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With a limited space and obvious pitfalls due to salt, wind and movement, many of us would give up right away the idea of growing your own vegetables on boat.

It could be possible: I have had a chat with some hardened navigators who are also skilled gardeners to get an idea of what growing herbs and fresh vegetables on a sailboat could mean. 

Scurvy, the disease that has historically persecuted seafarers, is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, traditionally associated to long stays at sea without fruits and vegetables. Luckily, scurvy is not a thing a sailor should worry about anymore; however, fresh vegetables last only few days in boats fridges, usually suffering from hits and shaking because of movement.

Although, with a garden on board, it does not matter how small, pasta with fresh basil or a crunchy salad are no longer limited to supplies purchased on land; moreover, not to be underestimated that many herbs also have health benefits, being rich in vitamins and anti-inflammatory properties.

Modern evolution of long route navigations highlighted the importance of self-sufficiency on boat, not only in terms of energy and water but in every form: energy, food, health; the choice of starting to grow a small biological garden therefor seems a rational decision for the boat and the navigation’s success. 

Growing a garden on a boat requires a little scheduling and dedication, with unique challenges for the floating life. At the beginning, you have to protect seedlings as much as you can from seawater. For this reason, it is a good thing to start by growing plants that love shade, such as aloe, oregano, chive, tomatoes, peppers and mint, placed where they are safe from wind, sprays of the sea and will have less exposure to the sun.

An important thing to understand is that our geographical position will establish what grows and what dies, and this requires many attempts and failures. Throwing outboard (metaphorically) some dead plant, especially in the first days, will be an inevitable price to pay, comfort one another because is a common evil. 

Living on a boat requires a lot of patience and gardening on board requires twice the same virtue; it takes time and good predisposition; however, this dedication will be rewarded with the fruits you will be able to harvest the fruits in few months.

Those who tried recommend starting with cheap seedlings from the local market or the supermarket seeds. They are cheap and perfect to start experiencing; a good advice is to grow seeds in the trays in which – for example – arrives meet and chicken and to transplant them once they have sprouted.

Using rectangular trays with a low centre of gravity and less soil than we would usually do, we will have the advantage make the vessel less prone to capsize, creating also less mess in case it does. Let’s consider and prefer choosing plants that will be “happy” to share a vase, such as thyme, oregano and rosemary, which all prefer a drained soil, or mint, coriander and lemon balm, which prefer more humidity. In such a way it will be possible maximize the space and you will pleasantly increase variety.

Long rectangle flower boxes are often perfect, especially if neatly assembled. Despite some plants need a drained soil, it will be useful to avoid using vessels that have holes in the bottom, and using “closed” vases filled at the bottom with a disposable fibre instead. Simply to avoid the presence of saucers that lose muddy water on a moving boat: definitely an imaginable option on board.

The boat will be sailing, and you have to be careful with salty water sprays: in that case, it will be useful to rinse with a freshwater spray, helping rejuvenate and revitalize your plants after a long journey.

It is also important to “train” our plants, which means cutting them to encourage a lower but wider growth model. Tall and heavy plants will have less probability of staying in vertical position; as much as each of us can exhibit ample evidence of the contrary, basic physics laws work on board too, especially when sailing.

Of course, major difficulties arise when sailing under sail, especially in case of single-hull and you are upwind tilted 45-degree. A tested solution is to wrap the vases in an aluminium foil, leaving exposed only plants. This will not only hold the soil, but also contains humidity and prevents the soil from drying out.

Another option is to keep the vases in wooden boxes that can you can place somewhere safe. When you are facing bad weather (with all its corollary of rough sea, gusts and difficult movements), the last thing you want to deal with is a dinette with the floor covered in soil.  

Other solutions to protect your plants during navigation include ropes, Blu-tac or strap for heavy loads, according to the vessel’s dimensions.

You obviously have to fertilize plants; a good option can be to do it with a homemade compost, created with organic food waste, such as vegetable peels, coffee and tea remains, eggshells and pruning. You will be treating your “garden” preferably with natural insecticide, so that you do not contaminate your “harvest” with chemicals.

The irrigation system supplies directly from seawater, desalinated on board: the desalinated water is generally good to use, with the warning to test with a small pH kit (similar to the one used to test pools) to ensure the right acidity for your plants. This could mean that you have to add a small dose of white vinegar to balance the acidity.

Collecting rainwater could be another option, which is often easy enough to do capturing the outflow from areas such as Bimini and solar panels. If we are sailing in a remote area and buying soil in a supermarket is not a possible option, we could ask local people for some soil from their garden; most of them will be happy to please us, but attention not to introduce in our garden “population” of new creatures. If possible, a solution could be to freeze soil for some days to eliminate eventual insects.

In conclusion, gardening on boat can be a funny and satisfying hobby, even if challenging. The direct witness of my sailor and globetrotter friend C.T. (when I heard from him via skype he was at anchor I do not know where in the Pacific) confirms the goodness of this practice: “I have a lot of fun with my plants; so much that I often name them. They add a sense of calm to our home, and they are aesthetically pleasing ad purify the air. They also give me a sense of purpose, and after travelling with me for many years, I feel like they have become part of my family”.

Why not, then? Maybe it isn’t the “coolest” thing to show in port, but it certainly is a good way to connect with nature and a fun game-practice to do with kids. 

Fair wind everybody, see you at sea.

Renzo Crovo