Growing Your Own in the Edible City

Indira Naido relates her adventures in gardening on her inner city balcony

“Have you gone completely mad?” “Is this a mid-life crisis?” “Can we organise some counselling for you?”

These were some of the funnier reactions from my friends and family, when I told them that I was planning to grow vegetables on my tiny 13th floor apartment balcony in the heart of Sydney.

Their concern was well-placed.

I wasn't a gardener. I'd never grown anything before — besides mould on the out-of-date veggies in my fridge.

I already lived above a supermarket filled with vegetables, and who had ever heard of anyone putting a veggie patch on a 20 square metre balcony?

But I had done enough reading to know that with good sunlight (which I had) and a few basic elements such as pots, organic potting mix, some manure, compost and regular watering, a thriving balcony garden wasn't a total pipe-dream.

I drew up a plan of my balcony to determine how many fully-grown plants I had room for. I knew overcrowding plants in pots which were too small was often a mistake of the novice gardener. I wanted my garden to be aesthetic as well as functional.

I decided to use large dark-grey painted fibre-glass pots which were sturdy but light and placed them on wheeled pot stands so I could relocate them more easily. I installed a vertical wall (greenwallaustralia.com.au) and hanging baskets to maximise my growing space.

Potted veggies need watering more regularly than veggies in garden beds because they lose more moisture through evaporation. So I invested in a watering can and hose attached to my outdoor tap.

I also made sure my plants got regular feeds with mixes of diluted fish emulsion and seaweed fertiliser, Munash mineral rock dust (munash.com.au) and a little worm juice from my Hungry Bin balcony worm farm (wormlovers.com.au). I sourced my seedlings from quality garden centres and mail-ordered organic heirloom seeds from Diggers (diggers.com.au) and The Italian Gardener (theitaliangardener.com.au).

To everyone's amazement (including my own) in my first year I managed to grow 70 kilograms of produce including, lemons, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchinis, eggplants, chillies, peppers, carrots, radishes, blueberries, and strawberries. Everything I grew tasted so deliciously fresh. I found organic replacements for pesticides and herbicides such as eco-oil sprays. I grew seasonally, discovering for the first time the best time of year to eat strawberries or zucchinis or peppers. Of course there were some failures: my garlic crop failed to materialise from under its bushy leaves and my broccoli bolted in the unseasonal heat leaving no broccoli heads but a lovely spray of buttercup yellow flowers.

My cooking and eating habits changed. I began eating more fresh fruit and vegetables and cooking meals based on what was ready to harvest from my balcony.

But other transformations took place that I was less prepared for.

Gardening no longer became a chore. It became a meditation. I became more relaxed. I slowed down and noticed small things such as the beautiful scents and fragrances from my plants. I was captivated by the colonies of insects and birdlife that began calling my balcony home as well. I could watch bees for hours collecting pollen from my edibles knowing how few flowers there were in the inner city to nourish them.

I started recording my growing adventures on my blog Saucy Onion (www.saucyonion.blogspot.com) which lead to my first book “The Edible Balcony” published in 2011. “The Edible Balcony”, with 60 of my home-grown recipes, became a surprise runaway bestseller.

It seems I'm not the only one out there yearning to reconnect with their food and how it is grown. And I've also shown that you’re not limited by your space or your lack of expertise.

The success of my book has taken me around the country for talks and demonstrations at school kitchen gardens, retirement villages, sustainability conferences, gardening clubs, remote rural towns.

I have been inspired by the extraordinary ways communities are embracing ‘the grow-your-own’ movement and applying it to their individual circumstances.

In my second follow up book “The Edible City” I document some of these inspiring stories — from a church rooftop garden in the mean streets of Sydney's Kings Cross growing food for its homeless community, to the Melbourne restaurant with the country's first worm farm on its roof to a bush tucker garden reconnecting indigenous kids with their heritage. Again I have included garden recipes for the home cook.

Growing your own food is not only a pleasurable activity but essential to ensure our continuing food security. Food security is the ability to have access to safe, affordable food. As our cities sprawl over our agricultural land and climate change effects weather patterns, we will need to find new spaces to grow our food. And our cities may be part of the solution.

There are thousands of acres of growing space on the roofs of city buildings, on terraces, and balconies — all receiving rain and free energy from the sun. Just imagine all that concrete, steel and corrugated iron replaced by groves of lemon trees, acres of tomatoes and rows of lettuces!

Australia's first roof top farm is closer to reality than many realise. There are already 4 commercially-run roof top farms in North America — in Brooklyn, New York (rooftopfarms.org, www.brooklyngrangefarm.com, gothamgreens.com) and one in Montreal, Canada (lufa.com). These farms are proving that with a little change in perspective about what a ‘farm’ is and where it can be located, wasted space can become incredibly productive.

I urge Australian entrepreneurs out there to embrace and invest in these exciting new urban food growing technologies. To encourage more people to get into urban agriculture, I'll be taking a 14 day tour of the rooftop farms and city food gardens of Europe in June 2016 with Adventure World Travel (adventureworld.com.au). But until then there's no time like the present to start converting your unused urban spaces into thriving veggie patches. No space is too small and no gardener is too inexperienced. If I can do it anyone can.

“The Edible Balcony” – by Indira Naidoo published by Penguin, $39.99
“The Edible City” – by Indira Naidoo published by Penguin, $45.00

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Indira Naidoo

Indira is a highly respected television anchor and reporter, climate change presenter, gardener and author of the best selling book “The Edible Balcony” and its follow up “The Edible City”.

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