Monday, March 14, 2011

Driven Up The Walls

Farming as it’s currently done - outside in the fields and with muck and tractors - is for numpties. Apparently. Yes indeed, it seems ye olde method is no longer plausible because of soil exhaustion, chemical contamination, weather disaster and population pressure. Instead think farming in high rise city blocks as the only viable way of making healthy clean food for the future.

So says Professor Dixon Despommier of Columbia University USA who is world renowned for his concept of the urban vertical farm - a high rise building of thirty floors or more with a footprint of five acres. His city situated behemoth of glass, steel, salads and chickens, would use aquaponics and aeroponics - processes of growing plants without soil. In order to feed a city like New York and you’d need 150 of these buildings to feed that city.

Despommier with some food he grew earlier in that tower behind him
And of course the architects absolutely love this stuff. Not surprising then that since Despommier came out with “The Vertical Farm” thesis in 1999, that every turtlenecked architechie in possession of a 2B propelling pencil -  has taken a bash at sketching out some sci fi vertical upright gardening structure or other -  whether a full blown vertical farm like Vincent Balle’s concept Dragonfly Farm building for New York or (at the lower end of the pecking order), a “living wall” tacked on to a regular municipal building or other.

Balle's Dragon Fly Farm for New York - I don't think this one will fly somehow
Recently they’ve even built a whole series of stand alone “living walls” in the poorest part of Los Angeles, designed produce fine upstanding tomatoes, onions, chillies and cucumbers - cut and come for the impoverished so to speak. Ye see apart from the commendable idealism, the problem with allowing architects and structural designers to tangle with gardening stuff is that they view plants as just another material or texture rather than individual living things with their own very particular needs.

For this reason, most of their living walls will fail - by producing stunted plants with diseases. Onions and carrots can’t grow in the same homogenous upended giant seed tray. Amateur food growers know what architects and designers of novelty wall mounted growing systems don’t - you can’t bung a bunch of onions, tomatoes and chillies into one great big tight knit vertical patchwork quilt and expect to walk back to perpendicular cornucopia.

A dead living wall in London's Islington
As it happens I’m out in my back garden now musing about the nutty upright growing device designs I’ve seen on the internet over the last few days. And I’ve just come up with my own - the lettuce gutter.

I’ve just taken delivery of a massive 16 foot by ten foot and eight foot high shed which has robbed me of about a third of my total garden growing space. There’s a big chunky rain gutter on the front side which takes all the rain water from the roof to the side of the shed, down a drainpipe to the side.

My brainstorm involves bunging up the hole to the downpipe, filling the gutter with soil and growing lettyce in it. If my roof gutter can grow weeds and small trees, then why can’t my shed gutter grow rocket and mustard? The rain would therefore trickle down to give the salad a drink. So hey presto let’s tell the architects!!

A lettuce gutter yesterday - looks like someone's beaten me to it!
But as I've said, hairbrained upright growing schemes like this one - alongside those peddled by bampot designers online -  generally don’t work. Otherwise the lettuce gutter would have been patented by now, we’d all be climbing ladders on summer weekends to pick salad and I’d be rich instead of working for the Sunday Times.

But with my greatly reduced backyard, I’m now facing the conundrum that many city dwellers face when trying to grow a bit of produce  -  a tight ground area and lots of upright vertical space crying out for an idea.

So this is what I’m actually going to do. 

First, tomatoes - the best crop ever for growing up (or down) walls. They don’t require a massive rootball and can be trimmed, trained, wired or strung in all directions - best of all - upwards. Next up strawberries. I have loads of strawberry plants sitting around in window boxes and buckets which are set to make their big  splash around May. 

These I plan to suspend in a hanging gro-bag formation from at least one wall of either the shed or the house. Strawberries flower, fruit and then get in the way for the rest of the year. So the removable gro-bags will allow me to shift them into the dark side passage once the fruit goes and they start firing out those annoying runners.

Next, the grapevine. I have one in the corner of the patio but unfortunately the tomatoes shade it out. This will henceforth be situated at the sunny corner of this new shed, and will be trained out along the shed gutter thus turning it into a far more practical and productive aid to the larder than filling it with lettuces.

They're grape for climbing - a vine scales a shed
I am aware of peas and beans as a viable upright option but peas yield very little for all their handsome growth and while beans bring more food, I can’t stomach them. If you're partial to beans they climb exceptionally well - some to eight or nine feet up.

Next will be two shed hugging cucumber plants. These won’t be allowed out of the greenhouse until May or they’ll die in the weather, but I do have two or three salvaged and still loving rose bush stumps and rootballs in plastic bags and these will also be trained on the shed for colour but also for support - for the cucumbers. Once fed properly and provided with something to climb cucumbers will quickly swarm up a (sunny) wall and are highly productive. We don’t eat a lot of cucumbers so there will only be two.

Finally - last but not least I’ll be planting a damson tree that’s been sat dormant in a bucket on the patio since I purchased it in the autumn. Although it’s a tree with root capacity to undermine my shed foundations, I’ll be confining it to a big container and then training it along a wall with wire - making its branches perpendicular to the trunk in a well tested style which will yield buckets of fruit.

Small fruit trees are perfect along walls - they can be grown as high as you want and then cut off top and trained outwards. Try the container viable Irish bred Coronet mini apple tree which stays at four or five feet or try to find a small pear strain. Always beware though of the capacity of tree roots to do damage to walls though.

An esplanaded pear tree against a wall
From the top down, hanging baskets or containers will also do well for strawberries and cherry tomatoes (try tumbling tom). Make sure there’s clay in the mix to retain moisture so you don’t end up having to water them twice a day. So there you have it, a few tips for growing food vertically which aren’t off the wall. Until you hear about my potato chimney pots that is..

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