Edible Garden Planning in Small Urban Spaces

Words by
Byron Smith
| August 27, 2018

Planning the layout of your garden… Oh, the hours you could spend pondering the options! I’ve been known to hang around in my own garden, contemplating the possibilities of what should go where, long after the kettle has boiled. When I check out new spaces for potential edible gardens, the first thing I consider is where the sun will be shining throughout the year – choosing a place with plenty of sunshine will ensure you get the most growth out of your plants.

I swear I’ve watched pumpkin tendrils climb fences before my very eyes on a hot summer’s day. As a plant grows from a tiny seed into a full-blown vegetable, it uses the goodness of the soil – but it’s also going to need as much sun as it can possibly get. From my experience, you need a space with at least six hours of sun per day to grow food. This is a good rule of thumb, at least until you start learning which plant needs more or less sun than its neighbour. For those with sun all day long, you’re laughing – but for most of us, the urban landscape rarely provides us with such solar luxury.

Image by Alex Carlyle

YOUR HOME’S ASPECT
A garden that’s clearly open to morning and midday sun is preferable. In the Southern Hemisphere, that’s a north-east aspect; in the Northern Hemisphere, that’s a southeast aspect. Often, my team and I need to get creative to find the sun-soaked spots around our clients’ homes. We utilise rooftops and walls to take full advantage of those UV rays.

ENJOYING DECIDUOUS PLANTS

Learning where to place a deciduous tree or vine in the landscape can help you keep a balance of sun and shade throughout the year. Fruit trees such as fig, persimmon, pomegranate, apple and pear drop their leaves over winter for their dormant period. This leafless period also applies to deciduous vines, such as grape. In urban areas, tall deciduous trees do a great job of shading people in summer and letting the sun through in winter.

Place your deciduous plants so they can not only provide you with fruits, but also pockets of sun and shade when and where you need them.”

CLIMBING THE WALLS

Greening the walls around your home creates a cooler, calmer and more productive space. The simplest, low-maintenance, long-term way to green a wall is to place a climbing plant next to the wall and train it to grow up a fixed wire or similar. You could plant a passionfruit directly into the soil, or some annual climbers, such as cucumber, in a planter box. Another way to green a vertical space is to attach several pots to the area using steel reinforcement mesh and timber. You’ll need someone who is handy with tools, as this custom-built option requires the mesh to be fixed securely onto the wall or fence. This design allows you to grow a colourful, multitextured wall of herbs, flowers and leafy greens that will make your cooking and dinner parties even more satisfying. You can hand-water the pots or, if you need the green wall to take care of itself, you can set up an irrigation system.

CLASSIC POTS AND PLANTER BOXES

Using a well-curated collection of pots is a simple and practical solution for growing plants on balconies or in courtyards. It also means that you can move the pots around to make the most of the sun throughout the year. There are many plastic self-watering pots on the market, all promising maximum yields. However, besides the fact that they don’t work any more efficiently than the classic pot, I’ve yet to see one that looks appealing. Try grouping together three pots of various sizes in a sunny corner of your space.

If you have a large, paved courtyard, a raised timber planter box with a built-in bench seat will provide you with more food, easy access and a place to stop and relax. The depth allows for plants to fill out to their optimum size rather than to be confined to a small pot. Soil temperature and moisture tend not to fluctuate when there’s more soil mass. You can also plant a fruit tree in here to provide some shade on the bed if needed. Think of the garden omelette you could whip up every Saturday morning from a few square metres of fresh herbs and lush leafy  greens. If you have a larger space and are keen to keep chooks, you can literally walk through the yard and grab a few eggs, your greens and a lemon – breakfast is served. The only thing you’re missing is a pinch of salt!

Image by Alex Carlyle

WOULD YOU LIKE PHOTOSYNTHESIS WITH THAT?

As mentioned earlier, six hours of sun per day is the minimum for most edible plants. But if your garden doesn’t get enough sun, don’t despair – try mint varieties, turmeric, ginger, edible flower varieties, microgreens or mushrooms indoors. Other plants might survive in less light, but they will not be all that healthy or productive – they may fail to flower or fruit, or they won’t bounce back after you have snipped some leaves for a salad.

Generally speaking, your garden will fall into one or more of these three zones:

the shady zone, with unfortunately less than five hours of sun;

the half-day sun zone, with a comfortable six to eight hours of sun;

the full-day sun zone, which enjoys sun from morning to evening.

Look around your garden, and see what parts fall into each zone. I often use an app on my phone to show me here the sun will be in the sky at a given time of year. There are plenty of apps available that essentially do the same thing. Just log on, stand where you want your garden to be and point your phone in the general direction of the sun. You’ll see on the screen the sun’s arc through the sky over the course of a year. From this, you’ll be able to count the hours of sun your garden will receive for any given day of the year.

You might discover that your garden will receive around six to eight hours of sun over the warmer months but only two to three hours of sun in the middle of winter due to a building’s overshadow. Or, who knows, maybe that huge London plane tree on the street will drop its leaves in winter and you’ll have more light to grow your plants!

Your new-found urban-growing knowledge will soon have you pumping out the best produce around. You’ll begin to notice where the sun shines, where the rain falls, how your soil works and, most importantly, what you enjoy growing, cooking and eating the most. So take this book and a beer into the garden, and ponder the possibilities.

Images and edited text from Slow Down and Grow Something by Byron Smith with Tess RobinsonMurdoch Books, RRP $39.99 Photography by Alex Carlyle (location), Rob Palmer (food)

Byron Smith and Tess Robinson. Image by Alex Carlyle

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