The balcony scene: how to grow vegetables in a small urban space

Bristol-based Cinead McTernan got the go-ahead to write her book on growing city vegetables just as the UK entered its first lockdown in spring 2020. She needed to practice what she was preaching — and have it photographed — but couldn’t get hold of seeds and plug plants. “The nation was going ‘grow your own’ crazy and everything had sold out,” McTernan says.

Many city dwellers who, during the pandemic, had a go at growing on balconies, in yards or, if they were lucky, some open ground, will be reflecting on the experience and pondering whether to bother again. McTernan — whose book City Veg: Inspiration from an Urban Garden was published last month by Bloomsbury — encourages them to do so. “It can be frustrating living in a city with a small outdoor space but it is quite possible to elevate your summer display to be productive as well as attractive.”

Rather than hanker after separate herb, vegetable, fruit and cutting gardens, she explains, her aim was to encourage people to “chuck in what you can, where you can”.

McTernan lives with her 10-year-old son Hal. In the book she is candid on the subject of children and gardening. “As a parent, I want to debunk the notion that growing vegetables will miraculously make your children eat all their greens.” Nevertheless sweetcorn, potatoes and pumpkins tend to be child-friendly crops, gardening can be fun and Hal now “understands the effort involved in growing a plant from seed, and the time it takes to produce an edible crop”.

The second book too The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening by Mark Ridsdill Smith (Chelsea Green Publishing). Whereas McTernan draws on her small garden with actual beds and a greenhouse, Ridsdill Smith is dedicated to people growing food in confined concrete urban spaces. Frustrated by the long waiting list for an allotment, he started balcony gardening in 2009. His collection of containers grew to cover his small front garden and then he borrowed some of the neighbor’s space.

The book has technical advice on the weight and structure of containers and covers the horticultural science behind the discipline, such as understanding the Nitrogen: Phosphorus: Potassium (N: P: K) ratios of fertilizers and their consequent suitability to different crops.

Cinead McTernan’s son Hal helps out in their city garden. . .

Cinead's small city garden in summer, where crops like strawberries, kale and sweetcorn provide bountiful harvests

. . . where crops such as strawberries, kale and sweetcorn provide bountiful harvests © Tory McTernan

Spring is a good time to start a wormery, invaluable in a small space to generate nutrient-rich worm compost from vegetable waste. Worm compost improves crop vitality, resistance to pests and diseases and yields.

Both authors describe the joy of being able to nip outside and harvest a contribution to their next meal. This is where whatever space you have around your home wins over a more remote allotment. Ridsdill Smith describes how his diet has become healthier and tastier. He particularly recommends growing herbs: “one of the easiest things to grow in containers”, he says, that can “change the flavor quite dramatically”.

Being able to pop out frequently makes for healthy specimens. Thirsty plants can be watered, pests squished or sprayed with an organic treatment before they proliferate and over-exuberant plants trimmed back if they are shading out their neighbors.

Growing in containers allows renters to take their garden with them if they move. The big downside to them is their need for water. Ridsdill Smith is well qualified to say that “watering is the most time-consuming part of container-gardening”. Generally speaking, the bigger the pot, the bigger the crop and the less frequent the need for watering.

A beginner committed to daily watering may find a few small trays of cut-and-come-again salads or microgreens (basically sprouted seeds) very satisfying. For those with money to spend, commercial vertical growing systems with built-in reservoirs or irrigation systems can take the worry out of watering.

Perennial herbs in pots

Perennial herbs are one of the easiest plants to grow in containers © Clare Bowe

When growing in an urban environment, the shade cast by surrounding buildings is an important factor to consider. Tomatoes, chillies, strawberries and courgettes need the sunniest spots (six-plus hours of sun a day). Root vegetables and beans need about five hours of sun each day. Leafy veg such as kale or salad crops and woodland fruit — blueberries, raspberries and blackberries — can cope with the shadiest spots, receiving just three or four hours.

The purple raspberry Glen Coe is a high-yielding variety suited to pot culture. It is spine-free, as is blackberry Loch Tay, which also has a good flavor and starts fruiting in July, before wild brambles.

Brussels sprouts, parsnips and broad beans are space-hungry crops that are best avoided if you only have a small space. Potatoes can escape this list by virtue of being fun to grow and appealing to children. Elho sells a potato pot with an inner frame that allows you to lift the rootball, harvest a few spuds and replace the plant relatively undisturbed (elho.com).

Courgette plants can be prolific, which earns them a tick, although they do take up a fair amount of space, shading out neighbors if space is very tight.

Cultivating a small space well can reduce the gardener’s grocery bill. Ridsdill Smith calculates that running his container garden costs him about 20 per cent of the value of the produce he grows. Growing soft fruit, salads and herbs makes the biggest savings. Unusual salad leaves, herbs and edible flowers can transform staple ingredients into special meals. As he points out, restaurants pay premium prices for gourmet microgreens that can be grown for pennies at home.

Growing from seed will potentially save the most money, but McTernan advocates buying plug plants. Trays of germinating seeds demand a lot of time and space. Unless you want the extra satisfaction of starting from scratch, ordering plugs online allows you to grow a variety of crops relatively easily. Plug plants rarely fail.

The authors of both books recognize that the true benefits of growing your own are not financial. Each has been surprised at the degree to which they have been drawn into their local community. There is nothing like a few productive pots by the front door to stimulate a neighborly chat and encourage others to have a go. Before you know it, you are swapping and sharing seeds, plants and produce with others.

For your vertical vegetable garden

PlantBox is a stackable vertical planter with an inbuilt reservoir and watering system. From £75; growingrevolution.com


Dalefoot tomato compost
is made from sheep’s wool, bracken and comfrey for organic, succulent tomatoes. No need to feed and, as wool retains moisture, you can water less. £11.75; dalefootcomposts.co.uk


Rocket Gardens
supplies plug plants by post. It sells individual vegetables or a mixed selection of beetroot, mizuna, rainbow chard, pak choi and cabbage is also available. From £4.99 for 10; rocketgardens.co.uk

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