Nomadic Permaculture & how to make a roof garden (on a narrowboat) Part 2

Alice Griffin
Friday, 17th June 2011

After down-shifting to live on a boat, Alice Griffin then had to decide how to grow her vegetable garden in such a small space. With a bit of cunning, she managed to make raised beds light enough to grow vegetables on fragile structures such as her narrowboat roof.

"I hope you're husband's alright with that love!" said a lady as she cruised by leaning on her tiller arm watching me crouched on the towpath, painting my planters hot pink. "Yeah, he's in touch with his feminine side!" I laughed. And so my cobbled-together-from-free-wood planters received a makeover after a rather fortuitous find of left over paint tucked away under my sink. Thankfully, my husband has been pretty accepting of this because it took just a few weeks and life on the roof was flourishing.

We have had, and continue to have, an endless supply of salad leaves. We enjoyed radishes every lunchtime for two weeks and I would most certainly be planting more radishes too if I didn't have to use their previous space to thin out my lettuces. Space is definitely at a premium in my garden and I'm trying to work out how much I can realistically fit on the roof.

At 61ft, of which about 11 ft is deck, I am left with 50ft of length. However, as I may have trouble convincing the rest of the family that we don't need space for boxes of sand and toys, firewood or bikes, combined with the fact that I'm not exactly sure how much is too much when attempting to navigate the waterways, I think we'll call it 30ft at most. Before going on the hunt for more free wood, there is another pallet on the roof looking eager for a freshen-up and my plan is to make that a home for my kitchen herbs, which are housed temporarily in an old cardboard box lined with plastic.

The amazing thing is that freebies keep coming my way, mostly from people who have watched me tending to my roof garden. Only yesterday I was offered two tarragon babies from a fellow boater. Donated seeds have left me with some burgeoning hot chilli peppers, which I am really looking after carefully as sadly I lost my tomato seedlings and sweet peppers to some high winds. Note to self (and other boat gardeners): be aware that on the roof of a boat, a garden has no shelter. I was a little gutted as I had so lovingly tended them indoors and had only just put them on to the roof ready to plant out.


Some major successes have so far been:

  • Radishes – wow, I didn't anticipate growing such whoppers in a small space! I think they are most certainly deserving of a new planter all to themselves.
  • Crisp Mint Looseleaf Lettuce – These have been a runaway success offering a delicious and endless supply of hardy leaves perfect for growing in a small space open to all the elements.
  • The array of wild flower seeds I have sprinkled in the corners of each planter, and in particular my Alyssum Snow Carpet flowers have been attracting a lot of bee attention lately and that can surely only be a good thing.

But of course there have been a few failures, too:

  • Rocket – I have had only the tiniest of growth and I can't imagine there will ever be anything worth eating. Tips anyone?
  • Landcress – started great, but the minute I started picking it turned red and now seems well, a little strange... I'm guessing I let it 'bolt'.

In addition to these successes and failures I'm also growing Claytonia (Miners Lettuce or Winter Purslane), Bianca Riccia da Taglio (Salad Endive) and Bronze Arrowhead Oakleaf lettuce, which have all so far been pretty successful. Perhaps this is down to my carefully prepared natural soil, who knows?

The most amazing thing has been the rate at which my tiny roof garden has flourished and offered us food, confirming to me that even with limited space, growing some of your own is an entirely worthwhile exercise. When you consider that a bag of salad leaves at the supermarket can cost you £1.50 it seems crazy to not grow your own and I certainly think that we will have enough to last the entire summer at this rate.

There is of course just one problem and that is, I am now addicted and wishing I had a great deal more space in order to grow more. I am also in a quandary about what else I can grow on the roof. As much as I love lettuce leaves, I would dearly love to expand my repertoire, but my planters are shallow and I think that presents a problem.

Any ideas?

About Alice

Alice Griffin likes to write, garden and get crafty from her narrowboat, which currently cruises at 4mph up and down the Grand Union Canal. To see Part 1 of Building a Narrowboat Roof Garden CLICK HERE.



A tip from the folks at Green Shopping

Potatoes were our weakness as they are difficult to grow in shallow and small spaces, why not try a nifty recycled Turtle Bag Patio Planter? We've just grown a sucessful crop of veg and you can move 'em about if they get in the way.

Kathleen McCann |
Fri, 17/06/2011 - 13:28
Well done and congratulations Alice and family for making a fine effort in growing veges on a boat. If I may, I would like to add some suggestions for you to try in the soil mix of your growing beds. What you really have there is a huge pot of growing material and it is really important to have air as part of keeping that mix happy and functioning. I would add a lot more composted material, manures such as sheep or cow, and straw or dried slashings of some kind. I would have no soil - this compacts very quickly in a small space, even if it is a large long bed! Also have a larger grain of sand, like a gravelly river sand, not fine beach or silty sand - this also compacts down. I would still layer it - Straw, compost, manure, charcoal, blood and bone, dolomite, potash, straw, manure and finish with sand and compost mix. The compost component would act as your soil and I would plant out into this. It is all going to be compost in the end. You could finish with straw if you needed to keep moisture around certain larger plants like tomatoes, zuchinies, etc. But if you want beetroot or carrots you will have to have a good amount of both compost depth and enough breathing space from straw. Try a fine mesh on one side of the bed to ease wind problems. Lovely lacey white or sheer curtains are easy to find in thrift shops and would look great alongside the pink planters! Remember companion planting too, some things grow better next to one thing and not another such as peas love – potato, radish, carrot and turnip but dislike - onions, shallots and garlic. Remember to keep feeding your garden regularly with more manure and compost. If you think about it as the amount of mass you take out of a garden in the form of a plant then that is how much mass you have to put back. Have you tried a compost tea or weed tea yet? These are easy to make and the garden loves it. Keep up the good work and I hope I have helped in some way. Cheers Kathleen McCann Tanja Australia
Alice Griffin |
Fri, 17/06/2011 - 15:31
Wow Kathleen, SO MUCH fabulous information!! thank you :-) I am planning to spend some time 'on the roof' this weekend so I am going to make note of all these tips. Things are actually getting a little overgrown and out of control so I think I need to separate things out a little ... my wild flowers seem to be taking over a little at the moment! but this may present a good opportunity to re-think the soil? and I have access to lots of horse manure so could perhaps use that? I am concerned that my planters or so shallow (about 10cm) - do you think it would be possible to grow toms and zucchinis in that depth? I am keen to grow more, but just not sure what would work in that depth. Also, loving the net curtain idea! you mean use it as a wind-break might work on the beach? Thanks again for all your tips and interest and I am off to find out about compost tea and weed tea right now... cheers, Alice
Kathleen McCann |
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 08:43
Hi Alice - Yay! So great to be able to help out. Horse manure is fine - although you may have to be on top of any 'weed' that may appear, horses don't digest all their food that well. Do you have a compost or worm farm going on the boat. I thought of that after I had written....that would be an excellent way of getting both worm juice (the liquid that can be tapped from the farm, not squished worms!) and having a compost of some kind would help as well....another bit of research for the best type for your space! I have made a worm farm out of a broccoli styrofoam box. Don't know if you have them over there, but if you search for different types of farms I am sure you could make one that suits you best. I do think you could grow heavy feeders like toms and zuchs! When you make your garden you can go above the level of the planter as the bed you make will start to decay and within a few weeks it can be half it's depth! If you want to stop stuff blowing away (or drying out) then that is where you could use the curtain idea.... you will have to experiment with that one too, to see what works best for you add small posts and attach the curtains along the most windy side or both sides? How high do you need to go etc.... It's what I love about permaculture the most - finding the solution to the problem in small and inventive ways. So happy to share with you and I think you are doing a fantastic job of making use of your little space. Keep up the good work. Cheers Kathleen ps if you want to find out more about my permaculture life here's my webby it has a link to my blog there too.
Jimll |
Tue, 21/06/2011 - 15:34
I'm not a boater but I do grow veggies in containers in my flat. This year's big success has surprisingly been spinach beet. I've got six plants in a small trough - I'd guess around 10cm deep at most. These don't grow like the monsters we get at our allotment, but they still give a cut-n-come-again crop of baby leaves for salads, sag aloo curries, etc. Last year I also grew little globe carrots. Unlike normal carrots these don't need a huge depth of soil or really deep containers, and did fine in 15-20cm deep plastic troughs on my balcony.
Alice Griffin |
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 12:49
Hi Kathleen... I have been out today sorting out my roof garden, which seems to be taking on a life of its own!!!! I need more space!!! Anyway, I am going to try and start a weed tea bucket today with some of the stuff I have pulled. I found this recipe: Please chip in if you have a better one! The only problem for me is SPACE! I don't really have room for a compost or a worm farm :-( (I did actually 'baby-sit' a worm farm once would you believe!) But I have got access to horse manure, so I'll try adding some of that. I'll keep you posted on the lacy curtain solution - the wind continues to prove a problem on the roof. As you say, this is the fun - finding solutions as we go. So good to hear your advice and I found your blog and added it to my reader :-) Cheers! Alice
Alice Griffin |
Wed, 22/06/2011 - 12:53
Thanks Jimll for your suggestions... I am a HUGE lover of chickpea and spinach curry so I'm definitely going to try the Spinach beet! This sounds like the right kind of size crop to grow on the boat. I will also look at globe carrots... and see if I can fit in a couple of extra troughs somewhere! Cheers, Alice
Kathleen McCann |
Sat, 25/06/2011 - 13:20
Hi Alice, The Permie magazine has some great articles in it! With the latest one really great for making compost tea. I have just made a bucket of tea by adding a big handful comfrey leaves, some tansey, some yarrow and a big handful (well gloveful!) of nettles.... leave in the sun with a lid just on - mainly to stop rain and insects getting in, but also to leave a bit open to aerate. It may pong but after 3 weeks or so you can use it. Try one cup to one bucket of water and use on the plants - over the top of them is okay as it is a foliage feeder too. You can also do this with seaweed...... tons of great minerals and trace elements in both of these. Thanks for adding me to your reader.... cheers and goodluck K
Alice Griffin |
Thu, 30/06/2011 - 20:18
Hi Kathleen, I have made a bucket of weed tea! I even went out with my daughter to forage for nettles! I'm not sure I have all the ingredients right, but I used what I had (weeds, few garden cuttings, nettles) ... and it does pong!! so I'm guessing that's a good thing. Also, I gave some more thought to a mini compost and thought 'do I really not have space?' ... a bit of sorting of the front deck and I have a small compost on the go. I realise that saying I don't have space is a bit of a cop-out so I'm going for it! cheers, Alice
Kathleen McCann |
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 06:07
Hi Alice - that is fantastic news to hear you are making yummy food for your garden.... the plants will be thrilled! And yes it is only the limit of our imagination that stops us from inventing new ways to do things..... I love the human heart and brain combination! I look forward to your article in the magazine about your next adventure into permaculture boating style. Keep up the great work. Cheers, Kathleen :)
Kathleen McCann |
Tue, 05/07/2011 - 06:14
And just a quick thought - I have been reading about vertical gardens for balconies.... I wonder if you could apply this somewhere as well. K
Alice Griffin |
Mon, 18/07/2011 - 15:52
Hi Kathleen, Thanks for your comment - you're right, it is only the limit of our imagination that stops us from inventing new ways to do things. The plants are loving the weed tea and the compost is happy and healthy :-) Hopefully you will see my next article which has just been uploaded... And loving lifeonthebalcony - thanks for the link!