Four Urban Farmers on The Art of the Garden, and How to Build Your Own From the Ground Up

Published in The Earth Issue 003: MANIFESTO

In the words of Alexander Pope, “all gardening is landscape painting.” Artists through the ages have sought refuge in gardens for inspiration, mediation, and to revel in the wonders of nature’s own artistic creations. Some have gone so far as to refute the distinction between their studio practice and their horticultural practice - Monet, who painted his beloved Giverny garden over the last thirty years of his life, claimed his garden (and not its watercolour replica) to be his “most beautiful masterpiece.”

I do believe that gardening, like cooking, is a form of art that transcends into the realms of the heart. Watching a plant slowly flourish under your care, cultivating a space of beauty and learning - gardens can be likened to living installations that engage our five senses while nourishing our spirit.

Nevertheless, setting up a new garden at home can be a daunting task for a beginner, especially in the context of urban living where space is an uncommon luxury. I have tried without much enduring luck to set up my own balcony garden in my city apartment. Between the scorching summer sun, the cul-de-sac wind channels, the neighbour’s cat and the squirrels, my garden always succumbed to a tragic battle of the elements. Of course, it can be done with the right skills and the right knowledge, and it is important to keep trying. Edible balcony gardens reduce unnecessary wastage in the chain of food production, increase food security, and do their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention they grow into peaceful oases to work, create, write, or think in. In preparation of a new gardening attempt this summer, I set out to learn some of the principles of small scale urban farming from those who have had more success than I.

Portraits above and below: courtesy of Nyima Ohana and Ofer Gensler

Nyima and Ofer Gensler - Travelling Farmers

Design Strategies For Your Urban Garden

I began by reaching out to my sister and brother in law, who have worked in various urban and rural agricultural projects around the world, such the Kidron Food Forest in Israel, Samata Food and Medicinal garden in India, and - currently, Lufa Farms in Montreal.

Their tips centred around a design process that negotiated environmental constraints with one’s ideal vision for their garden.

When setting up a new garden, start by carefully exploring your micro “terroir-” a French word used to describe the regional elements of your environment, including sunlight, temperature, humidity, soil type, etc. Whether you are working with a windowsill, rooftop, balcony or outdoor garden, the access to sunlight will be the most important factor. Sunlight - or lack thereof, will determine the varieties of plants you can grow. Most herbs and edible plants need copious amounts of sunlight, while houseplant varieties require less.

How do you explore and understand your microhabitat? Start by taking measurements of your available space, and tracking the distribution of sunlight across that space throughout the day by taking photographs at hourly intervals. Then, take these photos to a garden centre in your city, and ask for recommendations regarding hardy plants that do well in your particular climate and with that specific amount of space and sunlight.

Next, think about ways of maximizing the use of a small space. There are several design concepts you can use to create a garden which will be aesthetically and sensually inspiring while also being useful. These include: colour, shape, texture and smell, all of which can be manipulated according to your tastes, preferences and your ultimate vision for the garden.

Colours can express themselves in foliage or bloom. For shadier spaces, foliage is an easy way of achieving colour patches and sprucing up the visual appeal of a garden. For example, red kale is colourful and edible too. Blooms need more sun, if you have a light-filled balcony, consider introducing colour with purple lavenders, orange daylilies, white camomile flowers, or blue morning glory.

Plants can also reconstitute the shape of your space, to provide more privacy or even hide clutter. For example, you could build a trellis with a variety of climbers such as peas or honeysuckle. Hanging pots with cascading plants such as geraniums can also create interesting visual effects in your garden while also amplifying the sense of space.

Texture is usually achieved with grasses or hairy plants. Such as lemongrass or sage. Have fun, play with plants that feel soft and dreamy or that make a statement!

As for smell - edible flowers and flowering herbs are wonderful “small-garden” options since they will fill your garden with a delicious fragrance while also being useful in the kitchen. Some scented flowers can be made into teas and fragrant herbs are good for cooking. Try lavender, lemon balm, violet flowers, nasturtium, or anise hyssop.

"The way you play with these elements is where the creativity of the gardener comes in. Think of them as your artistic medium: colour, texture, and shape can create visual effects in your garden ..."

Nyima: Another thing to consider is that other creatures may enjoy your garden too. So you could specifically choose to include plants that are attractive to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. A pollinator-friendly garden would include nectar and pollen-rich plants such as wildflowers and old-fashioned varieties of flowers.

Ofer: The way you play with these elements is where the creativity of the gardener comes in. Think of them as your artistic medium: colour, texture, and shape can create visual effects in your garden - elongating space or depth, highlighting or hiding specific features, or imbuing the space with a specific mood - cheerful, or romantic.

Nyima: To my personal taste, the more layered a garden is the better it looks. Sparse plants do not suit small places! Adding layers will add depth and will make the space more interesting to look at - I would recommend combinations of tall and cascading plants, leafy and grassy, subtle and bold, with diverse, complementary colours.

The way you plan on using your garden will influence these choices too. Do you usually sit on your balcony at night? Then consider night-blooming plants that will exude a nice smell in the evenings, such as queen of the night, jasmine, and evening primrose. If you plan on occupying your garden in the day when the sun is harsh, then you might want to prioritize garden structures that will enclose the space and add shade and privacy.

Sheena Swirlz, Founder of Urban Homestead Montreal

Sheena Swirlz runs Montreal Homestead, a series of workshops and events with the aim of educating Montrealers about sustainable urban gardening. I attended one of her talks on growing food year-round in small spaces; patios, courtyard gardens or even on window sills.

Her tips emphasized season planning… and lots of DIY.

If you live in a temperate climate start designing your balcony in early March, and growing seedlings indoors or in a covered planter box outdoors. Miniature greenhouses can be used to protect delicate plants from squirrels and from the wind. Planter boxes are relatively easy to make oneself from upcycled and found materials, such as old windows, crates or disused shelving units.

Sheena’s ideal garden contains mostly edibles, with a pop of colour for aesthetic value. A handy tip is to use plants which can be grown from cuttings, as these are easy to obtain inexpensively - or even freely, from neighbours, friends or family. Mint, geraniums and rosemary are a few examples.

Another handy way of planning your kitchen-garden is by choosing plants which are expensive, inaccessible, or inconvenient to purchase in stores. For example, sprouts are one of the easiest crops to grow at home, and are heavily marked up in retail. Elements from permaculture design can be useful too - choosing a diversity of crops and companion planting - crops which work well together by sharing resources. Kale is compatible with dill, rosemary and sage, but not a good match with tomatoes or strawberries. Look into companion planting charts to guide your choice.

In the summer, place larger plants above smaller ones to create much-needed shade. A good way of achieving a gradient of sunlight access is to place your pots on a vertical shelf, with the sun-loving plants on top and the shade-loving plants below.

In Autumn, start bringing plants indoors, and switch to cold-resistant crops like Kale and swiss chard and shitake mushrooms. Herb gardens are great for indoor gardens if you have sufficient natural light (or supplemental growing lights) -, basil, sage, mint, dill, parsley… Under ideal indoor growing conditions, temperatures should be maintained above 17 degrees Celsius.

Last but not least, community gardens are a perfect option for those who do not have access to their own outdoor space. Look into the shared gardening spaces, urban walk groups, foraging groups, and farms in your area - doing so will allow you to connect with the community around you and with your urban landscape.

Megan Mericle - Director of the Concordia Greenhouse Project, Montreal

The community greenhouse as a model for a public arena.

Concordia Greenhouse is a massive public facility on top of Concordia University, one of Montreal’s most multicultural and diverse university. Aside from growing a variety of vegetables from edible varieties to decorative flowers, it also offers greenhouse space to local sustainable agro-businesses and offers a series of publicly accessible educational programs. Its seedlings and seed library is made available to the public, and its edible produce is sold to the broader community by Concordia’s City Farm school.

While Concordia Greenhouse is primarily a plant-centric space, its emphasis on the social benefits of urban agriculture is notable. The independently-run “YouthEngagement Program,” for example, takes on “city apprentices,” high schoolers with a passion for agriculture, and teaches them new skills related to growing plants. It also hosts affordable group tours for schools and other training institutions. Educational programs like these create opportunities for youth empowerment: there is something invigorating about being in the presence of nature, helping a plant thrive, and seeing it successfully grow from seedling to fruition under one’s care.

Fostering opportunities for sharing and learning within a greenhouse or other community farm is vital because it contributes to the sustainability of urban farming and the accessibility of public knowledge. Each individual comes to the table with a different set of skills and ideas, so it is important to cultivate spaces where minds can connect and where networks of ideas are nurtured as well as the network of plants. This is the socially relevant side of urban agriculture.

When you first walk into the Concordia Greenhouse, what stands out is the centrally positioned tables and workspaces where students are studying, young people are conversing, and where the workshops are held. This space is open to the general public, although it is primarily occupied by students of the university below it. It is run with an emphasis on maintaining a safe, accessible and inclusive public space, where anyone can freely exchange ideas around class, race, ableism, privilege, sexual and gender identity, and other social issues. This is also highlighted in the way the greenhouse is run - with a non-hierarchical approach, where anyone can volunteer, help out or partake in decisions surrounding the management and maintenance of the space.

It is important to keep the information that flows through such a public space as flexible and mutant as possible. Concordia’s “Visiting Projects” helps maintain this fluidity - projects that feedback into the cycle of knowledge and sharing are periodically rotated into the space. This year, Neumark design - a permaculture farmer, HydroFlora, a collective from the Concordia Food Coalition (CFC), and Urban Worms, a vermicompost brand, have been occupying the greenhouse annex. These groups help organize a diverse range of workshops during the course of their residencies.

Through her work with plants, Megan emphasized the importance of using public gardening spaces to empower the success of one’s community - to teach people how to grow their own food, to see the fruits of their labour come into fruition, and to share public knowledge forward.

"Each individual comes to the table with a different set of skills and ideas, so it is important to cultivate spaces where minds can connect and where networks of ideas are nurtured as well as the network of plants. This is the socially relevant side of urban agriculture."

Links and Credits: 

Sheena Swirlz

Megan Mericle

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