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Milk Crate Balcony Gardening / Liner Alternatives

 
Posts: 31
Location: Zone 5, Ontario, CA
10
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Hi there! I'm a newbie here and planning a design for my small (10x12') balcony garden in Toronto.

I'm still new to gardening but fell in love with permaculture this year. The garden last year was made without much rhyme or reason, we just planted whatever we got our hands on in various salvaged containers. Still noobs, we failed to spot the signs of fusarium wilt and our verdant jungle was soon withered and crispy by August. Combined with an ongoing squirrel war, we gave up at the end. Now I'd like to actually plan the design to make it a little nicer and worth saving should any issues arise.

This year, I'm hoping to use the space a little better, and have found someone selling milk crates on the cheap on kijiji. I have found a cool example
 of how to set one up, but was wondering if there are alternatives to landscape cloth for the liner. I sew, so I have some tulle already, but am not sure if that will be ideal. The fabric that they salvaged looks like this interfacing fabric which is what I was thinking of snagging as a last resort.

I also like the idea of having some little herbs growing out of the sides of a few as per this milk crate planter
 . Again, any suggestions for something that could replace the sphagnum moss?

Thanks all and happy planting!
 
gardener
Posts: 3215
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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How about window screen?
It's cheap and durable.

I'm not sure if there is any point to starting with a cross shaped piece of cloth.
It seems to me the 4 square pieces cut away would just be wasted anyway.
I would either cut out 5 squares and sew them all together into the square sack, or I would just cut a big square piece of fabric,center it over the milk crate, pile the soil mix in up to to top edge and trio off the excess.

However you do it,  be careful about them drying out.
There will be an extra large amount of surface area exposed to sun and wind.
 
pollinator
Posts: 116
Location: Western MA, zone 6b
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I've seen people do it with just cardboard,  which seems to last the season and then needs to be replaced.  But it's "green" and makes good compost after.
 
master gardener
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Location: Pacific Wet Coast
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Lots of questions here:

1. Even though the liner will be shaded by plants and the crate, you still want something which says it's UV resistant. I would hesitate to use interfacing sold for clothing for that reason - it is an artificial material that will add more micro-garbage to the environment when/if it falls apart. At least the proper landscape cloth is designed to last, although they aren't all created equal - thicker will last longer.
2. Sphagnum moss is not as bad as peat moss - they aren't exactly the same - but it is still hard to re-wet if it dries out, and growing on a balcony is a dry environment. One alternative is there are places you can buy sheets of "coir" which are more renewable and less difficult to re-wet. Or two, you could look at thrift shops for old cotton sheets that might only last a year, but they wouldn't hurt the environment when they did decompose.
3. The whole "drying" issue: A) if you put a shallow bowl in the bottom and water so that the water drips down into it, it will act as a bit of a reservoir. You don't want something so big/deep that you think things will get soggy and rot, but enough that the water doesn't just pour through.
B) If you can get 2 solid plastic tote bins that are larger than the crate, you can lift the crate into the "bin bathtub", let is sit for 15 min or so to soak up the water, then  lift it onto an empty crate in the second bin to let any excess water drain out. I recommend a watering system like this because depending on how your balcony is designed, any water that pours out of your crates, may land on the neighbor below's lawn chair - my sister had this problem as the "below neighbor" and found is just wasn't neighborly!
C) I have taken a page out of the Hugelculture idea and put some punky wood in the bottom to act as a biological sponge. The down side is that it may compete with annual plants for some nitrogen.
4. I *really* don't like the idea of using staples - if this is worth doing, it's worth doing right! I suspect the link showed them cut out as they may have done it in a way to conserve material and keep the space available for dirt as large as possible, but in that case I agree William, check that the dimensions are all the same and then sew them together. A sewing machine would be quick, but a talking book and needle and thread is great practice for when your favourite pants need to be mended! I would get some plastic clips to hold the liner into the crate long enough to fill it with soil. If the top edge tends to fall over in a way that bothers you during use, a few old chop-sticks or similar pushed in against it would likely support it vertically.

Personally, I've had no luck with little plants coming out of the sides of containers. It may be because I run things on the dry side to conserve water - with a good drip irrigation system it might be fine, but then, drip irrigation systems are a lot of plastic with a limited lifespan. I'll admit I'm biased as we have lots of minerals in our water, so that tends to clog things up at the best of times!

This looks like a cool project - easy to move, easy to lift up to a healthy back height when you need to work on a bin, easy to rotate so that different sides get a turn in the sun... I'm sure we could think of more pluses. The big plus will be to have some fresh herbs and veggies. Add a worm composter and you will have healthy soil to amend with as needed.

Good luck!
 
William Bronson
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Posts: 3215
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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An elegant solution to the watering issue would be an olla.
An olla is an unglazed  terracotta vessel designed to slowly release water into the soil it's buried in.
Do to the nature of the terracotta, the water is only released if the surrounding soil is relatively dry.

Real ollas are expensive but fortunately the internet has some nice instructions on how to build your own for cheap.


https://www.instructables.com/id/Make-Yourself-an-Olla-Oy-Uh/

 
Jay Angler
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Location: Pacific Wet Coast
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I've definitely made and used homemade ollas. My concern in such a small container is not displacing too much soil. I make my ollas with a single terracotta pot with something plugging the hole at the bottom and thrift shop plates as a lid. I want to be able to clean them out, and in our climate, we have to dry and store them in winter if we want them to last.
 
Hayley Stewart
Posts: 31
Location: Zone 5, Ontario, CA
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Hey everyone, thanks so much for the great ideas - you've given me so much to think about! For me, the major appeal of the milk crate garden was that it could be configured to use multiple height levels (plus let's be honest, I just think they look cool). Yesterday my partner and I did a clean up and inventory of our deck and we realized with a little re-jigging, we could greatly increase our growing space without having to go out and find a bunch of crates and liners - plus being on the second floor, dryness is definitely an issue. Also, considering that this is likely our second-last growing season at this apartment, we should make use of what we already have. We decided to take apart an old ikea outdoor metal shelf we had outside (with convenient drainage holes in the shelves) and break it into two shelves of differing heights so we can stagger them much in the same way we envisioned with the crates, and move it into the sunniest part of the deck.

Here are some photos. Please excuse the random junk - we had a few things to tidy up, plus the lid on our main storage bin popped off this winter and absolutely SOAKED a bunch of our gardening stuff... You can see from the chicken wire we have been battling the squirrels in very makeshift ways so far. We'll be building a cage this year.


The black box and bottomless chairs (former plant stands) will be going.


Don't worry - the bamboo is just a placeholder for its future trellis form. And it certainly won't be that high.


Look! There are still milk crates! That bowl is the future site for a bee bath.

Anyways, I know this has kind of devolved from my original post, BUT I do have some further questions now that I'll be going back to container gardening. Apologies if these aren't quite in the right spot anymore.

1. Since I want to reuse the pots from last season - can I reuse any of the soil? I've heard conflicting things on the internet - some say that you have to pitch the soil and sterilize pots every season but that feels like a waste. For anything that was hit with verticulum wilt, I plan to sterilize and pitch the soil. Since our weather was all over the place last year (spells of drought alternating with heavy rains) I think that all the containers could all benefit from some better drainage, a nice helping of compost and some coarser mulch material on top. I also plan to plant some nasturtiums, clover, and comfrey (if I can get it) to use as organic material to add throughout the season so I don't have to haul grass clippings up the stairs.

2. We've had two seasons of VERY aggressive ants taking over a plant of their choice. Two years ago it was a trumpet vine aphid farm, this past year they managed to saw down corn at its base and go nuts. I'm hoping that by planting a more diverse range of insectary plants I can get some more predators in. We've had plenty of birds come hang out in the window boxes or on the roof but I've never seen them come and snack in any containers.

Any other tips & thoughts are much appreciated.  Thanks!
 
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