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…

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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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