Nomadic Permaculture & how to make a roof garden (on a narrowboat)

Alice Griffin
Wednesday, 1st June 2011

Ever wanted to downshift and live on a boat? Alice Griffin and her family decided to give up living in a house and moved on to a narrowboat on a canal. Here is the first in a series about how they practise permaculture in a tiny moving space and tips on how to build small, light raised beds to grow vegetables on fragile structures like a narrowboat roof.

A little over a year ago and after several years of living in a rather nomadic way, home for my family and I finally became a 61ft narrowboat. Our reasoning behind this was simple: we wanted to live a smaller, simpler, freer life, more in tune with nature. 

I love waking up to the sound of birdsong and knowing what the weather is doing before I even open the curtains and I relish the quieter existence we have living along the towpath. Even in a city it provides a place where you are able to retreat back from the hustle and bustle and recline into a slower pace. The bigger picture does involve finding ourselves some land in which to put down some more permanent roots, but until that day comes travelling around in our home on water provides just about all we need. However, one thing it does not provide is a large piece of earth from which to grow food and as our journey towards a more planet-friendly lifestyle has long included growing some of our own, it is now necessary to start thinking creatively. Last weekend the journey into applying some permaculture practices to the roof of my home began.

Visiting our local hardware store for some 'on boat' repairs we spied a box of random pieces of wood and pallets looking forlorn and unwanted at the front door. We asked a member of staff if they needed a new home and were told to help ourselves if we could make use of anything. Being boaties, we thought at the very least we could burn such material, but in the end we were actually able to utilise it in a much more useful way by making the odds and ends into a couple of planters. A few screws here, a few taps there with the hammer, a lining of plastic spiked with holes for drainage and the start of our rooftop garden was created – for free. I guess the first thing I have learned is that if you don't ask you don't get and when I see the price of planters in the garden centre, it seems almost criminal not to make your own.

The next step was to fill the planters with soil. I wanted to create a soil as natural as possible, taking on board the preparations I have read about in permaculture books. My finished layering system went like this:


Collected natural soil



Mulch (collected leaves found in forested areas on the towpath)





These planters are only 10cm deep so I just chucked a small layer of each material in. I have no idea if this is going to work well, but the early signs are good. I sprinkled a few leftover radish seeds in one of the planters and they are already taking shape! And now my salad collection seeds have arrived from the Real Seed Catalogue today I plan to make another two planters and start sowing with gay abandon!

I want to create planters as close to a natural system as they can be, and consequently I think I will sow seeds randomly perhaps even mixing edible seeds with wild flower seeds?

Of course, any tips you lovely permaculture readers can offer or share, with regards to what to grow and how to grow in small spaces, would be wonderful. I would love to connect with a few other 'tiny gardeners' and together prove that you do not need acres of land to grow at least some of your own food. Please post comments directly below on this website for all to share.

Watch this space!


Alice Griffin likes to write, garden and get crafty from her narrowboat, which currently cruises at 4mph up and down the Grand Union Canal.


Personal Blog:


Enjoyed this article? We have lots more practical DIY articles in Permaculture magazine. Please subscribe and support the quarterly print edition as well as this free online site.

pureportugal |
Wed, 01/06/2011 - 15:14
After seeing the heading about how to make beds for a boat roof I was going to send you the link for this article, thinking you would love it, then realised you had written it! Planters look great and yes - mix edibles with flowers :)
Alice Griffin |
Thu, 02/06/2011 - 17:06
Thanks Sophie - funny! and yes... I have mixed edibles and flowers and things are flourishing ;-) should be posting more on that next week!
juclear |
Tue, 07/06/2011 - 19:16
hi this sounds yuk but it works babys corn starch nappys used just wee wee, put at the bottom of a new bed they will add nitrogen and help keep water in .
Alice Griffin |
Wed, 08/06/2011 - 12:41
Hi Juclear ... thanks for the tip - it does sound yuck! but I guess whatever works! Only problem is where to find used nappies!!! I shall ask around ;-)
Gillian Wilkinson Stirrup |
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 09:32
thanks for the article on how to make a roof garden . my husband and i have have just started living on a 40ft tradtitional narrowboat on leeds to liverpool at scarisbrick marina and how great it is . and this article has given me lots of great ideas thanks for the tips :)
Wendywitch Pankhurst |
Tue, 08/05/2012 - 17:44
Hi! I live on a 55ft narrowboat and use plastic pots to keep the weight down, and polystyrene pieces for drainage. I grow all kinds of fruit, veg and flowers. I even grew a giant sunflower one year, bit of a pain because I had to lay it down everytime I went under a bridge! I have found a lovely alternative though - sunflower 'Choco Sun'. Great article, thank you! Love Wendy x