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How to Plant and Maintain a Garden on a Cruising Boat – Fresh salad?

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The deep indigo and azure of the open ocean, the sparkling light-blue and turquoise of an anchorage – the cruising life comes mainly in shades of blue. Wouldn’t a speck of green be something on which to rest the eyes? Not some distant island, but an oasis of your own.

People are often amazed when they see our lush little garden under the sprayhood and assume that keeping plants on a boat must be complicated, time-consuming and bound to end in a messy disaster with overthrown pots on a rough passage, or plants withering away in the hostile salty environment. Our first attempts did indeed go wrong and we unintentionally murdered quite a few herbal passengers.

Here are ten tips for a cockpit jungle that will add flavor and vitamins to your meals – even in the remotest places:

Where should I put the garden on my boat?

The future home of your plants should be sunny but protected from rain and especially salt spray, like under the sprayhood. Choose a site where the pots can stay while you’re sailing. As gardening novices we kept the pots in the cockpit at anchor and stored them in the cabin on passages, but in rough conditions they were tossed over and in the end the plants died from lack of sunlight. Planning on moving the pots once the weather turns bad also doesn’t work; you’ll be too busy reefing to rescue the green passengers in time.

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The garden is nice and snug even on passage. Photo by Birgit Hackl
The garden is nice and snug even on passage. Photo by Birgit Hackl

What kind of Pots should you use?

Dedicated pots for plants have holes on the bottom to drain superfluous water. A saucer full of muddy water’s an accident waiting to happen on a pitching or rolling yacht, so we opted for closed containers instead. Any small bucket will do, use whatever fits best into your chosen location.

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How do you keep the pots from moving and breaking?

To keep the pots from sliding and toppling over when the boat is heeling, we put them on non-skid mats and stretch a bungee cord tightly all around the garden. An adequately high wooden/plastic/metal barrier would work as well.

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Safety harness for our Thai-basil, cilantro, oregano, spinach, mint and basil. Photo by Birgit Hackl
Safety harness for our Thai-basil, cilantro, oregano, spinach, mint and basil. Photo by Birgit Hackl

Where on earth do you find the Soil?

If you’re lucky you’ll have a supermarket or DIY store nearby that sells soil in reasonably small bags. If you start your garden in a place without access to a store then you can ask locals for some rich soil from their gardens. To avoid taking critters aboard you can either freeze the soil for a few days (again ask someone ashore with a big freezer for a favor), or bake it in the oven for half an hour to roast potential stowaways – cruel, but effective.

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A big bucket for lettuce grown in our boat garden.. Photo by Birgit Hackl
A big bucket for lettuce. Photo by Birgit Hackl

What kind of Plants grow best on a boat?

We grow hardy species that we can harvest for a long time. Herbs like basil, oregano, cilantro or mint work best and even small amounts add lots of flavor to a dish. Spinach is very undemanding, grows all year round and the young leaves are delicious in salads and sandwiches. We have seen tomato plants on other boats, but they are sensitive and take a long time until they yield fruit. During extended cruising in remote areas we’ve experimented with lettuce, but that required larger buckets which were less handy on passage.

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What kind of Water should you use and how often should you water your garden?

Be careful with watermaker water, even a trace of salinity will salt the earth each day, accumulating until the plants start dying. Heavily chlorinated water is also bad for the health of your green friends. Their first choice of beverage is collected rainwater. With closed containers there’s a risk of drowning the roots, so it’s best to water less, but every day.

Should you use Fertilizer on your boat garden?

Fresh soil has lots of nutrients, but start using additional fertilizer when the leaves turn pale and the growth rate cuts back. Small containers are soon filled up with roots, so replanting once (or twice) a year is necessary.

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How do you keep the Bugs and pests at bay?

Many cruisers refrain from plants out of fear they’ll attract insects. We’ve had some ant invasions over time, but so have friends without gardens. As a precaution we put ant traps behind the pots to discourage potential colonists.

The fruits of our garden on a boat. Photo by Birgit Hackl
Our garden supplied tasty vitamins while at anchor in a secluded atoll. Photo by Birgit Hackl

Temporary additions

For a wider range of greens in our salad we add sprouts to the garden. Lentils and mung beans are the simplest to grow. After one night of soaking in a bowl, drain the water, wash the grains thoroughly, put a lid on (to keep away insects) and let them grow for two to five days without any substrate. Rinse the sprouts twice a day; the remaining humidity is enough to keep them growing.

Will the boat garden cause us trouble with customs and immigration Regulations?

We had no problems with quarantine officers throughout the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific, but some countries like New Zealand or Australia will confiscate and destroy your green friends. Check regulations before arrival so that you can at least have a last big salad without having to pay for the removal.

Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and their ship’s cat, Leeloo, set sail towards the horizon in June 2011 on their yacht Pitufa. Visit their blog: www.pitufa.at

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  1. Thank you, very informative and exciting to read others trials with this. I was worried about salt air but less concerned now. Aloha


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Birgit Hackl
Birgit Hacklhttp://www.pitufa.at
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and ship’s cat Leeloo have been exploring the world on their yacht Pitufa since 2011. Visit their blog: www.pitufa.at

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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