Permaculture in Small Spaces

Next Saturday I will be presenting “Gardening in small spaces“, a workshop at the UBC-Farm to explore the possibilities of growing food in the city when you live in a condo, townhouse or other arrangements that may not allow you to grow too much.

This workshop is an ongoing offer to the communities and individuals who want to regain their control over the food they eat and enjoy a healthier eating. It will also be presented at the THESA Conference on October 21 to teachers of high school so they can reproduce it to their students.

I dedicate this to my mother, siblings and cousins in Argentina, my friends and partner’s family in Venezuela and all the people in the world who may not have the privilege to access healthy and sustainable food as we do here in North America.


Permaculture is a tool to become empowered as individuals, households and communities. This guide (which I usually share with the attendees to my “Growing food in the city/Growing food in small spaces” workshops) may help anyone anywhere in the world and no matter their economic or social circumstances to start growing more food for themselves, their families and friends and their communities.

We are what we eat and food is the main and best tool we have to regain control over ourselves and shape the world as a peaceful and enjoyable place.

Permaculture Ethics:


Our food decisions and what, how, where, from whom and when we decide to get our food matter; here is how:

  • Earth Care: it is our ultimate home, source of all we need and where all our “waste” products end up. For everything we do, buy, use, consume and dispose of we may ask how that action affects our planet and its many essential ecosystems and beings.
  • Growing food in small spaces takes care of the Earth because it gives us the opportunity to take some pressure off the overused and many times abused lands and ecosystems affected by industrial farming practices and food manufacturing and transportation.
  • It gives us the chance to reuse and repurpose materials and “waste”.
  • By growing food locally using permaculture principles, we regenerate and may even create ecosystems and microclimates that provide food, water and habitat for other beings such as plants, insects, microorganisms and fungi.
  • If we grow perennials in the form of fruit trees, edible shrubs and most herbs, we help the carbon sequestration process.
  • People Care: we are all interdependent and what we do to others, we do to ourselves. Asking ourselves how what we buy, eat and waste affects others both locally and far away we acknowledge and become aware of how people all over the world may be affected by hunger, overwork, underpayment and oppression/abuse by corporations and the wealthy taking their lands to produce food for us.
    • By growing food at home and/or locally in community gardens and other people’s backyards we provide an example for social justice and educate others with our example.
    • When we grow our own vegetables, fruits and mushrooms we build our own self-reliance and resilience skills, which can be shared with family, friends and the community.
    • When we grow our own, we understand the importance of local and seasonal and the problem of food waste.
    • Collectively taking the pressure of Big Ag, we provide the chance for peoples around the world to take back their lands and the right to grow and keep their own food, reducing hunger and oppression worldwide.
    • When we grow our own, we know what’s in the soil, the water and the plants: we take care of our own health and that of family and friends.
    • When we grow our own, we want to preserve, prepare in delicious ways and share: this all increase community resilience and wellbeing.
  • Return the surplus to Earth and People/Fair Share or Care for the Future: we are here thanks to the actions of millions of beings before us. We share this planet with many now and the wellbeing and even survival of future generations of human beings and other species depend on the actions we do today. We are not here to take it all or pollute it all:
    • When we grow food ourselves, we learn to preserve the harvest and share the surplus with others.
    • We also learn to share with other beings: we not only create an environment for “our” food but for all the beneficial insects and microorganisms without whom our food would not be able to exist.
    • By growing our own, we create an immense opportunity to show and teach younger generations as well as incorporate older generations in the process: growing food may not need to be an isolated process!

Permaculture Principles

Using some or all the Permaculture principles, we can design and enjoy a better small-space food garden:


  1. Observe & Interact: the first step in any design process! We want to know what’s in there in the first place:
    1. Where do we have space to grow? Small backyard? Community Garden plot? A friend or neighbour’s backyard? A small balcony at home? A windowpane in our apartment? A Counter in the kitchen or bathroom with no much sun coming in?
    2. Where is the sun coming from and for how long it stays there during the seasons? How does it work against walls and other barriers?
    3. Is there any wind circulating? how strong and from where? Is it interacting with any existent structure?
    4. What is our source of water? How safe is it and where is located? Is it reliable and steady? Is water coming from rain and if that is the case, is the rain direct or indirect, can water be harvested or redirected? Is there flooding or potential damage to plants due to hard rain, snow or hail?
    5. What is the average temperature (microclimate) in that space and how changes during the day and the seasons? Is it too hot, dry, humid, cold, etc.?
    6. What other flows of energy are present? (Examples: smog from cars, electrical outlets close by; people or animals using the space, noise, view to or from neighbours or passersby? What about insects or tendency to grow mold, wall paint, etc.?
    7. When observing and interacting, take audit of what you already have: tools, materials, supplies, etc.
    8. Where you currently get your food from and what foods you eat more often
    9. Your and your family’s needs not only around food but also around space, time and use of resources and try to start envisioning how this may affect you all
  2. Catch and Store energy:
    1. Once you start, you’ll likely have surplus of at least one species: start planning ahead how you will preserve the food and whether you’ll need extra equipment, help or space
    2. When planning the design, plan ahead how to catch and store water, sun, kitchen waste and general household “waste” such as greywater, paper, containers, coffee grounds, etc.
  3. Obtain a yield:
    1. This is obviously one of the main reasons (but not the only one) we grow food! One way to maximize yield is to choose food we plan to eat and plants that yield not only food for us as fruits or leaves or roots but may have multiple yields (Examples: you can eat not only the root but also the leaves and the pea pods from radishes; you can eat both leaves and roots from beets; etc.); choose also plants that yield more than food for humans: they may create beauty (for everyone’s eyes), an habitat for insects, frogs and microorganisms, food and entertainment for animals and insects, etc.
    2. Other yields from growing food may include: sharing skills with others, exchanging food and tips, etc.
  4. Apply self-regulation and respond to feedback:
    1. When we grow our own food we become closer to the life cycle and the interconnectedness of us all. This allows us to understand self-regulation in a different way: we understand better where food comes from and what it takes for it to grow healthy, so we tend to eat less processed food and produce less food waste.
    2. We also apply self-regulation when we understand our limits and the need to leave enough for others, including those no yet born.
    3. The feedback comes from many places: from our ancestors we receive both the skills and gratitude for them leaving resources for us to thrive as well as the feedback from ecosystems and the land, that show us that we need to repair any wrong doing by re-generating and giving back instead of just taking.
    4. The immediate feedback we also get is the practical learning that happens when we “fail”: every “mistake” teaches something about our garden, our plants and our skills and allows us to make necessary changes and respond adequately if we know how to see, hear, taste, smell and feel.
  5. Use renewable resources:
    1. We try our best to use local and seasonal resources instead of buying and shipping things from far away.
    2. We also try our best to use resources and materials that will regenerate the environment when their time comes, instead of something that will pollute or produce harm.
    3. Resources are also used in such a way that they go full cycle: plant waste and kitchen scraps can be easily processed back to the soil if we use some type of composting system: a bin with worms works well in small spaces and inside apartments and townhouses same as Bokashi composting. Those with more space may use a composting tumbler. Soil can be reused if worked out for structure and fertilization, water from sinks and bathtubs can be collected to water the plants (if we use truly biodegradable products) and rain water can be harvested, etc.
  6. Produce no waste:
    1. Use things you have around the house as containers: repurpose old pots and food containers, use newspapers to layer the bottom and kitchen scraps to create “fertilizer”.
    2. Save the seeds of your plants: you can plant an extra crop and allow it to go to seed or you may still harvest some but keep one fruit for seed saving.
    3. Learn about the different uses in different plants: many ignore that beets’ greens are also edible, that radishes’ leaves and pea pods are edible or that many beautiful garden flowers (and sometimes also their leaves) are not only great companion plants but also edible! (that’s the case of Nasturtiums, Borage, Comfrey, Marigolds, Begonias, Calendulas, Camomille, Chives, Cloves, Chrysanthemums, Cilantro and Basil flowers, Cornflower, Dandelions, Day Lilies, Fennel, Hollyhock and Squash flowers just to name a few…
  7. Design from patterns to details:
    1. As much as possible, look at the patterns from nature as well as the existent patterns happening in the area where you want to garden: we use multi-crops or companion gardening and succession to maximize space and extend the production period as nature does…we use stacking of function and different layers to create shade, protect smaller plants or provide support for a climber.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate:
    1. In order to avoid plant competition, we integrate different plants that may cooperate with each other by providing protection, support or even flavour. We group plants with similar needs for water, sun and fertilizer/type of soil.
  9. Use small and slow solutions:
    1. Permaculture design looks into the long term and avoids quick fixes that may create more problems that what they solve: you may pick slugs by hand, may have to wait for the worms to produce enough castings or may need to plant perennial crops that will not produce a yield until a few years from now.
    2. Whenever you introduce a change, study the potential consequences and think about as many relationships and functions you can see and imagine: in Permaculture systems all is integrated, so when you move a plant, it will affect others and you may have to wait long to see the results of the application of EM (effective microorganisms), compost tea or a new Bokashi batch.
  10. Use and value diversity:
    1. Try different varieties and see what happens. Diversity is nature’s way to build resilience as if one variety does not do well, another may. Diversity also allows you to try new tastes.
  11. Use the edges:
    1. Permaculture tries to use as space creatively and following nature: there is nothing square or super “clean” in nature and it is in the edges (the merging of two ecosystems, for example) where we find more diversity and opportunity for evolution and change (all revolutions start in the edges)
    2. Using the edges may mean growing microgreens and sprouting seeds during the cold seasons as you may not have enough warmth or sun for growing crops.
  1. Creatively use and respond to change:
    1. Another way to see this principle is as “in the problem is the solution”. All problems are solutions to something, or someone else. If you have a pest infestation, see what it may be telling you about the health of your soil, the arrangement of plants, the amount and frequency of watering and so forth instead of trying to “fix” the problem as an isolated issue.
    2. Other changes may be created by interactions with others: neighbours of friends and family and how they react to the food you grow. Or may be created by a changing climate, a change in city bylaws or even a change in the neighbourhood such as a new building producing pollution and shade…how can you respond to these and similar things in a creative way?

Other factors:



Zones refer to the planning of things in relationship to both how much and how frequently we use/need them and/or they may need our care:

  • Zone 00: delicate crops that require daily care or that you like to eat daily would be closer or even inside your kitchen or balcony.
  • Zone 01: plants or foods that require a lot from your care and/or you eat frequently and need to be in your balcony, yard or porch. This would be the case for wormfarms, small greenhouses and kitchen gardens
  • Zone 02: perennials and other foods that still require your care and/or you use regularly but can be grown in a friend or neighbour’s backyard or further away in your yard if you have a big one. This may be the case for fruit trees and where to locate composting bings, bee hives and chickens (if you have animals)
  • Zone 03, 04 and 05: In small-scale gardening these zones apply to the food you buy from local farmers and at farmers markets (zone 03); the food you may glean from farms or isolated fruit trees (zone 04) and the food you may forage from wild areas (zone 5)

Helping factors:

Permaculture ask us to do what we can with what we have and where we are: look around and look with the heart and see list all the things (tangible or not) you already have:

  • Libraries with books and DVDs about organic gardening, permaculture, companion planting, small scale and city food production, food preservation, home-made pantry staples, etc.
  • Family, friends, coworkers or business owners with skills on growing/preserving/preparing food and eager to share them with you.
  • Aging or disabled neighbours with big backyards and willing to share them with you in exchange for some percentage of the production and your ongoing company.
  • Families or individuals eager to grow food collectively and who may support you in creating a community garden.
  • Organizations and businesses willing to open their doors for you to use their spaces to grow and share food with others.
  • Abandoned or unused land that may be growing weeds and crime and would be perfect to engage multi-generational neighbours
  • What else you can see?…

Limiting factors:

What may be limiting you and what do you need to creatively respond to them?

  • City of strata/complex bylaws that don’t allow growing food.
  • Grumpy neighbours that don’t want to see anything but flowers.
  • Lack of a reliable source for water, soil, etc.
  • Lack of access to seeds, tools, soil, fertilizers, containers…
  • Lack of time to water the plants (really?)
  • Pets and other animals that mess or eat the food.
  • Others?

If you want to learn more about Permaculture design, not only for growing food but for other topics including but not limited to:

  • Design your livelihood (making a living by making a difference through multiple income streams/multiple positive impact in social justice, environment, local resilience, etc.)
  • Holistic goal setting an follow up.
  • Design your energy descent action plan (living simply so others can live)
  • Design your homestead for resilience and self-reliance.
  • Design your garden.
  • Design for Disasters (Disaster planning or emergency preparedness)

Contact me at:

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