Getting started in balcony farming
9th March, 2010
Strapped for garden space needn't mean being strapped for home-grown veg, as an experienced London balcony gardener reveals
When it comes to making the most of what you've got for a vegetable garden, Callum Saunders is something of an expert. He'd have to be, having technically no garden to speak of. Unless you count the tiny balcony of his first-floor London flat, that is.
Like many city-dwellers who are strapped for space, being footloose and garden-free hasn't stopped Callum planting vegetables. It's amazing how little space they need to grow, and even the smallest flats will have windowsill space for the odd pot of salad plants or container of cress.
With all of us more concerned to know about where our food comes from, to save money or simply to experience the simple joy of planting seeds and watching them grow, the rise of the balcony farmer is one of the more encouraging signs that city life needn't mean being disconnected from the natural world - indeed, ploughing rural furrows in the concrete heart of the city can do nothing but good in terms of refocusing attitudes towards the environment.
'I started getting into gardening when I moved into my flat in Hackney a year and a half ago, but have only really been growing vegetables since April this year,' says Callum, whose only previous horticultural experience was helping his mum out in the garden back in his native Lewes, East Sussex. 'I first had the idea when I was putting a few plants on the balcony - I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder if I can actually grow a few things in pots?' The rest is history.'
Eager to share his experiences of this unique experiment with other green-fingered urbanites, the 27-year-old copywriter started the London Vegetable Garden blog, allowing visitors to check on the progress of his veg, pick up some tips and learn from his mistakes - that leaf-mildewed butternut squash plant tucked away in the far corner of his balcony, for example: too small for its pot? Better left to tumble rather than trained up a cane? Callum says he wants the blog to be as real and as accurate an account of his progress as possible, which means documenting the things that don't work as well as those that do.
The blog itself is thriving: during the summer it was getting 2,500 hits a month. Callum is also the man behind the London Gardeners' Network, which has about 120 members at the moment, with more joining all the time to upload pictures of their balcony farms, chat to each other, swap notes and ask questions in the forum. The internet offers a wealth of information, as well as keeping you in touch with others who are taking the plunge.
The Royal Horticultural Society says enquiries about vegetable-growing have doubled in the past few years, and sales of seed are up 40 per cent. Its Grow Your Own campaign will focus on container growing next year, which should hopefully see numbers increase even further. As an indication of the opportunity presented by even small amounts of outside space, the National Trust launched a campaign earlier this year to persuade inhabitants of the UK's five million flats to ditch the daffodils and grow something worthwhile in their windowsills. It calculates there are 600 acres of prime vegetable-growing land sitting unused outside the nation's windows.
'You don't need an allotment or garden to grow your own food, we've got the equivalent of 344 football pitches' worth of growing space right on our windowsills,' says Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust. 'Growing "window food" is an easy way to ensure your vegetables are local and bursting with flavour without breaking the bank; and when it's pouring with rain there's no need to brave the weather - you simply open the window and pick what you need.'
While Callum stresses he's in no way self-sufficient - there is a limit to the amount of food that can be grown on a 9ft x 2ft balcony, after all - it's the having a go that matters. A process of trial and error will eventually see a host of vegetables perfectly adapted to the space he has available, to the changing seasons and the weather conditions on his balcony.
'At the moment, with the wintery conditions, I simply have a few things ticking over slowly: a few dwarf carrots, some rocket lettuce, a few spring onions, a couple of beetroots, and I have harvested a few radishes this week. Back in the summer it was much more productive because of all the heat and light - in July and August I had a good crop of tomatoes that kept me going for a long time. If you have the space, be adventurous!'
You don't need a lot of space to get started, says Callum, but it depends on what you want to do. The easiest vegetables to grow are salad leaves and herbs, which only require a shallow box on a bright windowsill - rocket produces quick results. Annual time-tested favourites that produce great results in balcony pots include radishes, runner beans - if they have room enough to climb these hardy vegetables are great to grow in the summer - and tomatoes, which grow strong and quickly become sturdy once they have taken hold.
In terms of expense, developing your farm can cost as much or as little as you want. Use what you have lying around, or what family, friends or Freegle can donate. Balcony farming does not rely on huge budgets; its make-do ethic applies as much to expense as to outside space. For every expensive and complex balcony-farming kit in the shops there are a hundred cheaper ways to grow.
Ice cream tubs with holes drilled in the bottom and filled with compost make the ideal windowsill lettuce beds. Green onions, parsley and herbs can survive in smaller pots, while buckets and even large plastic bottles with their tops cut off can also be used, but will need drainage holes to prevent waterlogging your seeds; rocks at the bottom will help water drain out properly.
Most supermarkets sell cheap compost grow-bags, which contain extra nutrients for young plants. Keeping worms can cut costs even further, as these wriggly workers create homemade compost out of kitchen scraps.
Every little helps
Placing your plants in the right area is vital. Most will fare well in sunny spots, but some prefer shade - like lettuce, onions, parsley and radishes - so check your seed packet for instructions.
Make sure you re-pot your vegetable plants when they need it: once or twice if you're growing from seed; some will need a pot of their own if their roots aren't to become cramped. Avoid getting leaves wet to avoid the spread of disease.
'It's important to stay committed to your plants,' says Callum. 'Especially during the summer, you need to commit at least 10 minutes a day to making sure they're watered, re-potted and looked-after - Londoners, like lots of city-dwellers, lead busy lifestyles, and it's easy to put things off for a day or two, but care and attention are crucial if growing vegetables from seed, especially for the first few weeks.
But that needn't take the fun out of it, Callum says. 'Don't be put off thinking that it's too hard - a bit of TLC and attention will ensure you get something out of gardening. Remain patient and enjoy it!'
For ethical and sustainable suppliers of gardening goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here
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