Urban Permaculture for the Balcony and Beyond (Argentina)

This is the first article I’ve written for PermacultureNews.Org, and I’d like to share some Urban Permaculture experiences from Córdoba, Argentina.

One of the most exciting things about Permaculture design principles is that they invite us to improve our environment no matter where we live. However, up until now, the predominant image of Permaculture in Argentina (possibly in many places) is “the countryside”. When I completed my PDC in a semi-rural location here in Argentina, one of the course instructors told us on our first day that we are all part of an “urban exodus”, a movement of city people back to the land. This was, in my view, a bad message for the first day of the course. Most of the course participants were city dwellers, and if the instructor had asked, he would have found that moving out of (or escaping from) the city was not a priority that everyone shared.

In the year-and-a-half since I earned my PDC, I’ve been designing and collaborating on Permaculture projects in the most urban of environments: balconies, rooftops, sidewalks, abandoned lots, you name it. I also have a twice-monthly workshop called “Permacultura para Deptos” (Permaculture for Apartments), where we work in real houses and flats in the middle of the city of Córdoba, the second-largest city in Argentina.

In all of the classes we do an introduction to the history and principles of Permaculture, and then we get to work on site analysis and practical design ideas for apartment-scale food production, composting and other projects. Using plants for creating privacy screens, improving air quality, and providing protection from the heat are also common design goals in these situations.

The photos below are from two design sessions in a second-story apartment inhabited by two sisters.

The apartment has a decent sized north-facing balcony, which in the southern hemisphere means ‘solar facing’. However, up until now the sisters’ collection of plants has been hidden in the shade. We talk about the basics of plant location, and identify a sturdy bench as the best place to start placing the outdoor potted plants.

The sisters have more than a few potted plants, including a few skinny basil plants, but so far there haven’t been a lot of successes. The herbs didn’t have enough growing space or even good soil. Most of the pots and planters have also been taken over by Kalanchoe, a common and prolific succulent.

I brought some rooted mint cuttings for planting.

Here we’re talking about the benefits of mint’s rhizomatic reproduction style.

We reclaimed the best potting soil from various Kalonchoe-inhabited pots, and consolidated the herbs in the best planters.

I also brought a sweet-potato vine, which is another good option for balconies — perhaps not so much for the slow-growing tubers, but for the edible leaves. This being a permaculture course, the sweet potato vine gave a good opportunity to talk about plants which offer multiple types of edible harvests, which can grow (or hang) in vertical spaces, and are easy to reproduce and expand.

The consolidated herb planters are now atop the bench, in the sun, and have a much better chance of producing an abundance. In the black planter, you can also see a Passionfruit seedling, which can later be transplanted to a bigger pot and trained up any wall. The same planter also has a young daisy plantlet. I explained the concept of beneficial plant guilds, and the positive effect that flowers can have on the health of the garden. Of course, this is good news for the girls. Everyone loves flowers. They make life better, especially in the city.

The next order of business was getting the composting situation on the right track. Previously, the sisters who live in this apartment had tried composting many times, but it didn’t work out well for them. They got bad smells, and basically, a rotten mess.

In the workshop, we used everyday materials — a wooden vegetable crate, garbage bag, and ripped up cardboard for starting the new compost bin. I explained that their previous failed attempts at composting was probably due to the lack of dry materials, such as paper, leaves, cardboard, etc… They also mentioned that their first compost bins were always in the direct sun, which didn’t help either. I explained that the compost bin should be on the shady side of the balcony, and that the worms (californians, which I brought to the workshop) needed to be protected from the sun, which in Córdoba can be fairly fierce in the summer. We also talked about the role of animals and other micro-organisms as being part of the “closed circle” concept of permacultural productivity. Although small, the worms fit the bill as important animals in this apartment-scale permaculture design.

Working with plants, with sunlight and organic materials is a joy. Argentines are also natural-born recyclers. They have a saying here — “Es lo que hay”, which means roughly “this is what we’ve got”. From a permacultural viewpoint, they’re very well rooted in the importance and practice of using local materials, whatever is available on-site. In fact, I feel that this is one of the most important strengths that all Latin American cultures have to offer to the development of Permaculture here, the ability to work creatively with found materials.

The sisters, Julieta and Silvina, empty out some freshly-used mate greens into their new compost bin. The mate drinking habit (an herbal infusion sipped through a metal straw) is also another local pattern which gives an opportunity to discuss an important permaculture principle: “Everything gardens”. Everyone in the city is always generating constant flows of organic and non-organic materials. Having a functional composting design in your own balcony, even if it’s a small bin, means that the bio-mass generated by your daily consumption of food stuffs (used mate greens in this case) is being reintegrated into positive fertility cycles: the production of humus and thus, the expansion of one’s potted, transportable, vegetable and herb garden.

The new-and-improved balcony compost bin, with custom fit cardboard lid, is good to go!

Inside one of the bedrooms, we find a solar-facing window which has great potential to be a site for indoor cultivation and home for seedlings. Right now, the space around the window has been clogged up by a typically unproductive mass of belongings: clothes, boxes, miscellanea. Yes, it’s stuff, folks!

In the workshop we talked about the importance of making use of a house’s solar orientation, specifically by getting as many plants as possible or practical around window areas. I also pointed out some of the basics of the thinking behind passive solar design: we have solar energy coming into the house for many hours throughout the day, let’s make the best use of it by having indoor greenhouse functionality integrated with our living spaces.

Julieta realizes that an ironing board that she found on the sidewalk would make a perfect shelf for indoor seedlings and plant starters. The sisters are delighted by this development.

After a quick makeover, we install the beginnings of a bedroom greenhouse. All of this infrastructure is made from discarded items recovered from the sidewalk: ironing board, vegetable crates, etc… This module – which can be improved with sturdier construction elements, will also serve as a bookshelf or place to store clothes or other items. Stacked functions!

The fist few plants go on the shelf. El vivero está vivo! The greenhouse is live!

A few days later Silvina sends me an update. There’s a lot of lettuce sprouting up.

The sisters are probably going to move out of this apartment when their contract runs out, but this experimentation with permaculture design is meant to be the first steps in an overall approach toward ecological productivity, not just a bunch of potted balcony plants. Silvina is the owner/operator of a home-based catering service, and part of the larger framework of our permaculture design is to find different areas in the city (near her next house, wherever that may be) where she can collaborate with a network of garden spaces and produce vegetables and herbs for use in her own kitchen and business.

In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, USA, the practice of urban agriculture, including restaurants with their own organic vegetable production, is a lot more common than it is here in Córdoba. I told Silvina that there’s no reason why she can’t start planning for this. While many people in her position may feel that there’s no space, my response was that we have to think in terms of networks of like-minded people and places. The city has a wealth of protected micro-niches in all sorts of places. Using permaculture design to activate ecological production systems within the city is not just about gardening on your balcony, it is an unchartered and fertile territory where we can reasonably expect to improve our health, create bountiful green spaces, generate our own resources, and expand our ecologically-oriented economies. For me it’s an inspiration and a passion to be a permaculture designer in the city.