"As demand far outstrips supply for allotments, Permaculture in Pots shows you how to get started with whatever space you have available – appealing to those who feel powerless to meet their own subsistence needs through lack of growing space."
I was far more impressed with this book than I expected to be. It's fun to read, it's beautifully presented, and it's both a perfect introduction to permaculture for people who want to grow in pots, and a perfect introduction to gardening for people who have already been introduced to permaculture but don't have their own plot of land to dig into.
The structure of the book is interesting, but it works really well.
The introduction is long, and is an essential part of the book.
In Juliet's own words...
the introduction will cover the basics for getting started: planning your space with reference to permaculture principles; how to maximise your space; and the practicalities (like water, pots, and compost) that you’ll need to think about
...and it does so wonderfully.
It introduces permaculture thinking and applies it directly. It considers the advantages and problems of urban container gardening, how to apply principles when planning your own space, the concept of zones and flows of sun, shade, wind, frost and people, and how to use them to your advantage. Then it goes on to look at polyculture, diversity, perennial plants, multi-dimensional design and planning to maximise your space.
The section on 'things to obtain' made me smile. I've never lived in a city, but it's obvious that Juliet is well familiar with how to tap into the local resources! Of course, it's always possible to just pop along to your local gardening centre and buy everything you need, but it's so much more fun, and in line with permaculture thinking, to find alternatives. She provides some great ideas for sourcing containers, comes up with several alternatives for getting hold of enough compost, has a look at water supply, tells you what tools you're going to need (and it's really not that many) and then has a look at the alternatives available for transporting your stuff around. An aspect which, I admit, had never occurred to me.
And just before we're ready to get our hands dirty, we have a quick lesson about temperature zones, hemispheres, climate and hardiness to make sure we allow for the fact that not everyone lives in London!
The second part of the book is the one I love best. It's like having on-the-job training rather than filling your head up with too much theory. I especially liked the ring of coffee-stain on the first main page of text in November. To me it says "I'm here to help you and be at your side while you're doing stuff. Don't leave me on the coffee-table, I'm here be used!"
This section is split into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year. It starts with November, which is the quietest month for so many of us and represents a natural break in the cycle. Of course, in the real world we start our gardens whenever we can, and this wonderfully designed book allows you to dive straight in and start whatever time of year it is by selecting the appropriate month. Each month starts with a look around the author's balcony to see what'plants are growing and what she's up to, followed by a list of things that need doing.
For instance, in February she has rosemary, thyme, bay, oregano, chives, and parsley in the cold-frame. She also has sorrel, bronze arrowhead lettuce, and rocket growing for salads, and her pak choi is starting to perk up after the worst of the winter. She has some small broad bean and pea plants, two mint plants that are doing well, but there are no seeds or cuttings at the moment. She then gives a three point bullet list of the most important things to do this month, ie to start the broad beans and peas, to sow the first lettuce and rocket inside, and to make the self-watering containers.
Having set the scene, the rest of the chapter fills you in on the background knowledge you need to really understand what you are doing, and the know-how to get the job done.
The section on Sowing Time and Succession Sowing helps you understand the factors that effect the growth rate of your plants and how to time things so that you have a continuous supply of food.
The Early Vegetables section discusses which vegetables are suitable to start now.
A discussion on the importance of knowing your Frost Dates follows, and teaches you how to work with yours when you've found it.
Then a section all about the practicalities of Starting seeds, so you get to feel like you're really gardening!
In preparation for later in the year, she teaches you all about self-watering pots, and then provides a double-page spread giving full instructions for making two different types out of either free or very cheap materials.
Each monthly section is brought to a close with a page or two of illustrated notes about the herb of the month. For February, it's parsley. There's an introduction followed by short sections on growing, culinary uses and medicinal uses, in just the right size bites to give you a real feel for the herb without overloading you.
By the time you've worked through all the monthly chapters, you'll have a good knowledge of twelve wonderful herbs, loads of hands-on experience, and a good understanding of how to revitalise your old compost , of whether you want hybrid or heirloom seeds, of seedsaving, wormeries, leafmould, cold frames, protecting plants from the cold, foraging, timing things so you can have a home-grown Christmas dinner, taking cuttings, planning, growing fruit, gathering stuff to make your compost fertile, micro and macro greens, pests, guerilla gardening, overwintering herbs. In fact, everything you need to know to grow a successful, year round garden of any size, anywhere.
The final section of the book is where Juliet brings everything into a wider perspective, making you take your head out the pots on your balcony to see the wider world and begin to understand how you fit into it. The 'zones 4 and 5 of the urban jungle' if you like. Even in cities there are green spaces that provide opportunities for foraging for free food and the book will introduce you to some of the most likely candidates, such as quince, blackberry, sweet chestnut and chickweed. And then there are other forms of foraging within cities, such as skips, freecycle and charity shops. Finally, she encourages you to reach out to the wider community and get involved with guerilla gardening, community gardens, nature reserves, city farms and transition towns
But I think the best thing about this book is that, even though it is so completely enabling for anyone living in a city, it doesn't stop there. The skills you learn planning your balcony, choosing plants and intercepting flows of water and materials are exactly the same ones needed to plan a much larger garden if ever you expand your horizons to a larger space. But if you're happy where you are, this book will help you to make the best of the space you have, the resources around you, and to find fulfillment and joy wherever you call home
This is what I call an inspiration book - it gives you a general overview of the topic, some 'recipes' and some ideas on how to get started. There is not a lot of depth to this book, but there needn't be. The idea seems to be to get people started and to inspire them to learn by doing.
This is the book for those who would love to apply permaculture principles to their life, but don't have their very own plot of land. Kemp tells us that permaculture "focuses on creating a sustainable, self-reliant system and a sustainable human environment." We can achieve this, Kemp tells us, by working with the space we have, be it a windowsill, balcony, or anywhere else we can fit a few potted plants.
Where this book really differs from your usual potted vegetable gardening book is that it includes a lot of sustainable ideas - like composting of course, harvesting rainwater, and growing plants for a seed harvest as well as tasty food crops.
The book is organized by month, and shows what the author's garden looks like and what sort of tasks she does with her potted plants each month. This is accompanied by some charming pictures.
I knocked off an acorn because I really don't like the month system at all. I find it very limiting, especially for the beginner gardener. A lot of people I've seen learning to garden, want to know exactly what to do when, but if they followed this book in our clime, then there garden would be pretty miserable. Even though the author is writing in a similar zone to ours, there is a lot of little differences that gardener has to adjust for. Personally I would rather see a book focusing on how to observe natural phenomena to tell when to start a gardening task. Some of these activities we do two or three months earlier/later than suggested in this book. Month by month schedule for gardening like this, makes it very hard for me to keep my friend's new enthusiasm for gardening on their balcony going, as they follow when the book says to do something and it fail miserably. Maybe instead, it could be divided up by 3 month sections, instead of month to month.
An index would greatly improve the usability of this book. Also, many pages don't have page numbers, so when trying to find the page that the table of contents tells us, I go for ages before I can discover what page I'm at.
On the whole, some good tips for beginner gardening and experienced alike, but better suited as an inspiration book.