The Urban Garden
An urban garden can range in size from a window box to an area of several hundred square yards and, no matter what the size, permaculture techniques can be utilized in growing plants for food and other purposes. This article is going to look at some of the possibilities of growing food crops in urban gardens and will mention a few alternative plants for you to try, but that does not mean that you should not grow many of the more conventional crops that can fit very well into the concept of permaculture. Indeed, we would recommend that anyone setting up a permaculture system in their garden or allotment starts off with a backbone of plants they are already familiar with, introducing alternative plants a few at a time to see how they like them.
The first thing to do when planning a garden is to go out and look at it, to see what are the possibilities. Don't just look at it once, come back to it several times in the year to see what is already growing there and whether it can be fitted into your design. There will be problem places, a wet area at the bottom of the garden, a shady wall that is in a rain shadow and the soil is always dry - make a note of all the positive and negative aspects of the garden and then start to think about how you can work around them. Sometimes it is fairly easy to improve a difficult situation, you could put in drainage for example to dry out the wet area, but very often you will find that it is better and much easier to work with the problem and to find plants that actually like growing in these places.
The essence of a good design is being able to group a number of different species into one harmonious system. If space allows you should always grow at least one tree. There are a number of conventional fruit trees on dwarfing rootstocks that are small enough to be grown in town gardens, some can even be grown in pots in a back yard. If you are happy to buy in apples etc and would rather grow a fruit that cannot be obtained from a shop then try growing Mulberries (Morus nigra). This fruit, which looks like a large dark loganberry, is ripe in late summer and is exquisitely flavoured but is too soft for it to be a commercial crop, the fruit would not last the journey to market. There are also a number of ornamental trees that can be grown as food crops. For example, the Juneberries (Amelanchier spp.) are beautiful in the spring when they are covered in white blossom. Their fruit, which is about the size of a blackcurrant, ripens in early July and, if you can get there before the birds, it is sweet and juicy with an apple like flavour. Try growing the cultivar 'Ballerina', it has larger and sweeter fruits than usual. Our native Yew tree (Taxus baccata) has a delicious sweet fruit in late summer and autumn. Some caution is necessary though since all other parts of the plant, including the seed, are highly poisonous. It will grow in almost any soil and situation and although it will eventually make a large tree, it is slow growing and will take many years to outgrow its welcome. The Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) ripens its fruit in November and December. It also flowers at this time of the year, the fruit taking 12 months to ripen, and it is then an object of singular beauty. Not highly flavoured, the fruit is superficially similar to a strawberry in size shape and texture. Some people like it whilst others are not so keen. There are a number of small growing cultivars that fruit well whilst still young, one we would particularly recommend is 'Rubra', we've seen one that was only 4 ft tall literally covered in fruit and blossom, an incredible sight.
Many shrubs can be grown under and around fruit trees. Conventional crops to try include Raspberries, Blackcurrants, Blackberries and Gooseberries. Some others you could try include Elaeagnus ebbingei, a superb permaculture plant that produces a ripe fruit in April and May, long before any conventional crops are ready. It succeeds in quite a lot of shade, in poor soils and drought conditions, is extremely wind resistant and also produces nitrogen nodules on its roots thereby feeding the soil and increasing the yields of plants growing nearby. It has never been bred as a fruit crop but the yield can be very good, though more work needs to be carried out in order to determine the conditions and cultivars that produce the highest crops. Putting a plant or more of E. pungens nearby for cross-pollination might be helpful. The flavour of the fruit is very acceptable when it is fully ripe, whilst the seed is also edible and reminds some people of peanuts. Many Barberries (Berberis spp) and Mahonias (Mahonia spp.)grow very well in the shade of trees, their fruit is rather acid and not to everyone's taste when raw, though they can also be cooked. An interesting novelty to try is Decaisnea fargesii, this produces a bright blue fruit in late summer that looks somewhat like a broad bean pod or a sausage. Not highly flavoured but it is great fun to see the look on a person's face when given it to eat. Gaultheria shallon is a shrub for acid soils producing a huge crop of small tasty fruits in the summer.
The above shrubs will also grow in sunnier positions. Atriplex halimus is an evergreen shrub that demands a sunny position and a well-drained soil. It has edible leaves with a salty flavour which can be eaten raw or cooked and is liked by most people we've given it to. If you are living in a mild part of the country then try growing Myrtus ugni in a reasonably sunny sheltered position. This evergreen shrub produces a delicious fruit from late summer to the autumn with a flavour reminiscent of strawberries and guava. The Dwarf Quinces (Chaenomeles spp.) are often grown in gardens, their fruit is ripe in late autumn and will store throughout the winter. Too harsh to eat raw, it cooks well and can be used as a jelly or as a flavouring with other fruits, especially apples.
Many bulbs and perennial plants can be grown between the shrubs and along the sunnier edges of this planting system. Most lilies love growing with their roots in the shade and their tops growing into the sunlight. They all have edible bulbs, though some are bitter. Amongst the nicest and easiest to grow are L. amabile, L. bulbiferum, L. candidum and L. superbum. The Dog's Tooth Violets (Erythronium spp) are superb woodland plants. They flower in spring and have disappeared by early summer. The bulbs usually increase fairly freely and can be divided in their dormant season, any spare bulbs being eaten. Quamash (Camassia quamash) can be grown in a sunnier part of the garden. It flowers in the summer and does especially well in short grass in an orchard. The bulbs can be eaten at almost any time of the year, though are probably best in the autumn, and when roasted have a taste similar to sweet potatoes. There are various species of wild onions (Allium spp.) that can be grown . Try the wild garlic (A. ursinum) in the shadier areas, it will provide mild garlic flavoured leaves from February in a mild winter until May. In sunnier areas try the everlasting onion (A. cepa 'Perutile'), this stays green all winter and the leaves can be added to salads.
Peltaria alliacea is an evergreen perennial that spreads quite freely and makes a good weed suppressing mulch in light shade or full sun. The leaves have a flavour that is a cross between garlic and mustard, not to everyone's taste but quite nice as a flavouring in salads. It is at its best in the winter, and can turn bitter in summer, especially if it is in a sunny position. Smilacena stellata grows very well in the deeper shade of trees. Its young growth in spring can be eaten in much the same way as asparagus but its nicest part is the fruit that is produced in late summer. This has a bitter sweet flavour, too strong to be eaten in large quantities but excellent in moderation. The Day Lilies (Hemerocallis spp.) are lovely trouble free and easy to grow plants. They are often cultivated for their edible flowers in the Orient, they can be eaten raw or cooked and are often used as a thickener in soups. All parts of the plants can be eaten, the young shoots are used like asparagus, the older leaves as spinach and the roots on a number of species are large enough to eat, they have a nutty flavour. The form most commonly cultivated for its flowers is H. fulva 'Kwanso' but any species or variety is worth trying. The Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a perennial that likes partial shade. It produces an edible seed in much the same way as peanuts, though it tastes more like a bean than a peanut. Not very high yielding though. Apios americana and Lathyrus tuberosus are two species with absolutely delicious roots. Grow them in the sunnier parts of the garden, harvest them in the autumn and bake them. Once again, yields are not that high but both species have the potential through selective breeding to become commercial crops. Perennial Buckwheat (Fagopyrum dibotrys) is a vigorous relative of the annual buckwheat. The leaves are available from late spring to the autumn and can be eaten raw or cooked, we prefer them cooked. The seed is also edible but has not yet been produced on our plants.
Looking at other parts of the garden, there are often walls that can be utilized in providing micro-climates for growing plants that could not be grown so successfully in the open garden. For example, a wall with a mainly southerly aspect will be much warmer by day and will also be warmer at night. It is possible to grow Kiwi fruits (Actinidia deliciosa)on such a wall, though these require quite a bit of space because you normally require a male plant to fertilize the females. However, the female can be very productive of fruit and this will ripen in late autumn and can be stored throughout the winter.
The soil at the base of walls is often quite dry, partly because it may be in a rain shadow and partly because the wall can act as a wick to draw moisture out of the soil. By applying a liberal mulch of organic material it is possible to alleviate this situation, alternatively it is possible to choose plants that actually prefer these dry conditions. An example of this is the Tiger Iris (Tigridia pavonia) from Mexico. Not all that hardy in Britain, it does very well at the foot of a dry south facing wall and in such a situation it can be safely left outside all winter in most of Britain. The bulb is quite small, but is delicious baked and the flower is just incredibly beautiful, it only lives for one day but plants produce a succession of blooms from July to October. Campanula versicolor is a perennial that is not reliably hardy in some parts of Britain, but does well at the foot of a sunny wall. It has mild flavoured edible leaves and these are available throughout the winter, making an ideal salad at this time of the year. If the wall is in a shady position try growing Gooseberries and a Morello cherry with Montia sibirica, a short-lived perennial that usually self-sows freely, planted underneath them. It produces mild flavoured edible leaves throughout the year and these are at their best in winter.
Most of the bulbs and perennials mentioned above can also be grown very successfully in a window box, so even if you do not have a garden it is still possible to grow some food on permaculture lines. A very good bulb for a window box would be the Iron Cross plant (Oxalis deppei). It produces an abundance of lemon-flavoured leaves from June to October, delicious raw though they should not be eaten in large quantities because, like rhubarb, they contain oxalic acid. The flowers are even nicer tasting and are a very decorative addition to the salad bowl.
There are so many potentially useful plants that can be grown in urban gardens that the main problem with writing this leaflet has been deciding which plants to leave out. All the plants listed above are fairly easy to grow.
The database has more details on these plants: Amphicarpaea bracteata, Apios americana, Arbutus unedo, Atriplex halimus, Camassia quamash, Campanula versicolor, Decaisnea fargesii, Fagopyrum dibotrys, Gaultheria shallon, Lathyrus tuberosus, Morus nigra, Oxalis deppei, Peltaria alliacea, Smilacena stellata, Tigridia pavonia.