Toronto Balconies Photo Competition – Guest Judge Interview with Cecilia Macaulay

The Annual Toronto Balconies Bloom competition — the 2012 Edible Garden Container Photo Contest — ends on September 30, 2012. This year, I’m a guest judge — a kind of armchair judge.

by Cecilia Macaulay

If you have a lovely photo to inspire the gardeners of Canada with, send it in to their website. You might even win a prize. But if you live too far away, they will just keep it till you visit. The real prize of course is having a beautiful balcony garden bless your life daily.

Below is my interview with Fern, the grand balcony master.

Fern: What inspired your passion for growing edibles in pots?

Cecilia: Pot-plants are pet-plants, especially the edible ones. You have a relationship with them, and the more you love and attend to them, the more beautiful and rewarding they get.

Garden plants don’t need you as much, and they don’t sit beside you as you eat your breakfast each day, and give you their ‘news’ — a new bud, a surprise creature.

For me, balcony gardening is cubby-house building for grown-ups. Despite our 21st century wealth, we have very little say in how our surroundings look. Mostly they look like the shops in which the stuff was purchased. But a balcony is small enough to have full artistic say over what happens there, with borrowed vintage chairs, mail-order seeds, rare breeds and a 3D lively universe of your own.

I probably fell in love with porch-gardening as a child at Nellie’s house.

Nellie was the relative in the country I was sent to stay with when my mother had a new baby, which was every year, for years and years.

Nellie ran her house on 19th century technology — a wood-fired copper to wash the clothes, with blue bags and a wringer, the lot. She would send me out to the veranda to get mint for the mint sauce. Even though she was surrounded by acres of empty land, she had a full orchestra of plants in pots. Not pots though. Old tin cans. Big ones, little ones, with the quaint lettering and bright graphics of the 40’s and 60’s, and mint and geraniums spilling over the tops.

Fern: What is your favourite time of day to photograph garden plants?

Anytime is good, so long as there is no strong sunshine. The deep shadows and glary light of direct midday sun makes things look ‘dry’, you cannot see the details or textures, everything looks the same.

But if you are doing a close-up in full sun, and make a shadow over the pot with an umbrella or just your body, the ambient light makes the subject look beautifully sculpted. Try it.

Of course, the slanty sun of sunrise and sunset makes things look spectacular. The problem with balconies is, they are always best-lit from the other side. We need flying cameramen!

Fern: Have you a most fascinating or surprising ‘crops in pots’ sighting to share?

When I first moved to Japan I had almost no money, but sometimes treated myself to a marvellous traditional breakfast at this tiny, ancient shop. Their doorstep was only as wide as a shoe, but hosted an ‘edge garden’ of great generosity.

Mountain herbs grew through spring. In summer, a water-filled polystyrene box appeared, with a sign in beautiful calligraphy: ‘World’s smallest rice paddy’. In autumn, astringent persimmons were peeled and strung up to dry, looking all festive, and in winter, every now and then they scraped together a little snowman.

The Japanese make so much of so little. People are beautiful when they do that. It’s the beauty of the gardener’s spirit that touches people, not the garden itself.

Fern: Please offer one piece of advice to prospective contest entrants.

Make Families. Consciously choose and gather together things that are varied but related, things that become their best selves in each other’s presence. Don’t put things there that don’t contribute, that feel out-of-place and lonely in your arrangement. You know what they are, those default things, the plastic pots that were there, the spider plant that just won’t die.

Restrict colors, materials. Families don’t let just any-old-thing in off the street. Make a phrase that describes the ‘family’ you are making: Wabi-sabi rust & wood zen edible garden. Lush, 3D Singapore fragrant garden. Or, happy-cat catnip and napping-spot garden.

Make sure every pot, every bit of mulch material, every plant and its insect-attracting companion plant are essential to this theme, and everything that is essential is there. That will be one strong garden!

Blue, green and terracotta. Flowers attract mantis to eat the caterpillars. Pots are like ‘siblings’, related yet different, made by a loved friend. Water is on-hand in the water-pond, to scoop onto plants as you sit nearby and sip tea. Tea might be the lemon balm you are gazing at, and the rocket might be in your lunch too.


Cecilia Macaulay has been a full-time permaculture designer, teacher and illustrator since 2002. Her students and customers are mostly mainstreamers, and mostly Japanese. Her strength is showing people that they have a huge surplus of talents, knowledge and stuff, and that sharing these will increase their quality of life and connectedness. She lives in Tokyo and harbour-side Sydney, and draws the quirky, love-filled worlds she wants to inhabit. Cecilia is a balcony gardener who writes with wisdom and joy about the values of growing one’s own food and sharing home-cooked meals with friends, with an edible garden in sight.



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