Practicing Permaculture in the City

permaculture in the city

[Milkwood PDC course outing with David Holmgren in Sydney, photo by Oliver Holmgren]

With more Singaporeans learning about permaculture, many wonder if a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) is relevant to them and how we can practice permaculture in the city given most of us live in apartments.

In my previous post featuring reviews on PDC courses in Southeast Asia and Australia, I mentioned that the PDC is highly relevant if you wish to design a farm or any kind of space for growing crops because it is a design course. The course is currently not available in Singapore, and I would suggest getting acquainted with the ethics and principles of permaculture first, before deciding if you wish to proceed. You can even do an online Intro to Permaculture course like the one offered here (it started on 1 May but it looks like one can still enrol).

So how can we practice permaculture in the city, where it’s also relevant to apartment dwellers? In permaculture, the aim is to create a holistic design system for managing an ecosystem in harmony with nature, and can be scaled down to suit the size of our balcony, corridor, rooftop, courtyard, or backyard garden/s.

I would like to highlight 4 principles which we can easily adopt:

Produce No Waste

Waste is a resource and not mere rubbish. Here are some ways to utilise “waste” from our homes or community gardens:

  • Reduce, Reuse, Repair & Recycle items. If you’re not able to reduce consumption, reuse or repair items, recycling is an important step in resource recovery, learn what you can and cannot recycle here.
  • Minimise food waste and have a black soldier fly bin or Smart CARA to process cooked food. Get your black soldier flies from Terracycle, you can use its leachate as a nutrient booster for your plants. Smart CARA units can be purchased from Ecoponics
  • To compost fruit and vegetable peelings, you can get worms and a worm bin from Green Spade or Terracycle, buy a Baba Smart Grow Composter from World Farm for $48, or make your own compost bin – watch this video for a demo by Ong Chun Yeow, skip to 12:50, I would recommend a much larger container so that you can compost more over a longer period of time. Worms are great because you get worm castings and leachate, and compost bins are awesome too
  • Save water by harvesting rainwater (where relevant), catching water from the shower while water warms up, or reusing water. Chun Yeow once shared an interesting way of maximising the use of water – water used from washing rice can then be used to wash vegetables, then either cleaning the home or watering plants. Another use for rice water is making effective microorganisms (EM), which can be used on soil or as a foliar spray
  • Egg shells and coffee grounds can be used to add nutrients or deter snails and slugs. Egg shells have to be dried and crushed finely, and coffee grounds can be used as is on established plants but not seedlings. I’ve often read that coffee grounds should be composted but I’ve heard from friends that they have experienced healthy growth from using it fresh
  • Leaves can be used to make leaf mould or placed in compost bins as a source of carbon however please discard leaves with signs of fungal or bacterial disease or those with a presence of pests


Use Small & Slow Solutions

Instead of trying to get your goal quickly, focus on the process, and veer towards natural methods of urban farming:

  • Use soil amendments and fertilisers that are from a natural source instead of synthetic ones
  • Instead of chemical sprays which kill both pests and beneficial insects, consider gentler pest busting alternatives, such as squashing bugs by hand, targeted spraying (only when you see the insect/s you are after), or encouraging beneficial insects to thrive in your garden, hence creating a self regulating system
  • Support small local businesses – carpenters, pottery artists, artisanal food businesses, and other makers
  • Consider making your own fermented foods, and pro-biotics such as kefir. Get your water or milk kefir grains at no cost here.
  • Where permitted, chickens and beehives are a great addition to a community or home garden. Chickens can help turn soil, eat food scraps and rotting fruit – controlling maggots from developing into fruit fly. Worm or black soldier flies are also great to have to process waste and create useful outputs of castings and leachate for use on plants
  • The use of perennial plants is especially encouraged in a permaculture garden as it is seen as more of a permanent system in comparison to annuals. Perennials are slower to grow and do not need as much nutrients as annuals in a short period of time. Perennials you can grow include pandan leaf, kaffir lime, lemongrass, lime, moringa, mulberry and other fruit trees

permaculture in the city

Use & Value Diversity

The aim here is to create stability in the eco system:

  • Grow a variety of flowering plants and practice companion planting so that plants can support each other. This can be seen in nature, and you can consider planting edible plants alongside herbs, and beneficial plants such as nitrogen fixing plants and marigolds, these can also be interplanted with fruit trees. Make sure you do enough research as some plants are allelopathic, and inhibit the growth of neighbouring plants, one such example is the sunflower.
  • Other than ensuring you have a good variety of produce to select from – in case some plants fail as a result of unfavourable conditions, having a diversity of plants can also attract pollinators and birds to your garden space
  • Encourage pollinators and beneficial insects in your garden by building a bug hotel. All you need is a flower pot, and short lengths of bamboo canes, both of which can be purchased from garden nurseries, bamboo canes will need to be cut to fit snugly in your flower pot.

Design from Patterns to Details

Patterns in nature can be applied to our garden spaces:

  • From observing the 7 layers in a forest, we can apply this understanding when creating the ideal microclimate for our plants. Taller plants provide shade for other plants and offer support for climbing vines, while ground covers act like a living mulch to protect soil from drying out
  • In the process, it is also important to observe weather conditions and become familiar with the local climate conditions e.g. squalls, and the position of the sun, which changes in the course of the year.
  • Space stacking can also be observed in the forest, and when executed in the community and home garden, will result in an increased yield if well designed

There are 12 principles in total and if you would like to read up on the rest of the ethics and principles of permaculture, please see here.

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  • Roderick Des Tombe May 18, 2017 at 9:20 am

    Hi Olivia :~) Great website! If you’re ever in Jakarta or Bali, drop me a line and get in touch via FB. My permaculture teacher, John Champagne (who is something like the real life Crocodile Dundee) – will be offering a full PDC in Bali at the end of July. He is a great teacher and the Kul Kul farm is a very inspiring place and is associated with the Green School. Feel free to share the link:

    I steward a small eco friendly island north of Jakarta that you might like to come visit. Search for tiger island jakarta and you’ll find us :~)

    • Olivia May 18, 2017 at 11:03 pm

      Hi Roderick, thanks for your message! Ok I’ll look you up! 🙂

  • Esther November 7, 2019 at 11:51 pm

    Hi Olivia! So glad to chance upon your site! I went for PDC with Geoff Lawton in NsW just in July!! Would love to keep in touch with you!

    • Olivia December 14, 2019 at 4:50 am

      Hi Esther, that’s awesome. I would love to hear more. Please drop me a note at olivia[at]tendergardener[dot]com and let’s take it from there!

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