The Balcony Project: surveying

In addition to the back garden, we also have a front balcony. Now that the garden is well under way, I want to tackle some container planting for it.

The first stage of the permaculture design process is surveying: site, resources, and client requirements.


  • North-facing, though not overshadowed, so some evening sunlight especially in summer.
  • Paved.
  • First floor (so need to watch the weight!).
  • 4.5m x 1m.
  • No water supply (any water has to be brought up from the ground floor). However, there is a drainpipe at the corner (possibly shared with next door?). Slight overhang above so doesn’t get much rainfall either.
  • Fairly windy, but with some protection to about a metre up.
  • Some containers, but nothing fixed.
  • Railing provides some potential support for climbing plants.


  • Plenty of containers of various sorts available.
  • Some already-planted containers: violas, primroses, pansies, evening primrose.
  • Possibility of propagating some plants from the back garden (or using some of my seed collection).
  • Some compost from the back garden compost heap, but is likely to need supplementing with bought compost (or wait for longer to plant more!).

Client requirements

  • Enough space to sit out on folding chairs.
  • Attractive when seen through balcony window — I’d like some flowers!
  • Attractive during the winter — at least something that will survive or even thrive through winter.
  • Nothing poisonous to dog or baby if they eat it.
  • At least one food-productive plant.
  • Minimal cost setup.
  • Neglect-tolerant / low maintenance.

The next part of the process is the analysis: sectors, zones, and input/output, which I’ll consider in the next post, before coming to the design.

Spring harvest!

This week: the first harvest of broad beans from the garden. Two generous and insanely tasty portions eaten with baked sweet potatoes and baked tofu.


And a big bowl of fresh green leaves – the lettuces have really liked the damp weather. (I fear they may bolt soon now we’re having a heatwave.)


Protecting tomato seedlings

A quick photo to illustrate why it’s worth keeping tomato seedlings inside (or in a greenhouse) for that little bit longer, rather than just dumping them outside once they’ve grown their first couple of leaves and been transplanted. These are the same type of tomato and were sown at the same time:

Tomato seedling with 2 leaves, looking a bit yellow, in a pot outside
Transplanted and put straight outside

Tomato seedling with 4 leaves in small pot on windowsill
Transplanted and given another week on the windowsill

Not only does the indoor one have a healthier colour, it also has an extra pair of leaves. I’m hoping that the outdoor one will pick up in time but it’ll certainly take longer to reach fruiting stage.

I am considering a further experiment by picking one plant to put straight out from the windowsill without hardening off, and comparing that a week or so later with its hardened-off siblings.

Allotment weeding with a baby

We already solved the problem of taking the baby to the allotment (and to lots of other places). This weekend for the first time I managed to get something done while I was there, too, rather than just telling doop what to do.

After a false start when Leon insisted that this was NO GOOD and he wanted MILK instead, I got him snugly up on my back & started clearing dead asparagus. Shortly after that I had sleepy baby breathing in my ear.


With Leon in the allotment 1

All the potatoes are at last in, only a month late (although half of them did go in last month, and are already poking above the cardboard mulch). We have, from north to south (1.5kg of seed potatoes each set):

  • Orla (1st early, planted mid-April, to lift early July)
  • Lady Balfour (west of the apple tree) (maincrop, planted mid-April, to lift late August/early Sept)
  • Amorosa (1st early, planted mid-May, to lift early August)
  • Arran Victory (late maincrop, planted mid-May, to lift mid-Sept)

Not sure how well the Amorosa will do, given their late start, but if all goes well then we’ll have a nice spread of potatoes to harvest over the summer/autumn.

The final bed, in the south, will have butternut squash planted in it when the seedlings currently on the window-sill are a bit bigger. I should also think about a late summer catch-crop for the Orla bed.

Parenthood and writing

@katyha (also to be found at Fausterella) linked to this post about managing parenthood and writing, which left me considering my own experiences. Two months into parenthood, I confess that I’m finding it challenging.

In theory, Leon takes regular naps and I could write a little then. In practice, currently he’s napping in 45 min stretches, which gives me about 5 windows in the day, two of which are used for dog walks & one for lunch. That remaining hour and a half would be of more use if I were more disciplined, for sure, but after 90 min of feeding / nappy change / entertain / feed, my inclination is to take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, maybe check my email and Twitter… and then the baby is awake again. Damn.

I have managed to do a little writing on my phone while feeding (the first draft of this was written on my phone), but thumb typing gets old fast. I can get a first draft of a short blog post done. But if writing fiction, I can only manage either some notes (feeding is quite good for thinking about things), or a couple of full sentences, before the mismatch between speed of thinking and speed of writing becomes too irritating. Not to mention the fact that if I write while I’m feeding, how will I ever get through the rest of the Game of Thrones series? (All hail the Kindle, my one-handed-reading saviour.)

Editing fiction while feeding is definitely a non-starter. For that, and to be honest for much of the rest of my fiction writing, I have to use the time when Leon’s dad is on duty. That too comes in 45-60min bursts. Editing blogs I can do while Leon sleeps (this post was finished on the iPad with Leon sleeping in the sling on my chest). I’ve made myself curious now about the difference in my brain between blog writing and fiction writing, and may contemplate this further in the future.

Having said all of that, since Leon was born 10.5 weeks ago I have managed to pitch and write a story for the anthology ‘Faction Paradox: Burning With Optimism’s Flames’ (out later this year), so obviously something is happening. I’ve also kept up, for the last week, a a one sentence daily goal inspired by this post from Léan on something else I’m working on. In fact it’s almost always more than a single sentence; but I think the main advantage is that it keeps the project stewing in my back-brain.

I’m told it gets worse when you have a toddler; although if Leon ha a phase where he has a nap on his own rather than in a sling, it may get a bit easier first (can but hope!). Hopefully by then I’ll have developed the increased discipline the writers at that first link talk about. If anyone reading has suggestions on how one can make the most of shortish slots of time when knackered and desperate for a break, do please share.

Tales of the City

I have a story in the forthcoming Tales of the City anthology, edited by Philip Purser-Hallard. It’s due out in June, and can be pre-ordered at Obverse Books. There will also be an ebook version, but that can’t be pre-ordered.

I’ve seen the full draft version, and the stories are all fabulous. For a taster of them, check out Phil’s blog for Trailers of the City 1 (Blair Bidmead), 2 (Elizabeth Evershed), 3 (me!), and 4 (Helen Angove).

Flowers: permaculture and beauty

Permaculture isn’t only about the practical; or rather, “practical” covers more than you might think. Permaculture is all about sustainability, and that includes creating environments which are sustainable for humans in respect to all their needs.

A garden needn’t just be about food to be practical, sustaining, and sustainable; it can also be about beauty, or fun, or rest. Of course, food plants can also be beautiful (rainbow chard is one excellent example; or the little blue flowers that appeared on my rosemary bush in early spring). But the beauty in non-edible plants means that they’re also a worthwhile addition to the garden, simply for the joy of looking at them. And a garden you want to spend time in is invariably a more productive garden.

Which is to say that I have a bunch of flowers in our garden now, along the western fence by the rosemary and the raspberries. The first to go in, last autumn, were winter pansies. Pansies are my favourite flower, and their January blooms cheered me up no end. More recently I put in some forget-me-nots, which are very practical flowers in that they are self-seeding, but easy to pull out, so low maintenance in both directions. As mentioned in the peas and beans post, there are also now a few pots of sweet peas to make the patio smell lovely when they flower. And finally, a few evening primroses in with the pansies, because my Mum had some spares and it would have been a shame to waste them. (Actually, all the flowers were spares from my Mum. Thank you!).

Winter pansies and raspberries against a wooden fence
Pansies and raspberries (and some purple wild flowers that I don’t know the name of) earlier in the spring

Peas and beans

I planted most of my broad beans last November/December, in two of the raised beds. One lot were planted in the polyculture winter veg bed, and the second lot in the bed next to it as a block on their own. Both sets, particularly the larger block, are doing very well now, and the flowers are starting to turn into small beans. A few more beans, planted at the same time in a polystyrene box, are a bit less vigorous — perhaps because their roots are more shallow? I’ve also planted a second batch in early March in another polystyrene box and those have just begun to emerge. With luck I’ll get a second later crop from them.

Broad beans taking up half of a raised bed, in front of a fence
The broad bean jungle

In further legume news, I planted some snow peas at the back of the broad bean block, thinking that they could use the beans as a support to grow up and around. However, the beans are so jungly that I can’t see much of the peas, so that may not have been such a smart move. On the other hand, I may find lots of happy peas when I finally get to them. I’ll venture into the bean jungle to investigate when I start harvesting beans.

Hopefully the spring pea plantings, in two more polystyrene boxes (one by the west fence, one south of the raised beds), will be more straightforwardly successful. So far they’re looking good, and I’ll soon need to find some sticks and/or string for them to grow up.

Finally, I have some sweet pea seedlings from my mum in pots on the patio, which may not be food-productive, but will hopefully make it even nicer to sit there once they get going (and if we ever see the sun again…).