Text: Sandra Pfeifer
Photos: Karls Garten
Self-sufficiency, the pioneer’s dream of an increasing number of urbanites, is also being addressed at the Expo 2015 in Milan. Urban Gardening takes the first steps towards an “edible city”. This movement has become more than a fleeting phenomenon already: It’s literally taking roots. “Karls Garten” in Vienna is an example of this trend. Head of the project Simone Rongitsch explains what makes up good soil and how you can harvest potatoes from you own balcony.
Every year, we try out new cultivation methods like raised beds or vertical gardens. This year we try to grow plants in jute sacks. They don’t occupy much space on your balcony but can yield a remarkable amount of potatoes. And we tried to build a “tomato tower” from railings used on construction sites. It has straw in and around so that it doesn’t get too wet for the plants. In our first year we planted various types of grains, vegetables and fruits to see what works and what doesn’t.
What’s the value of a vegetable garden in the city? Can people in the city really live off it?
Well, what will actually grow really depends on the quality of the soil. According to Arche Noah, an Austrian initiative concerned with the preservation of crop diversity, about 70m2 will meet the needs of one person – to some extent, I think. Harvest of course is seasonal and you would have to preserve and freeze some of it. To feed one person entirely for a year, you would need 150m2 of good soil.
What defines good soil?
Good soil is rich in nutrients. With raised beds, for examples, you want to build several layers: small branches, wood chips or shredded bark for draining, then fall leaves and humus of the rather acidic kind. But we also experiment with recycled materials like brick chips, perlite or lava. They are also being used on rooftop gardens because they are light in weight. We had good results with brick chips, for example, because there was significantly less weed. If we talk about an edible city, however, we actually talk about what can be produced for one person on 1m2 of land. In a city, this could be in a public space, in semi-public places like areas of council housing, or in private spaces like your own balcony. All of this together constitutes an edible city.
Do public gardens also raise awareness for eating and food in general?
Many gardeners and city people are driven by the question of where our food comes from. It’s also good to understand how much effort it takes to make those first tomatoes sprout. And, moreover, it’s a relaxing way to spend your time. You can stay in your neighbourhood, do something outside. It was important for us to not recreate those classic allotment gardens but rather provide shared spaces without fences.
What do people think about your garden?
They really like it! People even send fan mail and pictures showing the raised beds they built for themselves. “Karls Garten” on Vienna’s Karlsplatz is a display garden – an accessible source of inspiration – and a research garden at the same time. Many people don’t believe that it’s possible to grow kohlrabi in the city, or that we can really use green spaces for something other than decorative plants. People enjoy this sensation: Here grows something I can eat. We could also use vegetables to plant parks; they would look just as good. And here we are back to creating edible cities: It would benefit those who are up for it. It’s even less work, if you plant perennials for example. And we show what else could be done in our green spaces. For the research part of our project, we work with a large group of experts and explore how we can develop and spread out gardens. We already have 53 such gardens in Vienna.
We did a pilot study on this and had good results last year. So, are the vegetables from “Karls Garten” edible? Yes, they are..
Which vegetables are particularly suitable for city gardens?
Salad, radishes, herbs. This year we collaborated with Arche Noah and planted old varieties because we wanted to see how they would develop in an urban space. We have 15 different kinds of potatoes, ten kinds of chard and so on. But we will only be able to show results when it’s time to harvest…