Those of you who follow the Million Gardens Movement, likely know that its co-founder and publisher of mothership Modern Farmer magazine, Frank Giustra, is a recent convert to urban permaculture.

An inspired Frank Giustra heading home with homegrown goodies after visiting my urban permaculture garden.

Convert may not be the best word, because Frank didn’t switch from conventional gardening to permaculture gardening, rather he just dove straight into studying permaculture after learning of its all-natural virtues. He is nothing if not a quick study, and he immediately saw how urban permaculture could amplify the efforts of home gardeners, and of the Movement.

Urban Permaculture, and Urban Permaculture Design are emerging vocations within the broader disciplines of Permaculture.  Permaculture, as conceived in 1978 by Australian environmental academics Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, is a set of design principles centred on whole systems thinking, simulating, or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. It uses these principles in a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community resilience.

Frank wrote about his ‘aha’ moment in a Modern Farmer Magazine article last fall, after visiting my small urban permaculture garden. Shortly thereafter, he returned with a crew to capture short urban permaculture stories on video. His favourite segments featured typical garden elements that had been hyper-charged by applying one or more of the 12 overarching principles of permaculture. You can learn more about those principles here.

Permaculture Ethics and Principles adapted slightly from the originals published by David Holmgren

After one very long day of filming and seeing first-hand how urban permaculture changed my family’s life for the better, Frank was determined to adapt his favourite elements of my English Country style urban permaculture garden, to his own more classically elegant garden, but do so in a way that demonstrated to the Movement, that urban permaculture is as adaptable and resilient as it is functional.

Walking the site with Frank at the design stage, considering our options. A dramatic before and after.

Needless to say, I was up for the design challenge, and just last week, we completed three very different installations on Frank’s property, the most significant of which represents a tribute to his late father Guiseppe (Joe).

The tribute garden was the primary project, intended to build on the best features of my covered tomato garden, which is a section of south-facing stone patio, covered by a high glass roof, and utilizing the thermal mass heat of raised beds and the building that flanks it.

On Frank’s property, a south-facing patch of garden with low, in-ground beds, flanking a heated storage building, was the chosen site. Joe Giustra had grown Romano beans and rapini in that sunny spot for several years, and it seemed ideally suited for a hyper-charged tomato garden.

Early morning view of Joe’s Garden, where Frank now embraces the family tradition of growing food organically.
Early morning, before the reflected and captured heat of the day turns the garden into a hothouse.

‘Joe’s Garden’ turned out beautifully, and incorporates several permaculture features and principles, namely:

  • harvests and stores rainwater
  • catches and stores solar energy
  • incorporates a rain garden
  • incorporates in-situ vermiculture (worm composting)
  • wastes nothing
  • features diverse plantings
  • incorporates natural mulches
  • provides pollinator habitat
  • features companion planting
  • utilizes recycled materials
  • produces a yield: 12 month harvests
  • built with all-natural, non-toxic materials
  • utilizes no-dig principles
  • provides native bee housing and habitat
By tying twine on the trellis lines, level with tomato tops, we can monitor hot and cool growth spots along the rows.

From late spring thru early winter, the new garden area will remain open to the elements on three sides, allowing for excellent air circulation, and also for beautiful views from inside and outside. The tempered glass roof panels keep coastal rain off of the leaves of the tomatoes, and trap accumulated solar energy in and around the tomatoes, accelerating their growth, and extending their growing season. My tomato garden provides fruit straight through to November, well past the first frost. We anticipate that Frank’s new tomato garden will outperform mine in capacity and in duration.

Trellis lines tied to iron bars along the rafters.

Frank’s beds are much larger and deeper than my beds, and his garden is 500ft lower in elevation than mine which is just above the snowline. We plan too, to build greenhouse-style side windows and doors for Frank’s structure in the fall, and ‘borrow’ heat from the storage shed through the winter.

The substantial mass of the beds and the thickness of the timbers used in construction, will act like a giant solar battery, capturing heat during the day, and releasing it slowly during the night. We will monitor soil and air temperatures as the weather grows colder, and if necessary, build cold frames over the beds flanking the wall.

Frank plans to grow rapini (broccoli rabe), purple sprouting broccoli, assorted root vegetables, winter greens like mustard and Italian endive, and his new favourite kale rapini (winter kale shoots/going to seed in the spring) over the winter. His choices make sense given that these plants require very little care and attention during a time when a walk up to the garden could be cold and damp.

The open-bottom beds were filled with living soil — a mixture of organic compost, several types of composted manure, sand, shredded wood fines, and a copious amount of worm castings. An in-situ (in-bed) worm compost, daily slow-drip watering, and the transmission of microorganisms in and out of the beds through their open bottoms, should help maintain healthy soil biology.

Recycled wine corks act as cane caps atop bamboo stake in the bottom bed. A cheap and cheerful DIY.

Drip irrigation will service the beds during the summer, ensuring that the soil stays hydrated to the level of moist chocolate cake. During the winter months when the beds require very little watering, the rainbarrel and a watering can should be sufficient.

The new garden area sits uphill from the house, and water pressure isn’t optimal, so he is relying somewhat on extensive, integrated plantings and living mulches of sweet alyssum and other pollinator-friendly covers, to help keep the soil cool and also retain moisture.

During the watering-in of newly planted seedlings, the large rainbarrel was a lifesaver. The 56 gallon barrel produced impressive, natural water pressure, filling watering can after watering can quickly and efficiently with beautiful soft rainwater.

An American oak wine cask delivers impressive water pressure, and sends overflow downhill into a rain garden.

Overflow from the barrel runs down into the earth behind the barrel, in a black garden hose threaded through an underground tunnel built from ABS pipe remnants wrapped in landscape cloth, arriving ultimately in a small gravel-filled dry-well sunk into a rain garden populated by water loving ferns and hostas.

Once the garden system is well established, and the rain garden finds its level, we plan to plant native highbush cranberry, evergreen huckleberry, lingonberry and other evergreen and deciduous species in the rain garden, as a nutrition-dense food source for birds (and for Frank).

Location of a 2-ft deep dry-well dug into a shady patch of ferns and hostas, to accommodate rainwater overflow.

Native (Sechelt) sand-set pavers, interplanted with moss, wild violets, bloody dock, thyme, and native groundcovers help ground the large structure, and ensure that rainwater and runoff water can move through the system unobstructed. A pea gravel path running between the beds is functional, but also permeable.

The structure was built using western red cedar, treated only with organic minerals dissolved in rainwater. The age-old process ‘petrifies’ the surface of the wood, more-or-less, producing a breathable layer of protection and preservation, that lasts a lifetime. By the end of the summer, the structure will have turned to a silvery driftwood/barnwood grey.

A small vintage barrel head acts as cover for the in-situ worm compost. The plastic lid hidden underneath seals the unit.

Frank’s hothouse plant wish list included his favourite Sungold tomatoes, but also Cascades, and Early Girls — two varieties that are hugely popular among local chefs but are in very short supply. These, plus Gardener’s Delight, Green Zebra, Golden Rave, Tasmanian Chocolate, Inca Jewels, and Tom Thumb tomatoes tomatoes were started from seed indoors on February 14th, and transplanted into Frank’s new garden beds only after an extensive period of potting-on and hardening-off in and around my small greenhouse.

Sweet alyssum and chives will eventually grow together to form a living mulch to cool the soil and hold moisture.

A very late addition to the tomato garden, that I cannot wait to see mature, is the gorgeous Midnight Roma tomato, started indoors from Row 7 Seed about six weeks ago. Row 7 Seeds, founded by Blue Hill Chef Dan Barber, is a collaboration between chefs and growers working together to design and reimagine food from the ground up. Watch the @milliongardensmovement Instagram page for reposts of Frank’s Midnight Roma and other favourite tomato photos, throughout the season.

Typically tomato seedlings shouldn’t go into the ground until night time temperatures level off at around 50F, but the compost-induced warmth of the planting medium, the roof structure, and the heat borrowed from the storage building allowed for safe and early tomato planting.

Interplanted, between the tomatoes are three varieties of cucumbers — Artist Gherkin, Lemon, and Persian Baby Green, and cucamelons (a.k.a. mouse melons). Tomatillo-like ground cherries, red onion, leeks, hardneck garlic, and bunching onions have been planted already as well, and next week we hope the weather will be sufficiently warm enough to plant the Twingo and California Wonder sweet bell peppers that have already developed fruit while waiting patiently in the greenhouse.

Common chives, oregano, Chinese garlic chives, triple curl parsley, zinnias, alyssum, Ella dwarf dill, and cosmos were strategically interplanted to both attract beneficial and predator insects and repel unwanted ones.

Early in June, Romanesco squash will be planted in the two outside corners of the front bed, an encouraged to spill down onto the warm pavers below, keeping the squash nice and dry and off of the soil, but leaving the thirsty roots well nourished.

For the tomato and cucumber trellises, we used 200lb test, braided downrigger line, affixed to the soil using simple landscape pins. The line is super strong and barely visible. Used wine corks were utilized as cane caps, drilled down over the tops of eye-level bamboo canes, as a measure of eye protection.

There are two other very cool new permaculture installations on the grounds of Frank’s home — an inside-out bean bed, and a set of mobile patio planters that include a modified herb spiral. We will talk about those installations on another day soon. TMPI (too much permaculture information) is a thing now I’m told (directly and indirectly), so I will end things here.

Already, baby Sungolds reach for the sky. The tiny hairs along the leaf stem would take root if they touched the soil.

First though, I encourage you to take a look around your property for covered garden opportunities, large and small, that you might exploit to super-charge your growing season. A covered balcony, a stone patio that could be covered temporarily by sailcloth or permanently by glass or polycarbonate plastic, a sunken stairwell, a corner fire escape landing, a sunny spot under a densely foliaged tree — all excellent possibilities.

Walnut port cask from Portugal holds cedar offcut stakes. Tom Thumb tomato plant basking in the sun.

Want an instant, fun and fabulous DIY mini covered tomato garden that can pop up pretty much anywhere? An up-ended wooden crate with an open front, but closed in on the bottom, sides and top makes an excellent little incubator for a potted tomato or pepper plant — capturing and holding solar energy (heat), providing shelter from wind, and keeping rain off of blight-prone leaves.

Place the crate on a solar energy absorbing stone patio or concrete paver, facing south, and you have an instant hot house for a potted tomato or pepper. Just be sure to water well and often, and turn the plant a 1/4 turn every now and then, to be fair to the ripening fruit (tomatoes and peppers are fruit, botanically speaking).

TMPI, I know. That’s really it for me then, for the week. Happy gardening and growing, everyone!