me.