Apartment vegetable garden

There’s a garden growing in my apartment- interview with a vegetable gardening expert

Magical small space apartment garden 

On the seventh floor of a Melbourne apartment complex lives Sherry and her magical and productive food and flower garden.

I was lucky enough to interview Sherry about her garden and to hear about all its wonders and challenges and her secrets to successful balcony vegetable gardening. 

How did you learn to garden?

Sherry began her gardening adventure a couple of years ago. With a keen interest in gardening, she was inspired by the gardens of others that she followed on Instagram, of all places.

Instagram has a wonderful, friendly and inspirational community of gardeners providing regular updates about their growing journey.

Sherry now has a growing Instagram gardening following and inspires others to give balcony gardening a go. 

You can grow a lot with about 18 square metres of balcony

Sherry has two large balconies, one Nor-West balcony is approximately 12 metres in length. Her second balcony is six square metres and faces North. She gets sunlight most of the year from about 9am until sunset so has an ideal aspect for a thriving balcony garden.

Sherry learned a lot from books like, Grow. Food. Anywhere: The New Guide to Small-Space Gardening by the Little Veggie Patch. Gardening books have been very helpful in teaching her what she needs to know to grow a successful balcony vegetable garden.

There is a community garden situated downstairs on the common property that Sherry contributes to. Having the benefits of a larger garden and a personal thriving apartment garden provides so many opportunities for growing and enjoying fresh food. 

What are your favourite things to grow?

Sherry has a thriving chilli garden with six different varieties including jalapenos, thai super spicy, ebony’s fire, thai, hot cayenne and is currently germinating a ghost chilli from seed! She uses her various chilli plants in lots of different Asian cooking recipes. She makes her own cooking stock from home-grown plants including celery, chillies and other fresh home-grown herbs and vegetables. Sherry also enjoys making home-made dumplings out of her home-grown veggies.

Chillies on a wooden plate with flowers

Sherry grows a range of delicious chillies

What major challenges do you face in your apartment garden and how have you overcome them?

  • The howling Melbournian wind has been a big challenge. Living on the seventh floor and having two balconies and a building corner, the wind sheer can inhibit plant growth. Sherry has a small green-house which means that plants don’t need to be planted out until they are strong enough to cope better with the howling wind. 
  • Having a roof overhead is very challenging because it creates shade that actually inhibits plant growth. Especially in Summer when the sun is much higher in the sky. Sherry has found, and we here at Balcony Self-Sufficiency agree that, the prime grow time in our balcony garden, with a roof overhead is actually Spring, as the suns heat intensifies and Autumn, before the cool, short days really set in. By focusing on Autumn and Spring as the peak growing seasons, and planting accordingly, Sherry’s garden is able to thrive most of the year.
  • Pests are always a problem in gardens, even if you’re on the seventh floor. Sherry ordered beneficial insects from Bugs for Bugs in order to manage an outbreak of aphids organically. She reports that it was rewarding to see the challenge of having an insect problem, in her case aphids and spider mites, and to address the issue organically. The beneficial insects really helped and then eventually “flew away” to join the local ecosystem.

Favourite apartment gardening strategies

Sherry has found sturdy vertical gardens with wheels are great for increasing productivity of the garden and maximising harvests.

Using tall vertical planters has enabled Sherry to grow a huge volume of edible plants including celery and silverbeet in a small area. The gardens also look wonderful!

Tower garden with salad greens

Tower gardens are a wonderful option for small gardens.

Check out Sherry’s thriving tower garden

Sherry also has a wonderful hydroponic garden set-up inside her apartment, complete with grow light. The little garden is situated beside Sherry’s desk so she is able to enjoy ‘tickling’ the leaves and enjoying the aromatic scent of the fresh basil and other vegetables.

Grow bags improve the growth and harvest in Sherry’s apartment garden

Sherry loves utilising grow bags for many of her edibles and flowers. Grow bags are fascinating planting options as they have ‘air-wicking’ properties, enabling air to pass through the felt fabric. This sends a stop growing signal to plant roots, preventing the plants from becoming pot bound. This promotes nutrient and water uptake and improved plant productivity as the plant is best able to access the nutrients it needs to grow.

Sherry has started her grow bags business and if you’d like to support her and get one of these beautiful grow bags you can contact Sherry via Instagram @garden_in_my_apartment

Check out Sherry’s grow bags.

 

Apartment garden worm farm

Sherry installed an inground worm farm into her balcony garden and has enjoyed improved soil productivity which contributes to plant growth.

To see more of Sherry’s garden and get inspired about your own balcony garden, head to garden_in_my_apartment on instagram. Or visit ABC’s feature story, How to build a vegetable garden on an apartment balcony.

 

Subscribe to our blog for your chance to win a free copy of our children’s gardening book, coming soon in 2021.

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Apartment living is here to stay but so is urban farming- grow your own balcony vegetable garden

 home-grown vegetables in metal containers in apartment
Container vegetable gardens are very productive and rewarding

The balcony vegetable garden- world of health and self-sufficiency

Growing up I imagined being able to grow my own food, just like my grandparents. Our lives are very different now though. We live in an apartment in medium density housing, yet we discovered our balcony vegetable garden can supply our family with most of our fresh vegetables, all our fresh herbs and even many fruits.

Suburban farming- the conventional way

I grew up on a big suburban block with a sprawling garden. My grandpa had a large vegetable garden where he grew most of the family vegetables. My grandma sustained and nurtured a citrus orchard and they had various other fruit trees including bananas, persimmons and figs. They also ate seasonally which meant their food always tasted better as it was completely fresh and hadn’t travelled hundreds of kilometres to get here. 

The gardening journey grows from childhood

My grandparents garden was an incredible oasis that inspired me as a toddler as I played and things seemed to grow before my eyes. As a child I helped my grandparents and watched as they organically composted and succession planted out rows and rows of lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes and corn. It was the most wonderful and exciting adventure to explore their garden.

Watching as my grandpa pulled back the big leaves wrapped around the head of a giant cauliflower was so exciting. I recall him taking his knife and with neat sweeps, hacking away the leaves and passing me the fresh cauliflower head. Boy did I want to eat those vegetables and they tasted sensational.

Roll on 30 years. I have a family of my own. Property prices are ever increasing as is density of living. We have to live in the Sydney metropolitan area because of family responsibilities and affordability. Will we always? Hopefully not.

Is it such a bad thing? No. However, such a formative part of my childhood was growing up with the experience of suburban farming. Suburban farming taught me about planning as a child. It taught me about planning because I saw the process involved in growing food. I learned about planting seeds at the right time, preparing the soil, nurturing the soil as the plant grows and ultimately harvesting and all the wonderful things that can come from that planning ahead of time.

What suburban gardening taught me as a child

Suburban farming taught me the value of hard work and how resourceful and sustainable one can be by putting in the right effort at the right time. It also taught me how absolutely wonderful fruit, vegetables and herbs are and how much flavour they bring to a meal. In fact I became a vegetarian at the age of eight. Would I have done this if I didn’t have such access to fresh produce? Who knows. But it certainly helped having such an abundance of zero carbon footprint fresh produce growing on the same property that I lived on.

Gardening from a young age led us to a healthy lifestyle

I am not here to preach about being vegetarian but what I will say is having a lifestyle with the amount of fresh produce in it as I had, I experience the benefits of good health on a daily basis. My inflammatory markers are extremely low. Substantially below those of somebody who eats meat. My one challenge is maintaining an adequate iron balance but that’s another story.

I am a farmer at heart. My happiness is nurtured by the plants around me and my wellbeing is sustained by fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs. Yet, I live in an apartment. I am 25 minutes away from the Sydney CBD. I am also raising a toddler who is showing all the signs of loving the garden and its wonders just as much as my partner and I do. We wanted to raise our son with the same connection to nature that we both grew up with. Although we can’t maintain the same scale of food production we grew up with, we are incredibly resourceful and self-sufficient even though we live in an apartment.

We are balcony vegetable garden farmers

When the current health crisis hit, we wanted to be as far away from people, supermarkets and mainstream food production as we could. COVID-19, how gardening has helped my family survive social isolation in a unit with a toddler and we set ourselves a challenge, to grow at least half of all our own fresh food.

We upgraded our then current gardening model of two tower gardens to also include two long tubs and four window ledge planters. We also planted two more passionfruit’s and squeezed a few more things in here and there. Read more about How to start a balcony garden.

We enjoy the challenge of growing all of our herbs, most of our vegetables and many of our fruits in our organic balcony food garden. We grow approximately 80% of our vegetables in our balcony vegetable garden. Read more about Our strategy for growing most of our vegetables and herbs in our balcony garden

Guerrilla vegetable gardeningreclaim some space

We also decided to bite the bullet and reclaim a bunch of land on our common property and in some other local areas that we could see was not being utilised and we planted some plants there that would not ever become pests.

What plants are appropriate for guerrilla gardening?

There are a lot of plants that we would not even consider planting in guerrilla gardening style due to the risk of them becoming pests, but we plant tomatoes, beans, peas and spinach. Basically, anything that grows via taproot or root runners is not appropriate to plant. Things that are good to grow in a guerrilla gardening context are plants that produce via a long period of showing flowers that turn into bulbous fruit or by producing seedpods that then must mature and fall to the ground. This means that they will never become out of hand and spread as noxious weeds as there is a long period of time where people can catch them before they spread.

Join a local community garden

We recently visited the most incredible and flourishing community garden growing close by and I was astonished by the volume of food growing in this small lot beside a railway station. It was $50 to join but you take home much more than that monthly following enjoyable working bees with likeminded locals. What better way to get to know other locals.

We wish more local governments would adopt community gardens in high density areas. Especially when in countries like Australia, we do not have allotments. I’ve genuinely considered moving to the UK over this alone…

We are raising our toddler as an apartment gardener and he loves it

Our son’s world looks remarkably similar to our own upbringings. He is daily watching plants bloom and grow around him. He is harvesting his own vegetables and even some fruits from the plants. Our boy can name most things growing in the garden yet he is two and a half. He gets his hands dirty in the soil and we have to scrub his nails carefully several times a week to get the dirt out.

Our son helps us with every aspect of the gardening journey and is adept at planting seeds. He also loves eating his vegetables and even herbs, as long as he saw them grow in the garden. He likes them even more if he gets to pick them from his balcony vegetable garden. Yet, we live in an apartment.

Are you a farmer at heart but live in an apartment?

If you are like us and love the outdoors, greenery and the joys of growing your own food but live in an apartment, you have so many options for still enjoying growing your own. See How to grow a balcony garden here.

We would love you to join our balcony gardening community on Facebook

Follow us on Instagram @balcony_self_sufficiency to see more of our balcony vegetable garden journey.

Subscribe to our blog for your chance to win a free copy of our children’s gardening book, coming later in 2021.

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Tower garden growing vegetables

Our strategy for growing most of our vegetables and herbs in our balcony garden

I would like to share with you our strategy for having a perpetually producing organic balcony garden that grows most of our vegetables and all of our herbs.

A lot of people are surprised that we live in a unit and that we grow so much of our own fresh food right

Growing food on our balcony is a journey

Hitting this point of self-sufficiency has been a journey. We have had just as many successes as failures. With lost crops that looked like they were going to be bumper successful only to have them wither, be eaten by caterpillars or affected by something like powdery mildew. Every challenge inspires us to learn more about gardening and has contributed to our respect for gardening and gardeners. We have wonderful respect for our farmers who sustain us, and contribute to our quality of life and wellness.

We began gardening as toddlers

Our growing journey began when Tony and I were each little babies gardening with our families. Separately we both grew up gardening and enjoying growing some of our own fruits and vegetables for our families. When we met, part of the bond that we formed was because we shared this passion in gardening.

Gardening and growing our own produce organically on our balcony garden became the cornerstone of our relationship. When COVID-19 hit, we wanted to develop independence from the big supermarket chains. As we watched the news and saw new COVID-19 cases every day, even just a couple of hundred metres from where we live in the big supermarket. We couldn’t have wanted to be further away from the shops. The thought of going in there to get fresh food was not at all appealing. So, I am a perfectionist and a little bit of a scientist. I was curious about how self-sufficient it’s possible to be by using a balcony garden space. 

My aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer.

While my aim in the beginning was to be 30% self-sufficient from the greengrocer, we have achieved about 80% self-sufficiency from the greengrocer, all by growing really creatively in a 3×4 metre balcony garden. Read more here about How to start a balcony garden

Tower gardens and vertical gardens are the best way to grow food in a balcony

We have two tower gardens like these. Each tower garden has a blueberry, and the following plants respectively between the two gardens:

One cherry falls tomato, spinach, chilli, climbing spinach, parsley, basil, oregano and coriander as the mainstays.

Over the last four months we have also grown the following seasonal crops in the tower Gardens:

Potatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and squash.

What foods grow best in a small garden

We have a smaller grow-wall, vertical garden beside our door way to the balcony and in that we grow lots of leafy greens as well as spring onions, chives and shallots. It’s very rare that we actually use onions in our home. We have found onions inefficient to grow in our balcony garden as they take too long. Using the garlic chives, shallots and spring onions, you can reach a level of flavour just as intense and delicious as that of onion and they grow extremely well in small spaces. They are also perpetual in their growth so you able to keep the plants in the ground, cut off the shoots and away you go.

The vertical garden beside our door is in part-shade yet we have found it extremely efficient at growing the Chinese veggies and our greens in general including:

Rocket, baby spinach, bok choy, perpetual lettuce.

Grow sunflowers!

We also have a long planter, almost 2 m. In that planter we have grown a couple of sunflowers which have given us the most rejoicingly beautiful happy smiling faces that have shone down at our neighbours bringing happiness to what could be otherwise just another apartment block balcony. We were very strategic in planting our sunflowers. Sunflowers are recognised for their beautiful large flower faces but they also have a range of benefits including, the seeds are edible. Sunflowers actually purify the soil by sucking up toxins like no other plant, they can actually remove metals from the soil by doing this. Sunflowers attract so many bees and beneficial pollinating insects.

Zucchinis, a watermelon and two large tomato plants, both have hit over 6 feet tall in that garden. I will be honest, as I write this I am trying to figure out who to move as space has become at a premium and we are now at a point where we have lost productivity of some of the vegetables in this bed. The zucchini is nearing the end of its productive life so it may have to go.

Around the base of the big vegetables in that container, we have baby carrots and radishes. We have a continual supply of both and I scatter seeds every other week so we never run out.

Our weekly vegetable shop from the supermarket usually consists of three things that I just cannot grow adequately at home:

1. cauliflower

2. Broccoli

3. Sweet potato

If we can’t grow it now, then we think, maybe we are not meant to eat it at the moment. Eating for seasonality is very important for the carbon footprint of our food and means we eat food tasting better and that is fresher because it didn’t travel as far and hasn’t been in deep freeze…

Share our balcony gardening journey with us!

We would love you to join our balcony gardening community on Facebook

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Uses for Comfrey in an organic balcony garden

The organic fertiliser that you must grow in your balcony garden

Comfrey is the ideal homegrown organic fertiliser

When I set out to write this blog post my objective was to research and bring light to self-sufficient organic fertiliser solutions available to every balcony and small space gardener. I expected to talk about compost and worm farms but I was absolutely astonished to discover that Comfrey, a plant that I grew up knowing about for its homeopathic properties would become my favourite homegrown organic fertiliser for our balcony garden.

Comfrey is the ideal Permaculture organic solution to fertilisers

Comfrey is a great dynamic accumulator

Comfrey has a very long taproot. That taproot digs deep under the earth to mine all the nutrients. Comfrey sucks those nutrients up through the leaves, recycling soil nutrients and giving fresh life to your soil.

Comfrey is a soil fertiliser

Comfrey is high in potassium and nitrogen. Potassium and nitrogen are valuable elements that assist fruits, vegetables and herbs to flourish and fruit.

Comfrey is a compost activator

Healthy compost requires a good balance of green matter, like leaves fruits or vegetables, and browns, such as dried, fallen leaves and even cardboard. ‘Brown matter’ is rich in carbon. Adequate nitrogen is needed to get the microbial activity in your compost heap really working. Comfrey is very high in nitrogen as well as phosphorus and other trace elements. Comfrey ‘activates’ compost, helping the composting process to occur quickly, decreasing odours that  occur when there is an imbalance.

Happy compost leads to happy worms and happy worms lead to a flourishing productive and healthy soil, alive with good microbial activity. Healthy soils lead to healthy and happy plants.

Comfrey composts quickly, making it an available source of fertiliser for your other plants.

Comfrey can kill powdery mildew by preventing spores from sprouting

In a previous post we talked about how to prevent, manage and treat powdery mildew in a small garden. 

A preparation of Comfrey tea (not to be drunken) with a tiny dash of soapy water has been found to prevent powdery mildew spores from growing. 

Comfrey is a medicinal warrior in the alternative medicine cabinet

Although not the focus of this post, using leaves, a poultice or properly prepared compress on skin ailments like sunburn, eczema or even superficial cuts or scrapes, may have anti-inflammatory properties and assist with topical cellular repair.

Bathing in a Comfrey leaf bath after childbirth may even assist with perennial recovery. Comfrey must never be eaten though as it has been found to cause liver damage in laboratory studies. We recommend you seek advice from a qualified practitioner before using Comfrey, other than in the garden. 

Comfrey’s appearance, identifying Comfrey

Comfrey has small beautiful abundant purple or white/cream, hanging clusters of flowers, clustered around stalk. It has long, deep green leaves. Comfrey is known for its very long tap root that digs deep into the earth. 

Comfrey is from the Borage family but also has an appearance similar to Foxglove. Be careful though as Foxglove is poisonous. Comfrey leaves are toothed and have an almost serrated appearance, whereas foxglove leaves are smooth.

Ideal growing conditions

Comfrey self seeds easily if allowed to do so and is a hardy plant to grow. It will grow better in richer soils however will dig deep to mine out the essential nutrients from deep within soil beds. It will bring those nutrients up into its leaves, making them more accessible to other plants.

Comfrey can grow up to 3 feet tall although I have found when grown in a pot it is much smaller.

How to make comfrey tea for your garden

Pick a handful of Comfrey leaves and steep in water. Set and forget them out of the way in a covered bucket.

Warning, Comfrey tea does smell, ideally if you can prepare Comfrey tea somewhere away from living quarters, such as a garage or even better, behind a common garden shed, that is best.

Shred leaves and dig them into soil

If you would prefer a less smelly way of using Comfrey but still with all the benefits, you can simply shred the leaves with your fingers and place them on the soil or dig them into your garden bed. I like to put them in the hole when planting a new plant. 

Comfrey is the best organic fertiliser to grow on a balcony

Comfrey in balcony gardens, attracts bees due to the flowers, breaks up the soil because of the tap root and is an ever ready soil fertiliser. They are beautiful plants and quite easy to grow. Let us know what you think in the comments below. 

Read more about How to start a balcony garden

Thanks for reading and happy growing!

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White cabbage moth butterfly caterpillar organic pest control

How to beat pests naturally and grow an organic balcony food garden

Pest control in balcony and small space food gardens is a massive topic and a series of blog posts will deep dive into some practical tips and tricks for conquering the pests.

Our biggest predators have been caterpillars and slugs, although the Summer months have also brought their share of aphids and the dreaded mealybugs. Allowing the natural eco-system to evolve has supported the garden to manage pests naturally. We have several small spiders living on our balcony. Flowers are interspersed through our garden and these attract birds which eat the caterpillars and slugs.

We believe in organic gardening as a long-term solution

We garden organically so do not use snail or slug pellets or chemicals to deter any of our pests for several reasons:
  • Chemical pesticides are a short-term solution- They work by killing the pest but often kill beneficial insects too which can lead to more of the original pest with less beneficial pests
  • Birds, cats, dogs and even children can accidently ingest harmful snail and slug pellets which can be lethal.
  • Spraying pesticides on plants that are for human consumption means ultimately you too end up ingesting the pesticide
  • The pesticide can end up in the soil, leading to microbiome imbalance in the soil which leads to further problems down the track and inhibiting plant growth
  • Birds, cats and dogs sometimes end up eating slugs, snails or caterpillars that have died from pesticide. This can then harm or even kill them.
  • We see the health of our balcony food garden as intrinsically linked to our families health. It is too important to use harmful chemicals.
  • In small space gardening, if you spray chemicals there is a high chance that spray could enter your home.

What are organic solutions to pesticide for a balcony food garden

  1. Plant flowers- We used to have a big problem with mealybugs and aphids but we planted a beneficial insect mix of seeds and we have had this incredible increase in the activity of ladybugs and even birds in our garden. These feed on the pests in our balcony garden and help the natural balance of our garden stay in check. We are now visited daily by birds in the local area.
  2. Try a snail and slug beer trap- place some beer in a saucer, big enough for the snails and slugs to fall into and leave overnight. Be sure to cover it so the poor birds don’t get more than they bargain for with their breakfast…
  3. Manual removal- The benefit of small space gardens in that it is actually not that difficult to spend 5 minutes a day checking for snails and slugs by torch light in the evening, and caterpillars during the day. You can relocate them to bush land or parks nearby and the birds will thank you for the feast! Tony and I laugh that before we started a family, we would bond late at night over a glass of wine in a candlelit room. Now, we have just as much fun bonding, still often with a glass of wine but now while on a slug and caterpillar hunt! We still find it just as fun though!
  4. Install a bee hotel- We are planning on installing a bee hotel for the native stingless bees. We have a lot of them in our area so why not give them somewhere to stay. There is a wonderful range on the market. Eco-Friendly Bug House Hotel – Insect Nest Box for Gardens and Yards
  5. Focus on the health of your soil rather than on the problem at hand- often pests are opportunistic. Aphids for instance tend to thrive when a plant is not very healthy. By ensuring your plants have enough light, air-flow and well nourished soil, your plants health can improve and that can prevent pest problems.
  6. Try a milk bath for powdery mildew
  7. Decoy butterflies- Believe it or not, the white cabbage butterfly moth is very territorial. We had a great time erecting our stunt double butterflies and have noticed a decrease although not total elimination, in our caterpillars. See video of the process below. Decoy butterfly video- numbers decreased initially but some have been reappearing
  8. Order beneficial bugs to destroy pests- We ordered Cryptolaemus larvae, the natural predator, of the mealy bug. Mealy bugs are incredibly destructive and infestations take off very quickly and spread from plant to plant. They will kill a plant if not dealt with. Only the females are visible to the naked eye. They feed on plant juices. Cryptolaemus for mealy bugs

Your balcony garden is its own micro-ecosystem

When you start seeing your balcony or small space garden as an ecosystem just like any other, you realise that by making slight changes you can actually maximise its ability to work symbiotically and the amount of work that you need to do decreases.

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How to start a balcony garden

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How to grow an organic balcony food garden

We are small kitchen garden experts specialising in self sufficient, organic food gardens. We believe anyone can grow their food no matter the size of your home. Balconies, patios, decks, pergolas, sunrooms, sunny rooms and windowsills all offer opportunities for growing.

No matter what your challenge, we’ve probably encountered it and enjoy offering solutions. We aim to be a one stop shop resource for balcony and small space food gardens. We believe in wellbeing and positive mental health through gardening and believe it’s never too early to get gardening which is why our toddler is our head gardener…

Showcasing an 8-10 week balcony garden crop.
The sky is the limit. Give it a go…

Our balcony garden is 3×4 metres. We enjoy a NorEast corner position and have a green oasis wrapping around our space.

We have always enjoyed gardening but when the COVID-19 pandemic took off we were particularly mindful of our isolation but also not wanting to be dependant on the supermarket for our food.

Best Productive plants to grow for a kitchen garden

Anything that produces a high yield and has a small footprint is generally pretty good for a kitchen garden. If it happens to be hardy then that is even better.

Companion planting for pest control and happy crops

Companion planting is very important, especially for a food garden in a small space like a balcony. A lot of companion planting is intuitive. By thinking about cuisines, you are halfway towards successful companion planting. I grow tomatoes, capsicum and marigolds together to repel pests naturally.

I also grow salad greens together, runner beans together and a stirfry garden bed. The one consistency though is every garden bed has a mix of beneficial insect flowers growing scattered among the other plants.

How to create natural privacy in an apartment

We rely a lot on climbing plants so anything that produces a vine is well loved in our balcony garden because that also creates natural privacy and shade and utilises height. We plant seeds weekly, replacing what we harvest and always direct where they are to grow. Bringing plants in from a nursery raises the possibility of introducing parasites or unwanted microbes into the ecosystem. Planting seeds virtually eliminates this possibility, is cheaper and is extremely easy, especially once it becomes routine.

Love a good garden harvest. Everyone of them carries surprises.

balcony_self_sufficiency

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