One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is solving the dilemma of growing food at a rental property. It’s like turning on a blender without the lid; you know there’s going to be a mess to clean up, but how big you can’t be sure. There are too may unknowns and few knowns that swing the odds out of your favour from the outset.
Anyone with rental property experience will know that when moving into a new house it will likely be presented in a condition that is deemed completely unsuitable once you depart. Although no one will be blamed for the early shortcomings, you can be certain that any misplaced picture hook, scratch, dust, smudge, or raised garden bed full of vegetables will be taken out of your bond once you depart. All that being said, it shouldn’t stop you from growing food.
Solving the rental food growing dilemma not only helps those living in tenanted properties (which in this age may constitute the entire population under 35) but should also assist home owners in setting up edible gardens that are affordable, easy to maintain and primarily not going to scar the property.
Perhaps the biggest let down, and something you need to prepare yourself for from the outset, will be leaving your vegetable babies once your tenancy comes to an end. I remember turning a ‘low maintenance’ garden into an edible paradise, and then having to bid farewell upon the biggest glut period of the year. I remember the tomatoes were in full swing, as well as my favourite sour cucumbers, eggplants were on the cusp, and a full spectrum of herbs and salads. My work there helped the owners sell the dream of living off grid, but I was heartbroken. As I had moved only a few streets up, I’d often drive past and be tempted to stop and check in. But i knew that’d be as poorly received on dropping in on an ex-girlfriend just because I felt like saying hi. I had no option but to move on and put it all behind me.
Get the owners on board: To soften the blow I had negotiated a deal to sell the infrastructure (and the dreams within) prior to my departure. This is the first step in building any larger scale edible garden: get the owners onside and get an agreement in place. If your owners were anything like mine, they will appreciate the ability to change lightbulbs, switch on failing pilot lights and give their garden the character is was lacking. Rather than digging up the entire back lawn and proposing a market garden, consider infrastructure that is more presentable, easier to work with, and in the case that they change their mind, moveable.
Appropriate infrastructure: We used recycled apple crates (as has become our habit), and ensured that they were maintained by a basic drip irrigation system with equally as basic control timer. Getting the right infrastructure will not only assist in maintaining the garden when you get busy, but make it easier for the incoming tenant or returning owners who may not possess the greenest of thumbs.
Pots are better than you think: In the case of smaller gardens - balconies and courtyards in particular - pots are the main, and sometimes only, consideration. People generally deem pots ill-equipped for meaningful edible gardening, but that’s not true. These days it’s not all glazed and/or terracotta, there are more and more pots and tubs that are built specifically for growing food. They also cater perfectly for the rental market.
When choosing pots less is more. Don’t over clutter a space with lots of pointless small vessels. It will not only make growing food difficult, but mean more potential for marking the concrete or timber surface they probably sit on. Part of growing in pots is moving them intermittently to prevent surface markings, or ensuring that the surface is so badly marked that a few extra won’t make the difference. Once again, get an agreement and fill out the condition report when you arrive!
However, more is more when selecting the pot size. Choose pots that will allow sufficient soil and root depth to grow meaningful plants that you can then take with you. Look for wicking pots and tubs that are essentially self waterings and easier to maintain. They will in most cases look better - full of produce rather than burnt out plants - and last longer. As we always recommend, use good quality potting mix. This, unfortunately, is completely correlated to price - there are no bargains soils to be found! - and will make all the difference.
Grow indoors: Renters with very limited space and light, still have options. Pots and larger growing infrastructure aside, the final frontier of getting food into the kitchen is in the belly of the beast itself, and indoor growing has come a long way since hydroponic marijuana. Unlike when you grow pot (so I'm told), the infrastructure for herbs and salads on the kitchen bench doesn’t require a big investment or the need to upgrade your power supply. In the absence of sufficient natural light, modern day LED grow lights are affordable, easy to install (just plug them into a power point) and suitable for all vegetative growth. Some also help create a red light district theme for late night house parties.
If pursuing an indoor system, it’s recommended to grow hydroponically. By definition, this is done without soil, which is less mess but plants will require a supplemental nutrient solution mixed into their water. Soil is typically replaced with a sterile growing medium, such as a combination of vermiculite or coconut coir with perlite. These substances imitate an ideal soil structure, whereby vermiculite and coconut coir hold water and perlite provides aeration and reduces compaction. We recommend a growing medium is approximately 70% vermiculite/coconut coir and 30% perlite.
We recommend using fully contained self-watering pots to ensure the water is fully recycled and used to maximum effect. This also saves the kitchen bench the indignity of a pissing pot. When choosing a nutrient solution, be aware that most products are made from pharmaceutical chemicals, which is less than ideal for growing food. However, there is now an increasing range of softer products that are entirely plant-derived. Not yet organic, but the industry is slowly moving in that direction.
Adding nutrients to the water is no different from mixing cordial. The perfect cordial is neither too weak or too strong, and the same applies for the nutrient mix. Recommended strengths will be found on the packaging and it’s best to start out using a measuring device. However, in time you will get the knack and become a certified, hydroponic mixologist. Perhaps this will help you to earn enough money to get out of that rented apartment and into a place of your own.