Kate's apartment in South Yarra
Gardening high up in the sky, Kate channels her inner bird persona taking in majestic soaring city views and creating a bit of a country oasis on the ninth floor of her South Yarra apartment building with a whopping 17sqm2 of balcony space full of edibles, herbs, potted citrus and olives and nectar-rich flowers. Kate says there is a limit to what she and her partner Steve can grow on a balcony but considering the summer months produce over fifty per cent of their plant-based diet her relaxed green thumbed approach certainly pays off. Having grown up on a rural property with a productive orchard she is keenly aware of eating and growing what’s in season but is also attuned to what our bodies need such as winter carbohydrate crops and in summer, leafy greens and easy-to-grow tomatoes varieties such as sweet cherry ones that she harvests daily although Kate’s go-to tomato heirloom variety is the late fruiting Black Russian which in her opinion is the most divine tomatoes you’ll ever eat your life.
I can’t imagine not loving gardening, it’s a wonderful therapeutic thing to do and with garden beds wrapped around the balcony on the northly and easterly aspects and composting and garden tools hidden from view on the southerly side, everything is within a hand’s reach. In just a couple of hours and I’ve pruned, mulched, and harvested. However, this balcony garden isn’t just an oasis for food production, but also for artistic expression as Kate finds it is a wonderful place to sketch. She runs travel sketching tours abroad and whilst her art predominately focuses on urban and landscapes; Kate is inspired by the sensory nature of her culinary plants such as oregano, bay, thyme, lavender evoking memories of European travels. The joy of going onto the balcony and seeing the birds lots of beautiful lorikeets, kookaburras it’s like being on a mini farm and appreciating all the fecundity of everything coming to life in the warmer months.
Through Council’s My Smart Garden program, Kate has learned which vegetables are more durable and how to carefully manage pests. With all that abundant growth also comes pests, so without fail, Kate sets her alarm for 7.30 in the evening when it’s raining and does a manual snail chase. I got 78 one day but it’s been the most effective way to keep snail damage down. Pests are the biggest challenge when you grow organic vegetables, but I just don’t want to use sprays. By sharing knowledge and experiences with other gardeners, Kate has managed to grow a productive and beautiful garden that her friends admire, but really, she just pops things in and nature’s done the rest.
Kate has intermixed her thriving productive garden in permanent balcony beds with hardy pelargoniums at the back to create height and in the foreground cascading convolvulus. The middle area is dedicated to lots of edibles such as broccoli, silver beet, rhubarb, kale and herbs. She has found that best harvests are vegetables grown in the Vegepod wicking bed and her own DIY version by attending a My Smart Gardens workshop to make a wicking bed system using salvaged materials: a repurposed plastic tub and piece of downpipe. Kate has embraced this wicking bed style of productive gardening which maximises efficient watering and prevents evaporative losses which is crucial for balcony gardens. She also utilises shade cloth to keep pests such as the Cabbage White Butterfly out but allow beneficial insects like ladybirds in. Keeping plants alive in pots over summer can be hard work especially when positioned in a sunny concrete courtyard. Water evaporates quickly and pot plants may need to be watered more than once a day. Kate has cleverly built-in garden beds lined with geotextile fabric which have an automatic watering system, but it’s the wicking beds’ capillary action to keep soil at the root zone constantly moist by drawing water up from a reservoir at the base of the pot that enables the most productive harvests. It’s like giving your veggie plants a glass of water whenever they’re thirsty, and Kate’s homemade wicking tubs with plastic down pipe ensures edibles don’t dry out.
Kate can harvest all year round with a lot of leafy greens as well as broad beans, brassicas and bok choy in cooler months. Kate ruefully laughs that whilst she can’t grow everything on mass, seasonally everything comes at once and then there’s so much cauliflower to be harvested all at once, so you must be creative with utilising your bountiful harvest with recipes such as cauliflower rice. She’s also incredibly knowledgeable of organic food principles and even ferments her own harvested cabbages. Kate believes sauerkraut must be one of the best medicines from the garden to eat and our diet and gut biome is so important for our health.
The summer heat Its unbelievable but one of the best things we’ve every planted is an ornamental grapevine which acts as a canopy of much needed shade for outdoor dining area and gives us this beautiful place to sit creating all the shade that we no longer use our external blinds. In autumn it goes deep red and violet to orange and becomes Kate’s invaluable carbon source for her two-door composting tumbler. I turn it every morning with all my food scraps in it. I’ve also got piles of leaves stored and with an ingenious use of filling a large ornamental urn becomes leaf mould for her composting system.
Kate has managed to grow a productive and beautiful garden that provides fresh food for Kate’s cooking, but important habitat, food and shelter for birds, bees, and butterflies.