By Mark Ridsdill Smith of Vertical Veg.
Any bright space, be it patio, balcony, roof terrace or window sill can become a productive and rewarding food garden.
This is the first in a monthly series of tips on how you can grow food in containers and small spaces. Lots of practical tips to follow in coming months.
This month I thought I’d share how I discovered, by chance, that vegetable paradise is possible, even in a tiny concrete space. If you’ve living in a city without a garden I hope it will inspire you to look at your space and the possibilities in a new way.
No garden, no allotment…
For years, I was yearning to grow food when I lived in a London flat. After much fruitless waiting for an allotment (I really thought I needed either an allotment or a garden to grow food), I decided I had nothing to lose from experimenting in pots on my 6 foot by 9 foot north west facing balcony. I found it hard to find good information on growing food in pots (part of the inspiration to set up Vertical Veg!) so there was lots of experimentation.
Surprise at what’s possible
Expecting the odd bowl of rocket, I was genuinely surprised when, after a couple of years of trial and error (and lots of growing disasters!) we were eating fresh food off the balcony nearly every day (even in winter). After telling friends I was ‘growing a lot’, I decided I needed to find a way to back up this claim.
So in 2010 I weighed every harvest and found that, from the window sills and balcony, we harvested the equivalent of 144 bags of supermarket salad, 113 punnets of tomatoes, 165 packs of herbs, 51 bags of peas and beans, 6 kilos of stir fry greens and 12 kilos of courgettes and squash. We also had blueberries and wild strawberries – but these never made it to the weighing scales before being eaten!
Not only did we enjoy the addition of super fresh, delicious food with nearly all our meals, but our lives were transformed in other ways, too.
Wider benefits of growing in containers
After fifteen years of living in the same flat, we met and chatted to many of our neighbours for the first time – intrigued by our growing on the street.
We grew enough to have a surplus to share with friends and neighbours (a bouquet of herbs or a bowl of fresh chillies makes for a lovely gift when visiting friends). All our waste food was recycled in a wormery – so none was ever thrown away and wasted (One side affect is that I can’t bear to see any food waste going to landfill now).
We had fun experimenting with new crops and herbs in the kitchen, too. Many things that are easy to grow are hard or impossible to find in the shops – like sorrel, lovage or Vietnamese coriander to name just three.
And last but not least I discovered an immensely rewarding and fun and creative hobby. I loved the opportunity to get outside, to watch bees and ladybirds discovering my plants, and to feel closer to the seasons again. There was a real pleasure in simply watching plants grow – each morning there seemed to be a new surprise, a new shoot or flower emerging.
All in all, growing food in pots became the perfect, relaxing complement to a busy urban life!
Container garden or allotment?
I’m often asked if I’d still like an allotment. Well, yes, I would – but mainly to grow bulk quantities of potatoes, parsnips, raspberries and apples – crops that are all tricky to grow in quantity in containers. But even with an allotment, I’d much prefer to grow our salad leaves, herbs, chillies and tomatoes in containers at home. There’s simply such a joy and
convenience in having all this, quite literally on your doorstep.
A quick word on starting
In this fast paced world of internets and computers, one of the joys of food growing is that it benefits from being developed slowly. And it’s not difficult –you’ll find information here on the Quickcrop site to help you find what you need – and you’ll also learn best from experimenting yourself. The most important thing is to get started, with one or two small easy projects and an open mind.
You can find out about some fun, easy – and still delicious – container growing projects to help get you started.
Photo of Mark by Miki Yamanouchi.