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Permaculture in Pots

Don’t have enough space to grow an edible garden? Oh yes you do!

© Scott Hitchins 2014

Living in a rental property, having a small yard or balcony, or just wanting to keep things small at first, are all good reasons for gardening in a mix of containers and in-ground plantings and doing your best to pack as much as possible into what soil space you do have while utilising as much of the available sunlight as possible.  A mix of containers and in-ground plants can enable you to control root zones and pack in more edibles than you can imagine.

A garden in a box

Polystyrene fruit boxes are light, have good drainage, utilise space very well and can usually be obtained for free from your local greengrocer who is only to glad to get rid of them. Line with a couple of sheets of newspaper and fill with potting mix or compost. Plant heavily and keep really well fed & watered.

Containers: Just about anything that will hold soil and drain-off excess water can be used as a planter: Plastic containers, old boots, leaky wheelbarrows, empty olive oil tins and even plastic bags. Use a good quality potting mix or homemade compost or vermicast, get your plants in (seeds or seedlings), keep them well watered and give them a weekly liquid feed.

Plastic pots are fine but terracotta pots may need to be sealed with paint, Bondcrete or a specialised sealant.

Some plants for small spaces



Fruits and flowers


Non-hearting lettuce e.g. Cos.

Spinach & Silverbeet

Baby or round Carrots & beetroots

Cherry tomatoes.Climbing cucumber.

Bush beans & climbers, peas.


Eggplant & Capsicum



Bok Choy etc.  Kale



Oregano.  Rosemary



Chives & Spring onions












English gooseberries

Cape gooseberries

Tahitian Lime

Meyer Lemon


Grape vine


Many gardens have heavy clay soils that turn to sticky mud in wet weather and crack open when it is dry. Other gardens may be in sandy areas.  The solution to both of these (and to many other garden problems) is to get more organic matter into the soil.  This will hold in moisture, build soil structure and encourage life to take hold from the most microscopic levels up to the tallest trees.  In a small space, you may find it economical to dig in a few bags of compost or cheap potting mix, several handfuls of gypsum, any aged manures, dried lawn clippings and any other organic materials you can find. (In a larger scale garden, you may find it cheaper to work on one area at a time and work outwards as organic materials accumulate).

Once you have done this initial ground–breaking work, NEVER DIG OVER YOUR GARDEN BEDS AGAIN!  From here on, it’s just a matter of spreading all that yummy organic stuff over the ground and letting the roots, worms, insects and micro-organisms do the digging-in for you (a recent study has shown that invertebrates never suffer from back problems caused by digging).

Continuous digging interrupts the growth of a whole universe of beneficial bacteria, fungi and other stuff that helps soil development and interacts with the root zones of your plants.

Okay so our soil is underway so let’s plan out what we are going to plant and how much we can fit in…

Sun and shade

Sunshine is the key to edible gardening: You can change the soil, provide water as extra ‘rainfall’ and protect the site from frosts and drying winds, but you must get at last 4 hours of sunlight a day to compensate for all the bits which you keep picking of your edible plants.  Shade-loving plants such as the mints will produce with a bit less, but anything which you pick fruiting parts from will need the energy to renew itself.  North-ish facing gardens will get sun for the longest (8-10 hours in summer), but all directions will get some sun.  Given a choice, aim your garden to the North and then plant in layers to grab every last bit of sun and make it work hard for you.

Reflective surfaces, such as white-painted fences and walls are a good way to get some extra sunlight into those marginal spots.

Walls and other micro climates

Lack of gardening space driving you up the wall? Then drive your garden up the wall!  Espaliered fruit trees, vines on trellises, wall mounted pots and hanging baskets will all give you heaps of extra growing space within the same surface area.  Not only that, but a sunny brick wall as the backdrop for your garden will soak up the heat during the day, enabling you to grow semi-tropical fruits and other frost sensitive perennials. For an example go and see the bananas growing and fruiting at Maidstone Community Centre.Of course, if we can get warm microclimates, we can get cooler, shadier or frostier ones: These are the spots to plant semi-shade loving herbs and fruits such as Cape gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries and elderberries.

Permaculture drawing

The Seven Layers

To really pack it all into a small space, the Permaculture concept of there being seven layers in a forest can be used to make your little patch of ground into a real Food forest.  The diagram below is a useful tool to remind you of where you can squeeze in just one more plant (or ten!).


Image: Bill Mollison, Permaculture. A designers’ manual. Tagari Publishing