Gardening on a Boat
What to Consider Before You Start.
Gardening and boat are not two words you expect to see together, but with many sailors leaving the rat race behind and choosing to live aboard, self-sufficiency is the buzzword for this community. Whilst it may not be possible to be totally self-sufficient in food living on a boat, with a little planning, patience and persistence it is possible to grow some fresh vegetables and salad crops to add to your diet. Here are some tips and ideas to get you started.
The Desire to Garden
This might sound like an obvious point but even gardening on a small scale can be onerous. Living on a boat comes with many chores and jobs already without the added responsibility of nurturing plants in an often hostile environment. Make sure you want to add this to your list. Gardening can be very therapeutic but only if you enjoy it!
Unlike gardening on terra firma, you have additional enemies that will try and scupper your growing efforts. First there is, of course, the wind. Whilst as sailors we are often pleased to have a stiff breeze, particular plants might not relish it. Low-growing crops or dwarf varieties may do better. Salty air/spray can be another problem. Again some crops will be more tolerant than others. Motion can cause issues, not from a sickness point of view (!) but from containers moving around. See below for some tips on types of containers to use that will stay put and also space saver ideas, a necessity on a boat. Too much sun can damage some of the more delicate plants so shade may need to be found for these. Lastly water. Depending on your set up water supplies may be an issue. At times it is necessary to conserve water for other boat and sailor needs. If you have a water-maker the salinity of the water can be too much for some plants. You would need to test this. Again some crops can tolerate slightly saline water more than others. Here is a handy list of salt-tolerant vegetables.
So you’ve decided to give it a go. Think carefully about the type of container you will use. Space will most likely be limited so you will need to plan well. Do you have a sheltered space that you can dedicate to permanently housing the plants or will you need to bring them down below when sailing?
Rectangular containers seem to be the most popular and have a low centre of gravity, thus reducing the issue of tipping over. These could be bought or made to fit a particular space. Old pallets are ideal for a bespoke container if you want to reuse and recycle. You would need to line with some sort of waterproof lining to reduce water loss. Whilst drainage holes would normally be added in a conventional garden setting, this would cause mess on a boat so no drainage holes, lots of fibre instead will help drainage.
Hanging pots is one neat idea and can be made by recycling plastic bottles or cans. You could even try your hand at knotwork and make some macrame planter hangers. A means of securing the containers is also a necessity. Velcro, bungee cords or other cordage could be used.
The most obvious medium is compost/soil. If you are lucky you will be docked somewhere where you can buy this. If not some sailors have asked local residents if they would be willing to donate some of their growing medium or soil.
Another option would be to have a hydroponic setup. This would mean less potential mess from soil. If you have a good supply of water then this could be the way to go. A hydroponic system is lighter, cleaner and plants tend to grow better because you can control the nutrients in the water supply. You can also grow them vertically. Microgreens can also be grown hydroponically and would be ideal to grow in a small space.
Sprouting is another alternative and would be ideal in a small space. You just need a jar or similar container, water and dried beans or seeds to sprout. The dried beans and seeds can be kept for long periods in their dried state before you need to use them for sprouting. You should see results in a few days too.
Whatever growing medium you are using a good water supply is essential. This could be supplied from your storage tanks, a watermaker or rainwater collection. One thing to consider when using a watermaker is that the resulting water can slightly saline and the wrong pH for your plants. Testing would be needed to guide against this. Rainwater collection is a good option, the plants seem to prefer rainwater and with a little bit of thought and ingenuity can be collected from the deck and/or bimini very easily.
As with conventional gardening, location can be vital to the success or failure of your venture. This will probably be trial and error. Different plants will prefer different locations. These locations will also change depending on whether you are sailing or moored up and the changes in the weather. One thing sailors are good at though is predicting and weather watching. It might help to begin with to make the container moveable, you can then experiment finding the best spot.
To give you some inspiration we have compiled a Pinterest board entitled Gardening on a Boat. Take a look at some of the ideas fellow gardening sailors have had.
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