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.

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Toddlers hand holding a strawberry with parents hand around it

COVID-19, how gardening has helped my family survive social isolation in a unit with a toddler

Everyone must stay home”, Scott Morrison, the Australian Prime Minister announces in his now daily press release. Tony and I sit in silence, blinking and just waiting. Journalists throw questions at the seasoned PM and he responds with a veil of political candour cloaking the most shocking global crisis of most of our lives. Our 18 month old toddler plays on the floor with his black and yellow diggers, moving piles of kinetic sand around a deep container.

I want to cry but I don’t. I want to ask, “but when will this end”, But I don’t. I want to go for a long boozy dinner with Tony and some friends and say, “Wow! That was a really intense movie. I’m glad it’s over…” But, most shocking, I can’t… because the horror is real. My baby boy looks at me and says “mummy, dig, digger”, and I smile with the reassurance that I don’t feel.

Bubbles
We have spent many a day blowing bubbles on our balcony and watching them drift away

How do you facilitate resilience and growth for a toddler when social isolating in a unit?

Each and every day of my baby boys life he has felt the breeze blow against his face, watched the leaves fluttering on the trees and experienced the various fragrances met by going outside to explore. Thankfully we we’re able to go for a daily walk but that was the only adventure out of our unit that our son experienced.

Before COVID-19, we felt we were in an ideal situation. We live in a new apartment, situated 6 minutes by bus from a major train station and very close to a large shopping complex. Our apartment has a nice communal garden and we seemed like the only ones to really spend time in it. We have horses nearby and major bush land and we are only 20 minutes from the ocean.

We didn’t want to live in a house yet because, with starting a family, we felt it would be so much maintenance…

COVID-19 is bringing so much horror, pain and suffering to so many. I do not write this seeking sympathy but to show others how we are coping and in the hope that other people may find comfort from our approach.

I felt a lot of fear in the beginning of lock-down and wondered how I would cope with such intense isolation. Let alone, how I would support my toddler to continue to grow and thrive.

Toddler tantrums are real and intense displays of emotion

I started working from home when we went into lockdown and my toddler was mostly here too. My boy was not in day care because he had become so sick as a one year old going into the day care environment. We were lucky because between my son’s aunts, grandmas, Tony and I, we were able to look after our boy while I worked.

While I tried to work from home, my son would realise I was barricaded in his bedroom and would often come barging in or cry at the door. It was heart wrenching to know he had nowhere else to go, despite our families best efforts, and yet he was truly distressed by being so close to his mum and yet so far. Prior to lockdown he had a routine where he would see other children six days per week. Our son would ask to go to the park and we would say, “we can’t do that today, sweetie”, or to the library, and eventually he even asked to go to the shops. To everything the response was the same, “not today, there is a nasty virus”.

Relief came through our food garden on our 3×4 metre balcony…

As the sun rose each and every day, it was like it pulled us and our baby boy out onto our balcony. Tony and I learned gardening and growing our own food crops from our grandparents from a very young age. We have always had a garden but it was just a part of our home. What COVID-19 did was boost the central importance of gardening to be front and foremost in our home. Through gardening, our toddler found fun, learning and adventure, and we found daily mindful escape, all from our balcony.

Through hours and days spent inside, looking at the same, unmoving walls, the central change seemed to be a layer of dust and cat fur ever descending. Waiting in lockdown in our apartment felt like we were experiencing tremors from an earthquakes epicentre. Ours walls seemed to be a constant reminder that the world was in crisis. Our garden on the other hand offered creativity, learning, mindfulness and resourcefulness.

Our balcony food garden is a daily source of magic

As though it has its own life blood, our balcony garden changes with every day. There is a continual sense of journey among those plants as they flourish and bloom. Each day there are amazing transformations and surprises and tending the soil and feeling the cool gritty earth in my hands has grounded me on lonely days where I deeply longed for connection from within lockdown.

Harvesting, cooking and eating balcony grown food brings a level of indescribable love and connection between our home and our family. As though we are one with our garden, it nourishes our wellbeing, physically and psychologically.

Balcony gardening nurtured our toddlers wellbeing and growth

Our boy was 16 months old when COVID-19 reached our shores. He was just starting to really connect with the world around him. Our son was realising his own personhood, that he was an individual, separate from me and he was learning to speak. Our boy has an inquisitive mind and constraining him to a unit was very hard. However, we gave our son his own garden bed. He planted a range of seeds and we taught him how to water. The wonder in his eyes as he watched them germinate and reach up through the soil to make their own beautiful and strong leaves was magical.

Our son rejoices in spending time outside. He loves the fresh air, the feel of the soil and the excitement of growing his own plants. The wonder of watching a seedling differentiate into different vegetables is a great miracle of life for both us and our boy. Then to harvest and eat the vegetables gives our toddler a sense of pride as he helped to grow the food on our table.

Toddler gardening

Balcony gardening has decreased our need to go to the supermarket

Beyond the benefits to our well-being from gardening, we also saw a very practical advantage to balcony food gardening. Every time we went to the balcony to harvest food, we were decreasing the time spent in a supermarket and potential risk of catching COVID-19.

We feel a greater connection to the food we grow and have lovingly tended it and watched it day in day out evolve. Gardening is a mindfulness activity. It has profound positive benefits for mental health. Gardening has benefited myself and my family immeasurably through coping with being confined to our unit.

Garden harvest toddler
Our toddler was happy to try all of this home-grown salad. After all, he helped to grow it!

Where to in 2021?

I do not mean to write this like we are past lock-down. As I write this, our family, ten minutes from here, have been placed in lockdown again and there are cases of COVID-19 popping up through Sydney, as there are throughout the world. I hope that this post may inspire others who are living in an apartment and coping with social isolation to begin gardening and find comfort, peace and solace like found through gardening.

Through our gardens there is escape, mystery, abundance, health, wellbeing and magic. May 2021 bring some peaceful resolution for all.

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