An edible jungle on concrete

Urban agroforestry on balconies
23 and 24 December 2019

After arriving in Wufeng district (霧峰區) in Taichung, in a city block of adjoining houses, I am welcomed by a vertical jungle ! It is the abode of Florent Caquineau, a French who has been living in Taiwan for almost thirty years. From a plant bed on the first floor, through the balconies of the three floors and up to the roof of the building, whether on the facades facing north or south, each cubic meter contains plants that are mostly edible, and even fruit trees! Come with me to discover how an urban building has been transformed into a multi-tiered food garden!

View from the south-facing facade

How to prepare growing areas ?

Gardening on balconies requires to use some containers which will be filled with a growing medium.

In our case, the building already had a few concrete planters integrated into the balconies, which were therefore used to grow eggplants here (south-facing facade), taros there (north-facing facade), and ornamental shrubs.

Two generations of eggplants (those beginning to turn yellow will provide seeds), along with an ornamental ground cover and an ornamental bush
Even while facing north, taro can grow well and provide delicious tubers

Florent has also adopted the Taiwanese habit of recovering polystyrene containers to grow small vegetables with a rapid growing cycle, such as lettuce. This method is to be used sparingly so as not to end up with plastic everywhere! Florent only has 2 or 3 of them, with reduced exposure to the sun and the rain.

Lettuce sown ultra-tight to be harvested young in mesclun

Florent’s real innovation is to not really use containers, but to cultivate in a substrate placed directly on the ground, held in place by the edges of the balcony and various structures made of masonry bricks, branches or bamboo segments tied together.

Branches and small logs are used to create growing spaces. Here we have ginger, edible greens, shrubs and small ornamental plants
Masonry bricks create a solid growing space. Here we have small lettuces transplanted in the shade of a pineapple and climbing plants
A double row of bamboo segments firmly attached to each other form a circular growing area in the center of the balcony, with lettuce, chard, beans…

The cultivation areas first receive a first layer of small pieces of bricks, clay beads, pierced coconut shells… depending on what is available, in order to create a draining layer so that the water does not overload the balconies. Then above, in order to recreate a soil suitable to plant growth, Florent mixes some clay recovered from the paddy fields irrigation channels, and a lot of potting soil and/or compost, either purchased or homemade from leftover fruits and vegetables and green waste collected here and there in the block. The part of green waste that is richer in carbon is also used to abundantly mulch the surface of the containers. This mulch breaks down quickly in Taiwan’s humid climate and helps enrich the substrate with organic matter. This is also the main method by which Florent maintains the fertility of his crops.

Under this “monster mulch”, a soil which looks like one of a fertile forest!

Layering crops

It is possible to go further than the creation of “simple containers”. Indeed, on such small surfaces, what plants are lacking the most is space. To avoid competition for light and nutrients, Florent has therefore found different techniques to layer his crops.

One of these techniques is the construction of multi-level cultivation areas, which enables crops with less exposure to be raised higher so they can access more light.

Crops on this balcony are too diverse to make an exhaustive list here…
Bricks and segments of bamboo intertwine to create cultivated “mini-terraces”

Another technique which is commonly used in agriculture is the use of stakes and trellises to make twining plants climb, which also saves some area by occupying the 3rd dimension.

Many species of beans are particularly well suited for training on stakes…
… like this Lima bean
Gourds are also good candidates for vertical crawling
Structures that already in place are also put to good use…
…which allows, from a small volume of soil…
… to obtain an abundant harvest of loofahs (sponge gourds) !

Introducing trees

To take advantage of the reduced space even more, ligneous species (small trees) have been planted, either to provide fruit or simply to decorate.

On the first floor, ornamental shrubs serve as a screen with the intensive rice fields adjoining the house.
A lemon tree enjoying the view
A jaboticaba, or Brazilian grape, whose fruits that look like large grapes…
…grow directly on the trunk! December is part of the flowering season

On the small “field” on the first floor, the few square meters have been used to create a miniature edible forest.

Overall view of the small patch of edible forest
The flowers of the loquat, the main fruit tree in this mini forest-garden
Side view showing the path between the growing areas
Black tomatoes growing in partial shade

This example of urban agriculture shows that it is possible to produce a non-negligible part of our food, particularly fresh vegetables and fruits, using the 3 dimensions of the residential buildings that have grown like mushrooms all over the world. Of course it would have been better that this nourishing soil had not been covered with concrete, but producing food on surfaces which had not been planned for it is a step towards more resilience.

Transforming buildings into food production areas will not replace the destruction of agricultural lands… but it remains a way of maintaining a link between city dwellers and the production of their food.

Author: Yali

I am Alex, a French graduate from the agronomy school AgroParisTech, which also spent a few years in Taiwan. Passionate about gardening, farming, plants, insects and other. I made this website to share thoughts, experience, innovations and studies about agriculture, from the viewpoint of agro-ecology.

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