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Green city: Expats offer inspiration on urban gardens
A balcony, a terrace, a windowsill – urban gardening comes in many shapes and sizes. Across Brussels, city dwellers of all ages and backgrounds are pushing the limits of ingenuity and innovation, making the most of restricted and unusual spaces to grow herbs, vegetables, flowers and even small trees.
Take Allan Howard, who’s convinced you can grow vegetables no matter where you live. Before settling in Brussels in 1998, Howard, from Scotland, spent six years in the Middle East, setting up permaculture projects in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
“Palestinians have so much appreciation for what they grow,” he says. “They’re very proud of it. And despite everything that’s going on there, it’s the perfect place to grow plants because of the wonderful sunshine.”
The weather in Brussels, he adds, is much less forgiving. “The soil is wet, the climate humid, and we also have a problem with slugs and snails. It’s getting worse every year.” Still, he doesn’t let that deter him from cultivating the plot of land behind his house.
Tucked away in a sleepy street near Flagey, the garden is surrounded by tall townhouses, so it doesn’t see much sun. For the past 10 years, Howard has been growing tomatoes and cucumbers, alongside beans, courgettes and peppers. This year, he’s also trying out onions and leeks.
“I’ve always been interested in what you can grow in very limited spaces,” he says. "People assume that a garden lies flat on the ground, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Tomatoes, cucumbers and beans – they grow upwards, so I installed beams with frames on them, meaning I can have three separate layers of food. The top level is for beans, below that I’ll have tomatoes and cucumbers, and on the raised bed on the ground, peppers and salads.”
In the far corner of the yard sits a compost bin filled with food leftovers that Howard uses to replenish the soil. He gets his seeds in the post from an organic supplier in the UK and a nursery in the north of Belgium, and spends about an hour each day tending the plants.
“The hardest thing is to take the first step from never having done any gardening, to just doing it,” he says. “It’s especially true with children. Give them beans to grow in a plastic box – when they see them sprouting, they actually want to nurture them and protect them. It’s amazing when that happens. And suddenly you realise that gardening is not that difficult. All you need is some seeds, a container, and a balcony or even a windowsill.”
Elsewhere in the city, Joseph Ingenito is getting ready to visit one of his clients. The American moved to Brussels with his partner in 2006, having previously worked for a San Francisco non-profit that converted empty spaces into community gardens.
His first job in Belgium was for a landscape architect, who specialised in designing gardens for wealthy people all around Europe, but Ingenito found it frustrating. “I thought to myself, why can’t an average person have a nice and affordable garden, even if they lack the space? That’s why I started my own thing.”
Using small spaces
To get to his first project, he rented a car and borrowed some tools. Word of mouth spread fast and soon there was enough interest in his work that Ingenito could set up his own business. Today, the vast majority of his clients are expats. It’s a niche, he says, that no one else seems to have tapped into. In the gardens he creates, he goes for what he calls a layering effect. “Mixing larger plants with smaller ones in different-sized pots to create this sort of mini landscape,” he explains. “That’s the most effective way to use small spaces.”
Among his most challenging designs was a garden for a small windowsill. “I realised that you really don’t need a lot of space,” he says. “I planted vines on both sides of the window and put some plants on the sill. The whole thing looks like a vignette of a forest.”
He gets his plants from the Sunday market at Midi station and from nurseries around Brussels. One of his favourites is the multi-stemmed amelanchier, a tree that flowers in the spring, has green leaves through the summer and colourful ones in the autumn. For a year-round display, he recommends investing in an ever-green shrub, like the Japanese pieris, or, if space is an issue, grasses like liriope.
“A garden creates that connection with nature, which we often lack in cities,” he says. “When it starts to blossom, you know spring is just around the corner. Even just one plant can attract all types of birds, bees and butterflies. People tell me this makes a huge difference in their lives.”
As a trained landscape architect, Ingenito knows the ins and outs of even the most elaborate designs, but he believes anyone can become a gardener, even those lacking the space in their own house. “In San Francisco, we created small gardens in these tiny vacant lots throughout the city. The whole community would get together to divide the plots among themselves – 25 people in a lot the size of a small house, and that was enough. You got to know the people in your neighbourhood, and the space created a sense of ownership and community.”
Compared to San Francisco, he adds, Brussels still has room to grow. “A lot more is happening compared to when I moved here, but community gardening still seems like a new thing. There is a lot of learning to be done on community and policy level, but we’re heading in the right direction.”
The capital has at least one or two community gardens in each of its 19 municipalities. They vary in size, but among the biggest is ParckFarm, beneath an overpass connecting Laeken with Molenbeek. The site comprises a vegetable garden, a chicken shed, a wood-fired oven and a greenhouse that becomes a cafe in the summer.
The latter is the heart of the place, serving as a community space with free agricultural workshops and a weekly fresh produce market. Gabriele Annicchiarico, who helps run it, moved to Brussels from Italy three years ago.
“ParckFarm was founded in 2014 to show that growing food in an urban environment is possible, and to exchange knowledge on sustainable food,” he says, but the site attracts people of all walks of life. “We have groups of friends who come here just to have a drink, children who play games while their parents take part in the workshops, and families looking to bake a pizza in the oven.”
As an archaeologist who specialises in urban agriculture, Annicchiarico sees ParckFarm as more than just an urban garden. “This is a very mixed neighbourhood, with people who are Flemish, Muslim, francophone, Italian, Chinese and Spanish. Instead of living apart, we’re creating a space where we can meet and stay together. People respect this place. It’s fantastic.”
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time