Vegetable Garden

Klaus Laitenberger The Self Sufficient Garden

March 5, 2022

Interview with Klaus Laitenberger ~ The Self-Sufficient Garden

An interview with Klaus LaitenbergerI came across Klaus Laitenberger in what seems a lifetime away now. It was 15 years or so, when we finally managed to get reliable internet into our house and I could browse online instead of relying solely on books for my gardening advice.

Klaus was working at The Organic Centre in Leitrim and I remember the feeling of joy at discovering there was a place in Ireland where I could learn more about organic vegetable growing. Klaus also appeared on Garraí Glas with Síle Nic Chonaonaigh, along with Hans Wieland, also of the Organic Centre and now co-founder with his wife Gaby of Neantog Farm a kitchen garden school in County Sligo. Knowing there were people out there who were as passionate as I was about growing food without chemicals gave me great comfort and encouragement. Unbeknown, they were instrumental in helping me forge my own path in environmental and horticultural community education.

Klaus Laitenberger The Self Sufficient GardenSince then, Klaus has written four gardening books: ‘The Self-Sufficient Garden’, ‘Vegetables for the Irish Garden’, ‘Fruit and Vegetables for the Polytunnel and Greenhouse’ and ‘A Vegetable Grower’s Handbook’ which I refer my own students to.  He works as an Organic Inspector for the Organic Trust  and manages a number of private gardens.

Together with his wife, Joanna, they started a seed company, specialising in the most suited vegetable varieties for the Irish climate, as well as the most resistant and delicious ones. Klaus is a regular contributor to the BBC Gardener’s Corner and to various gardening magazines eg. The Irish Garden, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner. He also works as an organic advisor and runs gardening courses throughout the country.

I was delighted when Klaus agreed to chat with me about all things gardening and growing, and about his latest book, The Self-Sufficient Garden.

What brought you to The Organic Centre and how did you help to develop it?

I came to the Organic Centre in January 1999.  I noticed an advertisement in a UK organic growers magazine.  At that time I was running a bio-dynamic market garden in Gloucestershire and couldn’t resist the wonderful opportunity in the “beautiful and un-spoilt Co. Leitrim”.  I only found out about the rain when half the vegetable field washed away in the first month!

There was one polytunnel and two shared sheds – one for staff and the other one for 15 trainees.  Even the weekend courses were held there.  It was a wonderful pioneering phase with lots of hard work and youthful passion with wonderful trainees.

“If you can’t do anything else you should become a gardener”

Was there much interest in growing food organically in Ireland at the time, and have you noticed a change in attitude?

In 1999, the interest for organic food and gardening was just beginning.  The job as a gardener, however, was still completely undervalued.  The attitude was – “If you can’t do anything else you should become a gardener” and I was even worse – I am an organic vegetable gardener!  Luckily this attitude is quickly changing and so many young people are becoming organic market gardeners.  This is partly due to inspirational growers like Richard Perkins in Sweden, Charles Dowding in the UK and Jean Martin Fortier from Canada.

My heroes were Joy Larkcom, Eliot Coleman and Iain Tolhurst.

I also noticed in the last few years that many people are seeking a closer connection to nature and growing your own food gives a great sense of belonging.

I visited the Community Garden in Bundoran, Co. Donegal that you are involved with. What do you think are the benefits of community gardening? Do you think there should be more in Ireland?

Cooking Pumpkins in the Community

I’m still heavily involved in the community gardens/allotments in Bundoran.  We are actually currently giving an online organic gardening course there.  I do it with Sr Assumpta who is running the community gardens.  There are still spaces available if anyone would like to join.

Gardening Courses – Green Vegetable Seeds Organic Gardening Courses

I think every town should have a community garden.  It’s wonderful to see how it brings people together as a group and how a piece of land (mostly grass) can be transformed in a haven of fruitfulness and biodiversity.  A community garden can also be very productive and all participants usually bring home a large bag of fresh vegetables.

You have published several excellent books about growing food in an Irish climate, and in a polytunnel, that I often recommend. What prompted you to dig deeper with your latest book, ‘The Self-Sufficient Garden’? 

I realised that there was an increasing interest in being self-sufficient in food while at the same time Ireland becomes less and less self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables with fewer and fewer growers.  Imagine there are only around 40 commercial apple growers left.  That’s the same amount as in the village I grew up in Germany!

I also wanted to show that it doesn’t need to be a full time commitment and can be done in a day per week.  There are a number of scenarios from partial self-sufficiency to literally grow all you can eat and store.

For more information about Klaus and his work, books and courses, check out Green Vegetable Seeds. If you’re looking to try a different growing technique in your vegetable garden, you might find this video about constructing a Huegelbed of interest. It’s a great method to start a new garden plot and tidying branches away whilst storing carbon in the soil, something we’ll be trying in the Greenside Up garden.



Resilience ~ the ability of people or things to recover quickly

January 8, 2022

Resilience ~ the ability of people or things to recover quickly

Building resilience with the help of nature

Resilience – When a Word Finds You

Do you make New Year resolutions, or lists of goals or aspirations you’d like to achieve over the coming year? This year the word resilience found me, and over the following few paragraphs, I’ll be sharing with you why it’s such an important word.

Several years ago some friends and I talked about finding a word to guide us through the coming months. I don’t recall which of us suggested it, but the idea was to come up with a single word, not a sentence or several. A word that might be more achievable than a list. Since then we’ve begun each year with a new word that appealed to us, and have shared and explained their reasonings. I don’t recall any of my previous words, but this year, 2022, when I was hoofing along the road on an unseasonably warm 1st January to start the  #100daysofwalking challenge, a word jumped into my mind so forcefully it was hard to ignore. Resilience. This year my word has found me.  

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines resilience as:

“the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” It supports the notion that resilience can be cultivated and practiced with the necessary resources and skills”

Resilience isn’t something we are born with, it’s something we learn to develop and practice and I like the way it can be woven and adapted to our needs. I’ve used the word many times in my work life. It was introduced to me by Cultivate at Cloughjordan Eco Village and as a result I used to think of it in terms of helping to educate people to become more food secure, growing fruit and vegetables, developing communities, readying ourselves for dramatic climate changes that many are already beginning to experience. Nowadays, I’ve realised there’s a lot more to resilience.

So much of the way we live is out of our control. We can stress about that, ultimately making ourselves emotionally or physically unwell, or we can learn to live with it.

A nature walk to build resilienceI’ve spent recent years in a permanent state of self-induced stress as I’ve juggled with life as a self employed wife and mother, and unfortunately the results are beginning to show themselves. However, during my daily walks at this quiet time of year, I’ve realised that emotional resilience is something tangible I can work on. It’s important not to let this word slide through my fingers as I awaken from my winter slumber.

I can look after, care for and be gentle with myself.  I can give myself permission to take the time to do this. I can learn to say no and listen to my inner voice.

I’m grateful that a break over the festive season has given me the time to acknowledge this, and that grateful is a word I was leaning towards at the later end of 2021. Perhaps one word naturally leads to another.

As a parent I distinctly remember the feeling of shock and alarm when an air hostess instructed passengers to put our own masks on first in case of emergency. That simple instruction flew across every maternal instinct as I sat in my airplane seat holding our first born baby in my arms, on his way to meet his extended family for the first time. Yet, it was probably the most sound piece of advice I’ve been given. If we don’t have oxygen, how can we survive to help others?  We have to put ourselves first in order to care for others. There should be no shame in it.

UK charity MIND describes developing emotional resilience as:

“Taking steps to look after your wellbeing can help you deal with pressure, and reduce the impact that stress has on your life. This is sometimes called developing emotional resilience.

Resilience is not just your ability to bounce back, but also your capacity to adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, whilst maintaining a stable mental wellbeing. Resilience isn’t a personality trait – it’s something that we can all take steps to achieve.” 

The past couple of years have been immensely stressful for many, has anyone been left untouched by this global pandemic? And with a climate crisis bubbling away with increasing pressure, it’s unlikely that life will return to that as we once knew it. Those of us who’ve been involved with the environmental movement, be it for 50 years or 5, are going to feel the strain even more. I believe we’ll hear more voices from people like NASA climate scientist  Peter Kalmus, or the scientist in the satirical Netflix film ‘Don’t Look Up’ who shouted at anyone who would listen “We are trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed”

We are all going to need to develop every ounce of resilience to deal with what’s coming.

The past couple of years have made me realise how much we experience is out of our control. Yet, if we let it, if we listen and trust, find a balance in life and work, allow time for ourselves, share our feelings and stop beating ourselves up for mistakes, we can learn and adjust and adapt. We can build our resilience and as we do so, we can become stronger.

We will be in a better position to face what’s coming, and unlike the comet that’s hurtling towards the planet in Don’t Look Up, we might just be in a position to stop, which is not yet the inevitable.

How is your resilience? Are you up for working on it too?

Vegetable Garden

Fun experiment to determine your soil texture

November 23, 2021

How to do a soil texture test

How to do a Soil Texture Test

I first published this article in November 2011, but with better cameras, and a flurry of tests being undertaken this year in various community gardens, it seemed like a good time to update it.

Why? Getting to know your soil is half way to determining how well your plants will grow.

Soil texture describes how soil feels. It can influence how plants grow as it affects water and nutrient efficiency. If you can identify your soil type, whether it’s clay, sand, peaty or loam, you can work with the soil you have and grow plants that prefer the growing conditions, rather than constantly fighting against them.

How to find out what your soil texture is

How to do a soil texture testA fun experiment you can carry out at home (and a great one for the children to help with too) is to place about a cup full of your soil (preferably) into a straight sided clean jar, removing any larger pebbles or stones first.

Add a tablespoon of laundry detergent and a tablespoon of salt to the soil then fill the jar with water to the top before screwing on a lid tightly.

Shake the jar for five minutes or so (you may need help!) then leave the jar undisturbed where you can see it. After a couple of days the soil particles will settle into layers.

Reading the Results

As the sand particles are the heaviest they will sink to the bottom first, followed by silt then clay. The thickness of each layer will help to determine how much of each is contained in your soil.

As you can see from the results of this soil sample taken from a community garden and marked on the jar, a layer of sand has settled at the bottom, then a layer of silt, followed by a small layer of clay at the top.  We have estimated that this sample is 65% sand, 30% silt and 10% clay. If you follow the lines in the soil texture chart below to cross reference, you can see that the soil sample is considered sandy loam.

Soil Texture Triangle

Source: USDA Soil Texture Triangle


You can often identify your soil type by looking at it and feeling it, without the need for an experiment (this was just for a bit of fun). Sandy soil is lighter in colour than clay for instance and peat much darker again.

How to determine soil without the experiment

Grab a handful of dry soil and add a few drops of water, mixing well until it become pliable. Try rolling the soil into a ball.

If it feels gritty, if it crumbles when you try to roll it into a ball then your soil is sandy.

Course sand feels like granulated sugar when rubbed between fingers.
Medium sand feels like table salt when rubbed.
Fine sand is harder to detect unless you hold your fingers near your ears as you rub it.

Sandy soils are easy to dig but water and nutrients flow through them easily, meaning they dry out quickly and will have to be replenished regularly. Sandy soils warm quickly and retain their heat (just think of a warm beach) which some plants especially like, particularly carrots and their roots will swell.

If, when you try to roll the soil into a ball in your hand it holds together well, or if it feels much finer than sand, then your soil texture will be silt or clay. If it feels like plasticine then its fine clay whereas silt particles will leave it feeling like icing sugar. If you can roll the soil into a sausage and it forms a ring, its clay. If it forms a sausage but breaks up as you try to make a ring and feels silky, its silty loam.

Clay soils are described as heavy and can be very sticky to dig. If you try digging when clay soil is wet you can damage the structure of it. Clay soils are slow to warm up but retain water better in the hotter months and therefore keep their valuable nutrients for longer.  Because their particles are so tiny they tend to pack together tightly which creates poor drainage and aeration and can contribute towards roots rotting.

Silty soils feel silky or soapy when moist.
Clay soils feel sticky when moist.

How to improve your soil texture

You can improve your soil texture and structure by adding well-rotted organic matter. It will help to bind the particles in sandy soils and separate them in clay soils, providing space for air, water, nutrients and organisms to travel.

If you’d like to delve deeper into soils, Teagasc, the Agricultural and Food Development Authority in Ireland have produced a comprehensive soil map that you can find here.

Vegetable Garden

3 Essentials To Help You Grow Your Own Vegetables

March 26, 2021

3 Essentials to Help you Start in the Vegetable Garden

3 Essentials to Help You Get Started in the Vegetable Garden

Have you been planning to grow your own vegetables but haven’t started yet? Perhaps you’ve begun growing your own but aren’t sure if you’re doing the right thing? With all the good intentions in the world, sometimes it’s difficult to take the first steps or spend the time to learn more. Perhaps you’ve just been too busy to start a new project, or you simply don’t know where to begin. If that sounds familiar, here are the three most useful things I learnt when we began working in the vegetable garden that may help you to grow your own successfully.

1. Start Small

Greenside Up: What We Do

Our original vegetable garden eventually became too high maintenance

Even if you’d like to grow lots of veggies, don’t attempt to be fully self-sufficient in the first year. Plan big but start small, only clearing enough space or building enough beds to get you started.

If you clear too much land at once you may find it daunting to keep up as the weeds begin to grow. One of the busiest times of the year isn’t springtime as you might expect with all the sowing and planting, but later during the summer and autumn as you start to harvest and then have to find time to pick, preserve, pickle or freeze your produce. Starting small will allow you to see how much time you have to grow your own food and whether it’s something you’d like to do more.

We began with two beds, increasing ever year until we had 17, but that eventually got too much for us and we’ve had to resort to a smaller growing space again with raised beds for easy maintenance. Don’t be afraid to admit defeat if you’ve overstretched yourself. Learn from it.

2. It’s all about the soil


What we add to the soil now will repay us in produce later. As you can see in the short video clip above, fertile soil is vital to our existence. Did you know it takes 2,000 years to create just 10 cm of topsoil? We ignore it at our peril. Adding well-rotted organic matter to the soil in the form of garden compost or old farmyard manure will help to feed it with vital nutrients as well as  help with soil texture and drainage.

You can find a post here that provides a beginners guide to organic matter in more detail.

3 essentials you need to know to help you grow your own

Photo credit:

Autumn/Fall is a good time to prepare for the following year as it will allow the microbes, organisms and worms to do their job over winter, incorporating all the goodness you’ve added, back into the soil.

Don’t worry too much if you miss the opportunity to get some winter preparation done, it’s not too late to do it in the springtime. Just leave three or four weeks between preparing the soil and sowing time, which will allow weed seedlings to grow and you to remove them, a technique that’s known as a ‘stale seed bed’. Remember, don’t work the soil when it’s too wet or frozen or you can do more damage than good.

A general guide for adding organic matter is to add about one, big bucketful of well-rotted organic matter per square metre to the top of the soil. If you’re doing this in the autumn, cover with cardboard, weed membrane or black plastic and leave it be until the springtime. Once you’ve removed the cover, if you’re not following the ‘No Dig’ method of gardening, lightly fork any remaining organic matter in, before raking the surface of the soil flat.

One essential soil tip before we move onto the third point, and especially vital to remember if you’re visiting a garden or you could attract a fierce look of displeasure from the gardener: avoid walking on garden soil at all costs as over time it will damage the soil structure and compact. Soil and plants need air for healthy growth. If you have to walk on your soil, place a wooden board down first which will help to distribute your weight more evenly. You can find more soil tips here.

3. Vegetables live in families

3 essentials to help you grow your own

Garlic – a member of the Allium family

It’s generally easier for gardeners if we don’t split up and scatter our vegetables all around the beds. Where possible, plant them in their families. You may have heard of Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks) and Brassica (cabbage, kale, broccoli) but there are several other families too. Here’s a PDF of the most popular that you can print off and keep handy. If you plant vegetables in their families, they will be easier to feed, care for and protect from pests and disease. Planting vegetables in families will also help you to plan and remember where they have grown before as you move them around from year to year in what’s known as crop rotation.

There’s lots more you can learn that will help you to grow your own vegetables successfully such as figuring out what are the easiest or best vegetables to grow, the importance of keeping seeds dry, as well as pests and diseases to look out for. I’ve written several blog posts to help you in your quest to grow your own vegetables, just take a look under the Vegetable Garden Tab here.

Subscribe to the blog (above) for more timely tips.

Vegetable Garden

Gardening for Beginners – Getting started during Spring and beyond

March 22, 2021

Gardening for Beginners

Gardening for Beginners

Are you new to growing fruit, herbs and vegetables and looking for some pointers? With ten years of blogging experience, I’ve published over 500 posts on food growing, eco tourism, the environment, mental health, family, recipes and more. With so many articles sitting on the Greenside Up website, I took the decision a few years ago to divide them into categories to help visitors find their way around, but even I find them difficult to locate at times. I’ve been told that some people enjoy looking at the recipes, others at the eco tourism and travel posts, and many at the gardening advice.

In 2019 I began worked with the Foróige Just Grow Waterford programme, helping families to start growing their own food at home and in community garden projects across the county. During all my gardening workshops, I point people to the archived blog posts as an added resource. For instance Slugs – 15 ways to get rid of them organically never fails to become a conversation piece.

Although the posts are geared towards vegetable gardening, many of them form the basis for all gardening. Seeds are seeds and should be stored the same way whether they are flower or vegetable. Good soil is the foundation of all gardening and garden pests aren’t necessarily fussy whether they’re eating our roses or our beans.

Greenside Up on YouTube

In 2021 I revisited the Greenside Up YouTube channel as a way of connecting with some of the groups that I’m unable to work with face to face. In each of the short videos, I take viewers through the steps I’m taking to grow food in my polytunnel and later, into the raised vegetable garden outside.   You can find the posts that are updated weekly here.

The following links are to key articles on the blog and many are inspired by frequently asked questions from learners. It is hoped they will help you to garden more confidently, no matter what you’re sowing or growing.

How to Start a Garden

The number one tip in gardening for beginners is to plan big but start small which will allow you to see how much time you have to maintain the garden. Here’s several more links that will help to get you started.

3 Ways to Look After Your Garden Soil
3 Essentials to Help You Grow Your Own Vegetables
Annual Vegetable Planner
Fun Experiment to Help Determine Your Soil Structure
Growing Vegetables in Containers
Green Manures
How to Create a Budget Vegetable Garden
Keep An Eye on Your Seeds with a Garden Diary
Looking After the Garden in a Drought
Organic Mulch, What’s It All About?
Weeding Without Chemicals – What Are Your Options?
16 Natural Alternatives to Weedkillers and why you should use them
What does it mean when your vegetables are bolting?
How to Grow Your Own Food on a Balcony Garden


Seeds and Seedlings

Many of these links are the same for flowers and vegetables – storing, caring for and sowing seeds are all the same, no matter what you want to grow.

How to Choose Vegetable Seeds – What Should I Buy?
How long will seeds last? (Vegetables and Flowers)
How to Identify Seedlings
How to choose seeds – Pinterest
How to Grow Tomato and Peppers from Seed
How to look after your seeds – make a seed tin
Making a Seed Bed
Saving seeds
Starting Seeds Indoors – How Do You Know When Its Time to Sow
Thinning Vegetables – Now’s the Time

In the Vegetable Garden

There’s lots of information on the internet about the specifics on how to grow herbs, fruit and vegetables but here’s a few of my own tips.

Best Fruit and Vegetables to Grow in the Shade
14 Vegetables to Grow in a Small Garden
Broad Beans – A Great Crop for Beginners
Growing Autumn Garlic
How to Grow Leeks
How to Grow Your Own Overwintering Onions
How to Grow Your Own Pumpkins and Save Their Seeds
How to Look After Strawberry Beds
Introducing the Stunning Rainbow Chard
Kale – A Hardy Veg and Not Just for Beginners
Lettuce – How Many Should I Plant
Potatoes – All You Need to Know To Help You Grow Your Own
Rhubarb – growing, caring for and eating
Sowing Parsnips
What do I do with my strawberry patch

Pests and Diseases in the Garden

If you want to garden organically, you’ll need to learn to tell the good guys and the bad apart. These links will help you.

Slugs – 15 Ways to Deal with them Organically
12 Beneficial Creatures We Want to See in our Gardens
12 Garden Pests in the Garden
8 Tips for Managing Potato Blight
Aphids and Greenfly
Beet Leaf Minor
Choosing Blight Resistant Potatoes
Companion planting – understanding vegetable families
Cuckoo Spit
Earthworms – 10 Facts
Gooseberry Sawfly
Green Dock Beetles
How to Plan Crop Rotation in the Vegetable Garden
How to Stop Cats Pooping in the Garden
How to Treat Powdery Mildew Without Chemicals
It’s Bath Time
Red Spider Mite
How to get rid of Mealy Cabbage Aphids on your Greens without Chemicals

Gardening Undercover

If you’re thinking of buying a greenhouse or polytunnel, or looking for advice on what you can grow inside one, take a look here.

Growing Undercover – Where to Begin with Polytunnels and Greenhouses
Growing vegetables under a cloche
Polytunnels and Organic Gardening During the Autumn and Winter Months
What to Sow in a Polytunnel in February
How to Build a Plastic Bottle Greenhouse

Other Useful Links

There are many more tips on the blog aimed to help beginners in the garden. These are just a few:

14 Tips for Watering Vegetables and Seedlings
7 Jobs for the Autumn Vegetable Garden
9 Winter Gardening Jobs we can do Inside
Growing Vegetables in Junk Containers
How to Create an Herb Garden
How to Make Nettle and Comfrey Fertilizer
How to Set Up a Rainwater Irrigation System
How to Use Coffee Grounds in the Garden
Month by Month Jobs in the Vegetable Garden
Pollinator Friendly Plants for the Garden
A Beginner’s Guide to Organic Matter
Once you’ve started growing your own fruit, herbs or vegetables you might like to check out some recipes.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for, do get in touch. It may be lurking in the archives somewhere. If you’d like any help with other services Greenside Up can provide such as consultation and advice, garden design, talks or workshops let me know. You can find more details on the What We Do Page.

Best of luck with your gardening journey!


Vegetable Garden

Look After Your Seeds – Make a Seed Tin/Box

January 31, 2021

Have you ever worried that the seeds you’ve sown haven’t germinated, that you must have been sold a dud packet? I remember thinking something similar years ago. It didn’t occur to me that I might be the one at fault, that I might not have kept my seeds in prime condition. As it transpired, there was no might about it, I’d find seeds tucked away on shelves and in drawers, pockets and boxes and hadn’t realised that they were likely to last a lot longer if they were stored correctly.

I wrote a post a while ago, answering the often asked question “how long will my seeds last?” One of the prime considerations for seed longevity is how they’re stored. Seeds are living organisms (albeit dormant ones) and as such need to be treated  well.

Most seeds can remain viable for several years if kept in a cool, dry environment – the cooler the better. By keeping your seeds in an airtight tin or container in a cool, dry room (or even in the fridge) you’ll increase their storage life.

It’s never advised to store seeds in plastic bags which can attract moisture, instead keep them in the foil packets they arrive in. If they’re delivered from your seed supplier in small plastic bags as some of mine have been in the past, transfer them into brown paper envelopes as soon as they arrive before placing them in a container.

Make a seed storage container

So why make a container and not just throw your seeds into a tin or plastic sandwich box in a muddled heap?

Apart from the fact that specific seed packs are much easier to find if they’re ‘filed’ and you’re not having to rifle through the tin every time you want to sow something, filing them  between monthly divider cards will also help with your sowing plans.

Looking After Your Seed PacketsHow to make your sowing life much easier:

  • All you need is a good, rectangular or square airtight tin (biscuit or chocolate tins are perfect) to store your seeds in and some cardboard cut to size with the twelve months of the year marked on them.
  • Sort through your seed packets and take note of the recommended month of sowing. Bare in mind that sowing dates in Ireland can be a few weeks after the UK iwhere many guides arise from. If the packet suggests you can sow the seeds from March onwards, it’s usually worth waiting until the middle to end of March, weather
  • depending, unless you grow your vegetables in a particularly sheltered and sunny garden.
  • Pop your seed packets in between the dividers.
  • Filing seeds like this comes into its own when you’re sowing successionally. After you’ve sown a few rows, don’t put the packet back into the original month, place it into the next month as a reminder to sow a few weeks later.

Always check the use by dates and use those seeds first.  If you find you have too many why not talk to vegetable growing friends and have a seed swap… you never know what you might end up with!

For more more information on seeds, their importance and how to store them, have a look at the video below.

Have you any seed packet storage solutions? What works for you?

Vegetable Garden

How to Grow Your Own Food on a Balcony Garden

January 23, 2021

How to Grow Your Own Food on a Balcony Garden

How to Grow Your Own Food on a Balcony Garden

If 2020 taught us anything, it was that getting outside into gardens or walking in parks and spending time immersed in nature was good for us. Seeds became almost impossible to buy as online suppliers of fruit, herbs and vegetables opened and shut their websites to cater for demand. Garden centres were busy providing online and postal services, cars gathered outside garden and forestry walks as their owners took the time to get some exercise. Gardening photos were shared across all social media channels beguiling us with their vibrancy and enthusiasts prowess.

That was all well and good for those of us who’ve been trying to encourage everyone to grow their own food or get outside for years, or who have some space to potter around. What about the folk who were stuck in apartments with tiny balconies, unable to get out and share in all the fun? It must have been very difficult to sit back and watch our enthusiasm as spring turned into summer, watching our gardens blossom from bare soil to an oasis of colour and calm.

The good news is that a balcony does not have to limit your growing experiences. With food supply chains expected to falter due to new import regulations this year might be the one to have a go at growing food, even if it’s just a few tubs of salad leaves.

In no particular order, for the next few minutes I’ll be sharing some considerations you might like to take into account if you’re wondering how to grow your own food on a balcony garden this year.

Flowers & Vegetables growing on a balcony

Photo Credit: Samantha Murray


Wind direction is a factor in any garden, but especially important on balconies. The wind can damage, break or blow over plants and planters and provide a ‘wind chill’ element that can freeze them half to death. Moisture can be whipped from plants leaves and compost may dry out quicker than you can sneeze.

If you have glass surrounding your balcony, it will benefit by stopping the wind in its tracks, while providing some additional warmth, acting like the side of a greenhouse. If not, you might like to consider adding a clear screen, securing your planters, choosing plants wisely, and adding a mulch on top of the compost to prevent drying.


Safety is always a priority in the garden and balconies are no exception. Ensure your balcony is capable of taking the weight of plants and planters. Think how heavy a bag of compost is then multiply it by the amount of containers you’re planning for your balcony. The weight of water will add even more of a load, especially if the containers become waterlogged.

Pallet Garden in GoresbridgeBalconies are covered under the Building Regulations but the boom years saw some shoddy workmanship. If you’re unsure, check with the owner or management company. In the meantime there are steps you can take to reduce the weight.

  • Choose light weight containers.
  • Mix potting compost with perlite as per the instructions on the bag. Perlite is a type of volcanic rock that should be available in all garden centres.
  • If using large containers, don’t fill them up completely with soil. Crush some aluminium cans or food grade plastic and place in the bottom third of the container, before covering with a piece of weed proof membrane and topping up with compost. The fabric will allow water to filter through, while protecting the growing medium from the recycled materials.
  • Some multi purpose composts, which are ideal for for container growing, weigh more than others. Shop around and look for peat free or sustainably sourced peat where possible. Enrich Soil Solutions have a great range of products if you’re struggling to find something suitable.
  • Use the walls. Put up some vertical planters to take some weight off the balcony floor.

Fruit and Vegetables that Grow in ShadeShade & Sun

Choosing the sunniest spot to grow your fruit and vegetables is a mantra you’ll often hear but if you’re in a flat or apartment, you might not have a choice. If you are north facing with limited sunlight, there are still some vegetables you can grow. A more detailed article can be found here. South facing and you’ll have to consider shading to protect plants from being over exposed.

Choosing Containers

Balconies provide an opportunity to have a bit of fun with containers, either using upcycled household items or colourful pots from garden centres. You can find a more detailed post about container gardening here. A few tips worth considering include:

  • Use the largest container possible or you will have to water more often.
  • Unglazed Terracotta can get frost damaged.
  • Plastic pots can dry out as they heat up so consider irrigation.
  • If using upcycled materials, consider the following:

“Plastic that is safe to grow food in/with should have recycling numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 on the bottom. Plastic with a 3 has PVC in it. In time chemicals leach out contaminating soil, which in turn contaminates the food. Styrofoam is made of plastic number 6 and has cancerous effects, Number 7 contains bisphenol A which is harmful to the behavioral growth of children.”

  • You can grow pretty much any plant in a container if the container is large enough and you have ensured there is suitable drainage. As mentioned, the main considerations are the direction your balcony faces and how exposed it is. Tender plants such as basil may not survive windy conditions and thyme really dislikes it too.
  • Variegated herbs can be slower growing, so good for containers.
  • Perennials should ideally be replanted in fresh compost each year which is a good time to check the roots for pests
  • If buying plants, choose dwarf varieties, varieties that are expensive or unusual to buy, herbs, or fruit that can be trained vertically to save space.


By its very nature, container gardening requires more watering than planting into soil or raised beds and windy conditions can add to the drying effects.

To save you popping out there twice a day with a watering can during the growing season, consider investing in a drip feed irrigation system, or stand plants on capillary matting. Look out for containers that have built in water reservoirs or stand pots in trays to catch excess water.

Lockdown Videos

During the first COVID lockdown in 2020, Samantha Murray shared some videos and photo updates onto the Community Gardens Ireland Facebook Page from her Dublin balcony and has kindly given me permission to use them here. She was an inspiration to many. Take a look at one of Sam’s videos below that she published in April. You can find more on the Facebook page, including tips on some of the more unusual containers she used to start off seeds such as avocado shells.

For more garden hacks on using recycled kitchen waste to save you some money and the recycling centres from the additional waste, take a look at the Greenside Up YouTube channel here.

If you’ve figured out the best or unusual ways to grow your own food on a balcony garden and have any further tips or observations, please leave them in the comments. With more people growing their own food than ever, we’d love to hear your tips and help the communities of people growing food everywhere, no matter what their size or experience.

Vegetable Garden

Have we been selling the idea of gardening all wrong?

December 31, 2020

Are we selling the idea of gardening all wrong?

Have we been selling the idea of gardening all wrong?

I published my last article back in May when we were beginning to come out of our first COVID-19 lock-in, a surreal time for many. Back then we were hoping the global pandemic would be over in a few months. Our own youngsters were wistfully dreaming about the festivals and concerts due to take place during the autumn. A winter lock-in seemed inconceivable if we continued to be ‘good’ and mindful of one another. 

Have we been selling the idea of gardening all wrong?Instead, as we stand on the threshold of a New Year, we’re heading into our third ‘wave’ and another full Level 5 lock-in as cases continue to rise at alarming rates. Even with the promise of vaccines in sight, we’ve still a long way to go before life returns to anything resembling our old ‘normal’. For some, that might never happen given the trauma this pandemic has caused due to loss.

As we take a minute to reflect back over the past months before thinking of the future, one thing has become clear. Gardening and nature proved to be far more important to our health and well being than many had ever considered. 

When the pressures of long commutes were eased due to workplaces closing or relocating to home offices, we were able to spend more time outside during the glorious few weeks of an early summer. For those of us lucky enough to have garden spaces, or somewhere outdoors to stretch our legs within our allowed kilometre range, we were able to appreciate the positive benefits that nature provides. Our hearts went out to those unable to share these simple outdoor pleasures and some thought seriously about moving out of their urban apartments to seek greener pastures.



We no longer felt that gardening was a chore that had to be undertaken in the few, precious hours of our time off during evenings or weekends. We were able to enjoy the simple pleasures of working with our hands outdoors, or simply sit in the soft summer breeze, noticing dew drops on the grass or the way the sun lit up the leaves on silvery branches.

We were afforded the time to embrace the biophilia effect and it helped us all

According to biologist Edward O. Wilson’s hypothesis, ‘we are innately and emotionally attracted to other living organisms’ and when we love, or are attracted to others, our oxytocin  hormone is released, filling us with a sense of well being, relaxation and happiness.

Cooking and eating can have a similar effect, releasing endorphins that make us feel good. This has got me wondering over the years, have we been talking about gardening in the entirely wrong way when discussing our green fingered pleasures? Has the way we explain the needs of a garden been putting people off experiencing this magical healing for themselves? Are we self sabotaging our trade?

Have you noticed how celebratory chefs and cooks talk about food, unconsciously or not, beguiling us to want to try out new recipes or ingredients as we allow our imaginations to wander? Sometimes it's good just to be seduced by the particular cheeses spread out in front of you on a cheese counter. - Nigella Lawson

Perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on the outcomes of gardening rather than how we get there…

Rather than saying “let’s go out and plant a wildflower meadow because it’s good for biodiversity lets try rephrasing to “Sometimes it’s good just to be seduced by the particular wildflowers spread out in front of you on a lawn.”  Once it’s there the wildlife will follow.

It’s just a thought…

Thankfully, when Ireland began to open up again in June, gardening projects were recognised for their usefulness along with feelings of well being and healing, allowing those of us working in the industry to get back outside and share it’s pleasures. Hopefully over the coming months, more will be tempted to feel the softness of cool compost as they sow their first seeds and experience the pleasure of watching their young seedlings stretch out and grow as they nurture them.

A full gardening diary

It’s been a roller coaster year of emotions for us all. As I mentioned in the last blog post, I went from a full diary to an empty one overnight. This unexpectedly turned back to a full calendar of events as social, therapeutic and community gardening projects returned with more vigour than ever before.

Are we selling the idea of gardening all wrongForóige were one of my first clients to encourage members to get their hands dirty with their Just Grow project in County Waterford. Working with children under the new social distancing guidelines, summer camps were held where 11 and 12 year old’s were allowed to see one another again for the first time since March. This was followed by older teen camps in Ferrybank then a new community garden project in a direct provision centre in Tramore. Another community garden was created within Portlaw allotments, where several mum’s and grannies have been able to bring their autistic spectrum children along to join the fun and learning.

When community education opened up with the Kilkenny & Carlow Education Training Boards, adult coordinators were keen to get members back into gardens, with some of my old and new projects opening up at the Irish Wheelchair Association, Merchants Quay Ireland, SOS Kilkenny and Respond Housing. 

Have we been selling the idea of gardening all wrong?Disability groups were one of the last to return to their day centres, giving their carers a break and introducing a social element back into the lives of this often neglected community. Adapting to the new ‘normal’, I worked with Carlow County Development Partnership (CCDP) to provide online classes to two local centres. Interactive, online craft and growing sessions were provided, with up to four pods of people joining each zoom session again, giving people the opportunity to see friends they hadn’t connected with for some time during these practical, nature based sessions. It’s only right to  acknowledge that these classes wouldn’t have been possible without the support and help provided by the local care assistants within the centres. 

Finally, I’ve been able to put my new QQI Level 7 Landscape Design Certificate into practice for a really enjoyable community design project thanks to CCPD support. I was on the verge of quitting the Waterford IT course in April, feeling incredibly stressed by the sudden switch to online learning that none of us had quite mastered. Thankfully I didn’t and apart from everything else, now have a much greater empathy for students and educators having experienced both sides through these strange times.

Are we selling the idea of gardening all wrong?

Who knows what will happen next, how long this virus will stick around or how it will further affect our lives and livelihoods. If anything I’m learning about resilience. We’re immensely looking forward to seeing our UK based parents once more and hoping that everyone will stay healthy in the meantime. We’re treasuring the bonus time we’ve had with our three young adults at home this year. 

Moving forward I’ll be giving some thought about how I mention the jobs we need to do in our gardens, and instead of making them all about work, will be thinking more about the vision and how we get there. If you can help with any of those phrases, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

For now, I’d like to finish up 2020 by wishing wishing each and every one of you a very Happy and safe New Year and thank you for your continued support as I head into my twelfth year with Greenside Up. 

By it’s very nature, let’s look forward to 2021 with hearts full of hope, it’s what keeps most up us gardeners growing.

Dee x