A feature I wrote for Time Out’s new guide book 2012 Things To Do in London
For someone lacking in green fingers, the idea that a blank balcony could ever become an urban jungle is quite an imaginative leap. But it is possible. In a matter of months, despite having no real gardening knowledge and very little spare cash, I managed to turn a small flat roof in Holloway into an aerial, edible garden. And I’m by no means unique. Loads of Londoners are growing their own, despite spatial limitations.
In north London, garden-less Mark Ridsill-Smith is practically self-sufficient in fruit and veg terms. Every window ledge and balcony space of his Camden home is supporting some kind of edible plant life. Methodical in his approach, Mark is focussed on being as productive as he possibly can. He’s carefully calculated that he grew over 80kg of food last summer, worth £590. His harvest ranged from rainbow chard and cavelo nero in April, to mange tout and dill in June, through to tomatoes and courgettes in September.
Reassuringly, he confesses that his first attempt at balcony growing resulted in one solitary serving of rocket. Since then, he’s got more serious and says detailed planning is the key to a year-round supply of fresh produce purely from pots.
March to June is most busy – he spends about 30 minutes a day watering, plus half a day a week sowing, staking and planting out. The work load lessens after that. He estimates that he spends one day in total over a month from July to October, and half a day each month from November to February. He’s not obsessed but he is focused, and keen to teach other people about food growing.
Full of new found urban farming knowledge, Mark’s set up www.verticalveg.org.uk in a bid to get more land-less people growing. He recommends starting off with leafy herb or salad crops that are expensive to buy. The most delicious of all are pea and broad bean shoots. They grow to edible size in just three weeks, from May until October. Climbing crops are great for space poor people too – things like vine tomatoes, winter squash, French beans and mange-tout.
Mark is taking his personal balcony allotment growing to something of an extreme, but this doesn’t have to be your approach. A few culinary herbs on a kitchen window ledge will transform your meals, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in a single hanging basket of tumbling tomatoes or strawberries.
For me it all began when I escaped the house-share from hell and moved to a tiny first floor flat in Holloway that just happened to have an accessible rooftop. Not exactly a garden, it was a bleak grey space but one that was ripe to become something special. The roof was fenced off, able to bear weight and my bedroom had a door that opened straight out onto it. It was framed by views of chimney tops and town houses, and buffeted by birdsong and traffic noise.
It took me a while to get started in earnest. The roof was appealing but I wasn’t a gardener. There was much thought but little action for rather a long time. I would stare at it through condensation curtained windows during my first winter there and think I’d like to get to know my balcony better.
Come summer, it was a space for sun dozing rather than vegetable growing, but things changed. I became increasingly interested in urban nature, fascinated by the number of creatures that call London home, and I was starting to understand the environmental importance of urban gardens.
While London is celebrated as being one of the world’s most verdant cities, green space is still endangered here. Private garden land covers a significant swathe of the capital and is a precious resource, but it especially is under threat from hard surfacing and development. Lots of natural land is lost to decking and extensions, so creating a brand new garden felt really valuable.
I decided I would transform myself into aerial edible gardener and attempt to create a true living room – an outside space that would become an important extension of my small home. The rooftop space was three metres square and, despite being sandwiched between the Camden and Holloway Roads, it managed to feel calm. The plan was to weave green walls around the rooftop and turn it into a fragrant tangle of vegetables, fruit and flowers.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I read a few books and drew strange diagrams, but really I just experimented. Some stuff worked well, other things didn’t. All my crops had to bear an entirely container bound life, and I discovered that things like runner bean, tomato, courgette, potato, garlic, radish, strawberry, salads and herbs all cope well. I also sought out flowers, especially night blooming ones. Spring was painted with the yellows and purples of daffodils, violas and alium star bursts, while summer evenings were perfumed by tobacco plant, evening primrose and jasmine.
Luckily, the Holloway roof is something of a suntrap. South facing, it’s bathed in warm rays all afternoon in the spring and summer, which means tomatoes and strawberries ripened quickly. Shady and north facing window ledges and balconies are harder to cultivate, but there are lots of plants that don’t mind. As a general rule, leafy crops can tolerate the most shade. Mint, lemon balm, sorrel, parsley, thyme, fennel, sage, lettuce and chard will all survive without much sun.
Growing your own could get expensive, but the thrifty gardener can survive on a shoe string budget. Next time you buy a chilli, keep the seeds and plant them. Next time you buy garlic, plant a clove and it’ll transform into a bulb (after a few months!). Seek out seed swaps and farmers’ markets for cheap seeds and plants, and treat yourself to a Sunday afternoon at Columbia Road Market. Head there when the traders are packing up to get the best deals.
Decent compost and plant food are the key to growing success, and someone interested in being environmentally friendly should seek out soil that’s organic and peat-free. For those on a budget, local councils sometimes offer deals on compost. For example Islington has been known to sell 60 litre bags (made from north Londoners’ food waste) for £3.
Be creative when it comes to containers. The streets of London are littered with wooden veg boxes that stall and shop owners will happily let you have, possibly after a bit of banter. People are constantly throwing away things that make great plant pots. I’ve found and used old baskets, paint pots, colanders and even a wooden CD rack.
Of course there have been problems in my rooftop paradise. I’ve been terrorised by obese and angry squirrels that eat my strawberries and tomatoes, and behead my flowers out of nothing but spite. And slugs and snails have devoured my hard grown lettuces. Watering in the hot months can be time consuming and I’ve been guilty of neglect. But overall making myself a little roof garden has been pure pleasure. However humble your attempt, I heartily recommend you give it a go.
There are numerous plants, including edible ones, which will survive and thrive in containers. That container could be a basket full of tumbling tomatoes hanging beside a shared front door; a kitchen ledge window box planted with culinary herbs; or larger troughs and pots sitting on a balcony, hosting anything from courgettes to potatoes and everything in between.
A few pot happy plants:
Beans, carrots, courgettes, squashes, potatoes, radishes, garlic, peppers, chillies, salad leaves
Bay, rosemary, chives, chervil, parsley, basil, sage, oregano, thyme, mint, lemon balm
Lavender, jasmine, evening primrose, night flowering tobacco, rose, viola, daffodils, alium