Wellness in small places – vertical gardens and indoor plants

Human health and wellbeing, on a sustainable basis, should be the primary objective of urban policy and planning.

An increasingly growing body of research from fields as diverse as psychology, ecology, urban planning and architecture, and health and wellness, are determining that a connection to nature is essential to human health (Brymer, Cuddihy & Sharma-Brymer 2010).  This report provides an excellent assessment of work done in the area and shares my assertion that re-connecting with nature can enhance wellness.

Gardens and gardening have been shown to provide many benefits to our health and wellness, not to mention the benefits to the environments.

I’ve always enjoyed being in green surrounding…something I think I have gained from my parents who have incredible green thumbs, and have spent innumerable hours creating and nurturing the most beautiful of gardens, primarily for their own enjoyment and happiness.  In the 5 or so years since their latest venture began, they have again created a beautiful oasis that looks like it was developed over ten’s of years.

Still this story is about doing it smaller – on a balcony!

We live in a 1300 sq foot apartment with our 2 feline girls.  We have a small balcony but big enough to grow plants, enjoy the morning sunrise and an evening cocktail, not to mention our the incredible view (but that’s another story).  But I simply didn’t have enough room to grow plants for food, that is until I saw my neighbors beautiful vertical wall.  I decided to do the same except that we would dedicate our wall to growing food.  However I’m challenged in two ways:

Firstly our balcony faces east and although for much of the year this is perfect, in the summer it is harsh, both on the plants and us.

Second challenge is that I am still developing my edible gardening skills and there remains a great deal of trial and error!

To make it easy I decided to start with herbs, plus we use a lot.  I sourced a load of organic herb seeds on my trip to Australia and started planting.

Vertical Walls

Vertical walls are still a relatively new concept in Hong Kong and as with all things new they cost a lot…too much in fact.  So we rigged up something simple.  These pictures give you an idea of how we have configured the wall.  I sourced it all from the Mongkok flower market (by the way a great place to visit if you are not from HK and reading this story).

Vertical Wall

I try to use clay posts as much as possible because plastic will leach after long-term exposure to the sun and they do dry out faster, although I will only replace those that I have with clay when they wear out….recycle and reuse before disposal. I tried metal pots (old coffee tins), however the soil to dries out quickly, which is not healthy either for the plants or the soil.

Edible food

My first season was purely herbs* with 3 batches of rocket and baby spinach.  I also grow nasturtiums and marigolds to keep the bugs away.  I attempted lemongrass but our girls get to them before they have a chance…needless to say they love lemongrass!

*coriander, basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, geranium, lemon balm, mint, thyme

The next crop will find the addition of  tomatoes, beetroot and baby carrots.


Critical to this process and the health of our food is composting.  But how do you compost on a balcony I hear you ask.  I bokashi compost, under my kitchen sink.  I am a fundamental supporter of organic and SLOW food (seasonal [sustainable], local, organic, whole), so throwing away whole organic food scraps is difficult and makes me feel guilty.  Our soil and our health requires good quality nutrients to be fed back into the eco-system.  However when you do not have a garden in which to mix your full bokashi bin what do you do?

This is what I do.

– Add 2 60ltr coco peat blocks (I use the organic variety) with water.  Once they have fully absorbed the water

– Add the contents of the bokashi bin (extract all bokashi juice first for plant fertilizer)

– Add small bag of organic soil (optional dependent on the moisture of the mix)

– Mix and stir daily or every few days to oxygenate

– If too moist consider adding other carbon material like newspaper

– After 3-4 months, voilà we have organic soil, perfect for indoor plants, vegetables and herbs all grown on the vertical wall on my balcony.

Indoor plants

Having plants in the home and in the office also supports our health and wellness and the immediate environment.

indoor plants
indoor plants 2

Indoor plants are a great way to improve indoor air quality.  The use of air conditioning, poor construction and air ventilation materials and the outgassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from furniture, paints and  electronic equipment can create higher levels of air pollution inside than out.  We take care to put organic and natural foods into our bodies, we care about putting healthy and natural / organic products on our bodies, but at the same time we are breathing in the same chemicals we are trying to avoid ingesting and absorbing via our skin.   Enter, indoor plants!

NASA first introduced the idea of using indoor plants to remove VOC’s through tests conducted on the space stations.  Here is an interesting article on this topic.  As it turns out it’s not just the plants that clean the air, it’s the combination of the soil and the plants, and my guess is that if your soil is full of healthy bacteria and nutrients (like my bokashi compost)  the combination works even better.

Finally, although my office is my home and I revel in the opportunity to nurture them every day because I can, you too can achieve the same in your office.  I’m addicted to orchids and in the days of full-time work and long hours at the office, I had many orchids throughout my office.  Not only was this healthy for my office environment, it gave me a good sense of well-being.  As Torpy suggests in the article, “having a plant in the office….improves emotional state, reduces negative mood states, reduces distraction, increases creativity and improves task-performance”. So many advantages from a few simple plants.

If you are interested in more on this subject here is a link to an interview with a fascinating women, Esther Sternberg M.D. and her book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.

How does having plants in your space make you feel?

Brymer, E., Cuddihy, T.F., Sharma-Brymer, V. (2010), The Role of Nature-Based Experiences in the Development and Maintenance of WellnessAsia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, Vol. 1(2)
Keniger LE, Gaston KJ, Irvine KN, Fuller RA. What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(3):913-935.
Torpy, F., (2013). Clearing the air: the hidden wonders of indoor plants, The Conversation

You may also like: