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Finding the Rhythm of Nature in the Heart of the City

Example of a ‘String Garden’

Nature grows spontaneously in the most unexpected places in city landscapes: in the cracks on streets and pavements, in between the supports of railings, in splits in the concrete structures that hold up road and railway bridges. We can draw inspiration from such scenes of our day-to-day lives, and from the hardy plants that grow in seemingly unforgiving environments of steel and concrete.

By Lucia de Nardi

We are all surrounded by surfaces (horizontal and vertical) that are potential gardens – even if we’re just talking about a terrace, a balcony or a window sill. If you live in a big city, your balcony is often the only private link you have with nature and the outdoors. It doesn’t matter if the space available to you is small and doesn’t remotely suggest a garden. Even small balconies can easily be transformed into a pleasant and sweet-smelling setting for nature’s story – you just need to be creative and ingenious!


Example of a ‘String Garden’

Example of a ‘String Garden’

The first step towards successfully realising a green terrace or balcony is to carefully calculate the weather conditions there – whether your balcony is exposed to the sun or in the shade; if it’s windy or damp, and so on. This is vital information in helping you choose plants that will thrive in your specific conditions.

One approach is to mix things up – strawberries with petunias, courgettes with geraniums, etc. – and create a kitchen/flower garden. It accentuates the obvious attractiveness of the flowers and leaves of certain combinations of fruits and vegetable, contrasting and complementing them with flowers. The perennials like artichokes and asparagus and the bulb vegetables like garlic and onions can also give an additional magical feel to your kitchen/flower garden with their decorative and eye-catching flowers.

Growing a mini market garden on your balcony is more than just a fashion statement; it is fast becoming a simple solution our wish to eat and grow natural and untreated food. And add to that, you get that great feeling of satisfaction, when you taste the fresh fruit and vegetables you’ve just picked and it’s nothing like anything you could ever get from the food you buy in supermarkets and shops.

When choosing growing containers, the rule is basically to just go with your imagination! The only thing your container MUST have is a hole in the bottom for the excess water to drain off after watering. If you can get hold of those wooden trays they use to sell fruit in, all you need to do is to line them with a piece of material (either natural or artificial is fine – like wire mesh screen, moss, or even a plastic bag with holes cut in for drainage) to hold the earth. You could also possibly use those large cans they sell tinned tomatoes in, and thereby do your bit for clever recycling.

You can also buy an OrtoUrbano (City Kitchen Garden) box, available on the Internet, that is especially designed for use on even the smallest of terraces. It’s the brainchild of the OrtiUrbani (City Kitchen Gardens) project, that started in Barcelona in 2003. The project’s aim is to encourage more people to grow their own vegetables and fruit in cities. The OrtoUrbano is basically a rectangular container resting on four legs with casters (so very easy to move around). It’s made of galvanised steel that is all weather-resistant. Visit OrtiUrbani (City Kitchen Gardens) for more information or to order your own.

Once you’re prepared your container, fill it with a good quality potting compost. Don’t take earth from anywhere outside as it contains very few nutrients and is not porous enough. Plant your seeds, and let nature take its course.

But what, you ask, if my plants are attacked by insects? Unfortunately, to get really clean and healthy produce, you can’t, of course, use harmful pesticides. Since you don’t want to give the fruits of your labours to the bugs, you must get rid of them organically. Ladybird beetles and their larvae are tireless predators of aphids, those so-called “headlice of plants” that can easily infest everything, especially your lettuces.

Your garden on the horizontal can easily be reconfigured on the vertical, if you want to squeeze the maximum out of every square metre. You can create a wall of green, a vertical garden that rests on a supporting modular structure, which is very light and based on the principles of hydroponics. This system, as well as having undeniable aesthetic qualities, presents several considerable advantages, first and foremost being its energy-saving value. In the summer, the outer walls of buildings overheat, raising the inside temperature. Consequently you tend to use more air-conditioning, triggering higher and costlier energy consumption. The presence of your green wall significantly reduces the heat of the outer walls, bringing indoor ambient temperatures down potentially as low as 15 degrees C.

As the basic theory of these vertical gardens is simplicity itself, why not have a go at setting one up? Let’s pinch an idea from Fern Richardson, a US gardening expert, who has devised one for a balcony using for her supporting framework a wooden pallet – a packing unit used for transporting any kind of material or produce. These can often be found thrown away outside supermarkets, etc. You will need two bags of potting compost, about sixteen or so flowering annuals, a roll of fabric, a staple gun and sand paper.

After you’ve sanded down the wood, staple enough fabric to cover the back and underside of the pallet. Lay the pallet down on the covered side and then fill it with the potting compost. Once you’ve done that, all you have to do is plant your seedlings in the gaps left by the slats of the pallet. Richardson suggests you leave the pallet flat for a time while the plants take root. Then you can turn it on its side and stand it up against a wall. And there you have it, the result is really very pleasing indeed. More detailed instructions can be found on Richardson’s website, How to turn a pallet into a garden

Another very efficient and practical solution that doesn’t involve a huge amount of work is to reuse an old shoe storage unit with pockets, hang it from some hooks and then fill the pockets with compost and then plant your plants! Of course, remember to put in a little hole in the pockets to let the water drain out.

An Italian company from Brescia, COAR, has come up with “WALL UP”, a modular system for growing flowers. It has a basic aluminium structure which is attached to the wall, and to which you can add more sections as desired. Visit Wall Up and have a look.

The modular system allows your green wall to follow the contours of your space and can even be adapted to curved surfaces. One of its interesting advantages is you can efficiently water and fertilise individual plants, maintaining uniform water levels and avoiding dehydrated areas at the top and excessive moisture at the bottom. This circular flow guarantees good recycling of water with very little environmental damage; the fertiliser-enriched water thus ensures the vital elements are in place for the proper growth and survival of your plants.

Of course, these are all small-space ideas. But if you want vertical gardening writ large, you can have that too. You can create a so-called “Eat-House”, a whole house you can eat! The idea originated in the Netherlands and is a prototype for houses that can produce all the fruit and vegetables its occupants need. It was devised by three Dutch architects, Marijke Bruinsman, Marjan van Capelle and Arjen de Groof, who unveiled it at the Garden Festival of Appeltern in 2010.

The house is clad in a steel structure, completely fitted out with wooden trays, filled with potting compost where vegetables and fruit like strawberries, blackberries and raspberries can be cultivated. The roof and the walls are literally covered with vegetation and it looks like some corner of a wood all in flower. This “tray-garden” lasts all through the summer. When the plants have matured and have been harvested, the trays are removed and the steel structure is dismantled. At the moment it’s only in prototype but with some slight modifications, it could easily become a permanent dwelling place capable of mirroring the changing seasons.

If going whole-house is not your style, you can still have an outside garden inside by opting for a plant that is extraordinary in its amazing adaptability. It’s called Tillandsia, an airborne species that has no conventional roots and so uses its leaves for that function, surviving by extracting from the air and moisture all the nutrients it needs. It grows into shapes and forms that are very beautiful and elaborate. All you need is a bit of inventiveness to create some imaginative designs. Play at being a landscape artist in your own home! Plus there is the undoubted advantage of improving the micro-environment you live in.

Or let yourself be inspired by the fantastical world of String Gardens, invented by Dutch artist Fedor van der Valk, and create an imaginative garden hanging in mid-air in your house or on your terrace. For this very unique way of arranging plants, Van der Valk drew his inspiration from Japanese art. The plants, instead of sitting in pots, are contained within a ball of moss, soil and grass. The ball in turn is held in place by a strong nylon webbing. The web is suspended from the ceiling by long strings. They can be watered in the air by nebuliser sprays, or taken down and soaked in a bucket, drained, and re-hung. You can grow anything from annual bulbs to small fruit trees with this method. It really is a powerful and thought-provoking concept: on the one hand, you feel you’re looking at something ethereal and impalpable, and on the other you feel an almost child-like wonder at seeing something so unusual and fascinating – a handful of plants floating in space. The power of art is indeed its ability to subvert the norms and make us change the way we look at things.

A green surface in the city, either on the horizontal or the vertical, contributes to reducing the pockets of concentrated heat that cities produce, where most of solar energy is radiated back out as heat. Green surfaces only reflect back 20% of solar energy whereas 80% is absorbed through photosynthesis. Studies show that 150 square metres of greenery has the ability, via this process, to producing the amount of oxygen necessary to sustain a full-grown adult human. Plants not only increase oxygen levels, they also improve air quality by reducing smog as they absorb suspended dust particles.

A wide-ranging approach to greening urban spaces can improve living conditions in many urban environments. This is true from a health perspective (both public and personal) but also quite decisively from an aesthetic perspective. Green spaces found in surprising nooks and crannies throughout our heavily designed and sometimes aggressively linear urban environments can have the effect of softening the sharp edges, and bringing a feeling of relief from the intense pace and overwhelming scale. Green spaces scattered throughout an urban setting bring us back to the natural and the human.

So let our kitchen/flower gardens fill with unalloyed joy the terraces and balconies of our great cities! These corners of nature will help us rediscover the ancient rhythms of life and reconnect us with the stages our food goes through before it finally lands on our tables.

Translated by Philip Rham


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