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Window box | permaculture prescription

April 16, 2012

Part eight of my Guardian series about window boxes

After exploring the potentially radical benefits of urban food growing and urban wilding (on a miniature window box sized scale of course), it seems sensible to see if there’s a way to combine the two to create something spectacular.

Permaculture – also known as ‘revolution disguised as organic farming’ – may well be the answer for the activist grower seeking to change the world one plant at a time.  It’s a design process underpinned by a concern for people and the environment, which aims to create efficient and enduring abundance.

Lofty stuff, but how does a wannabe window box permaculturist put such principles into practise?  Hedvig Murray is permaculture designer and teacher, and a source of great wisdom in such instances.  I turn to her as a kind of plant doctor, as I seek a new start for my window box project this spring.

“Permaculture can be applied at any scale, whether a window box or farm” says Hedvig.  “I personally apply it to food growing because, from my experience, it works.  I produce a lot of food, create lovely gardens, and don’t do as much work in them as other gardeners might.  My own garden is filled with bees, hoverflies, ladybirds and more.”

I ask Hedvig to come up with a plan for my tiny garden.  The question is – how do we design something that will yield food and benefit wildlife, as well as being beautiful and manageable?  First, we need to know exactly what we’re dealing with, so we start with a survey.

The ‘garden’ in question is two plastic window boxes and a picnic basket, gathered around a bathroom window ledge.  We map the environment they exist in – the soil, the sunlight, the wind and potential pests.  We also discuss my growing ambitions and meagre budget.

Hedvig analyses my answers and comes up with a planting scheme that, among other things,  catches and stores energy, produces a yield of food, knowledge and seeds, uses renewable resources and produces no waste – all permaculture principles.

For the smaller window box Hedvig suggests cut-and-come-again salad leaves, peppermint (which helps with pest control), self-seeding red orache, purple basil and self-seeding purple viola (which has edible flowers).  For the hanging picnic basket she suggests I keep the ivy and sage I already have, and add nasturtium (edible leaves and flowers) and wild strawberries.

For the larger trough she advises I think outside out of my box by making a structure for some crimson broad beans (which are nitrogen fixing) to clamber over.  These could be combined with chamomile, rocket, garlic chives and daffodil garlic (which also helps with pest control).  Pretty much everything on the plant list will be popular with pollinators. Hedvig also encourages me to start collecting rainwater, and suggests I forage for nettles and comfrey to use as green manures.

Urban permaculture is on the increase according to Hedvig, and she’s successfully used it to transform small snatches of concrete into patches of productive beauty.  As a design system, it’s all about creating spaces that have more than one function – this makes sense if outside space is at a premium, as it generally is in cities.

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