Gardening without a garden
Image taken from The Rurbanite credit: Sarah Cuttle
Once upon a time, you needed fields, barns and possibly a tractor to live the country life. But not anymore. In her new book The Rurbanite, Alex Mitchell shows you can grow vegetables, keep ducks and commune with nature right in the heart of the city. And, as she explains here, you don’t even need a garden to get growing!
Do you live in the city, itch to get your hands on some soil to dig but have no actual garden of your own? Then you’re not alone. Growing space in the city is precious and, for most of us, our personal pleasure grounds consist of a few feet of paving slabs, a balcony or a couple of windowsills. So how do you indulge your inner urban farmer when you haven’t got space to swing a trug?
As the world becomes more urbanised – 75 per cent of us will live in the city by 2050 – the time has come to look at cities in a fresh, new way. A top priority is our need for green spaces which provide refuge for weary urbanites, absorb carbon dioxide, filter pollution and, vitally, increase wellbeing. People simply cannot thrive without access to greenery. ‘Nature-deficit disorder’ is blamed for everything from obesity to mental health problems as we spend ever more time glued to screens. A study in the US found that patients recovering from surgery were discharged faster and needed less pain medication when they had a view of trees rather than buildings. It’s no surprise that properties on tree-lined city streets command higher prices than those in nature-free zones. As the urban sprawl grows ever bigger we cannot afford merely to relegate our green spaces to the suburbs, they must be incorporated in the centre, enmeshed with the grey.
One way people are connecting with and creating green space is by growing food. Urban agriculture is sweeping the world from Detroit to Berlin, Vancouver to London. And the potential for urban food productivity is startling. Seb Mayfield of London’s Capital Growth project states: “If we were to grow in all the space available and produce as much as we could, we could produce 26 per cent of food for the population of London. Add roofs and vertical growing and it would be even higher.”
There are other pluses too: you’re likely to make friends and get to know your neighbourhood better. “77 per cent of the people we’ve interviewed said they made a new friend as a result,” says Mayfield. It also marks a cultural shift. Producing your own food – even on a small scale – gives a glimpse of independence from the traditional food growing system. And when every day seems to bring another scare story about our supermarket food, that independence has never been more welcome. Rather than buying everything we need, we’re wondering if we can make some of it. But while the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s was an isolating one, taking place in rural areas, this time it’s urban and social. Modern ‘rurbanites’ might want self-sufficiency but there’s no ‘self’ about it – they’re getting a kick out of joining forces with other people, throwing seed swaps and jam-making parties, bartering their eggs for honey.
However grey and hard-edged the city may feel, there’s a reassurance in knowing that nature is always bubbling underneath. Here are some ideas for how to access it, and grow some delicious food into the bargain.
Start a container garden
Fill your indoor sills with microgreens grown in old food containers for healthful salads all year round. Carrots, coriander, kale fennel, basil, celery, chard and beetroot are particularly tasty when eaten tiny. Sow closely together, pull up the whole seedling one to three weeks after sowing, wash the compost off and eat whole.
Outdoor sills are perfect for tomatoes (‘Sungold’ is unbeatable), herbs, salads, chillis and strawberries (try ‘Mara des Bois’). Always buy the largest, deepest windowbox you can fit on (safety permitting) to reduce watering and give your crops the best root run. Cordon tomatoes can be grown up strings tied to the top of your window frame to maximise the crop.
There’s no need to buy expensive containers – recycle fruit crates, polystyrene boxes, colanders, or buy cheap plastic trugs from the pound store. Just remember to drill plenty of holes in the base before planting.
No sills at all? Attach lengths of plastic guttering horizontally to the wall, drill drainage holes and fill with compost. Plant with sunflower or pea seeds for crunchy shoots or baby salad leaves. Hanging baskets are great for strawberries and trailing tomatoes such as ‘Cherry Cascade’. For more container growing tips, try verticalveg.org.uk
If you don’t have a garden but know someone who does, why not ask if you can borrow a bit of it? In return you could give them half the crops you harvest. If you see a neglected front garden near you, you could pop a note through the letter box asking if they’d be interested? Or look for garden sharing schemes in your city – Brighton and Hove for example has a thriving ‘Grow your Neighbour’s Own’ scheme.
Join a community garden
Look around on your local walks or online for community gardens near you and ask if you could get involved. This is a great way to start out since there will be plenty of experienced gardeners to give you advice and an established, functioning garden.
Four tips when joining a shared garden
- Turn up if you say you’re going to, even if it’s raining
- If you’re young and strong, volunteer to do the unglamorous work at first, such as turning compost and carrying heavy bags of compost
- Even if you think you know best, hold your tongue (at least until you’ve been there a few times). No one likes a know it all!
- Bring and donate seeds on your first day for instant acceptance!
Set up a new community garden
Transforming a scrappy wasteland into a food growing zone and community hub is a tremendously satisfying thing to do, particularly when you’re uniting the energies of your neighbours to do so.
So how do you start?
First find your plot: look for a neglected or abandoned site and ask around to see who owns it. If no one knows, try calling your local authority who, in many cases, will be the owner. Fantastic community gardens such as The Edible Bus Stop in Lambeth started this way. Discuss your idea with your neighbours. Leafleting is fine, knocking on doors and talking is friendlier. If you’re lucky you’ll unearth a few keenos who will want to get involved. Once you feel you have some local support, contact the site owner and discuss your idea. They might be supportive, or may have a suggestion for an alternative site.
Look online for any local funding schemes, such as Capital Growth in London, which could help you with set-up costs and advice. Before you start a garden you will need a written agreement between you and the landowner – this may include insurance. Local authorities and funding groups can help with this.
So you have a jungle of weeds and brambles all set to turn into a food growing paradise. Make sure you leave an area wild since this is essential for wildlife. Then decide where you are going to grow – since urban waste grounds can contain pollutants, raised beds are a good idea. Lay weed-suppressing membrane at the base to prevent roots going down to the soil below if you’re particularly worried about pollution. Raised beds can be made from scaffolding boards – have a look in skips – or old pallets. Builder’s bags are cheap and deep enough for fruit trees. If you don’t like the white woven plastic look of them, wrap some garden screening round them.
Five essential things for a shared garden
- Compost bins
- A communal seating area, even if it’s just a few logs
- Defined beds
- A nearby water source, even if it’s just a friendly neighbour’s bathroom tap or a water butt
- An area left wild to encourage wildlife
Five less essential but lovely things for a shared garden
- A pond
- Somewhere to store garden tools
- A covered area out of the rain
- A barbecue
- A logbook in a ziplock plastic bag to record what has been sown and harvested
Five best crops for shared gardens
- Salad potatoes
- Courgettes and squashes
Perfect for those who like going solo, this is urban greenification at its most surreptitious. Scatter seed in tree pits and over neglected roundabouts near you, sit back and smile a secret smile when you see the sunflowers and cornflowers blooming. Just avoid parks and brownfield sites – the former because they’re already looked after and the latter because they’re getting along very well by themselves with a surprising array of wild flowers and animals.
Why end your garden at the front gate when you have a whole street out there with potential for flowers and food? Unite your neighbours and start planting up tree pits and neglected front gardens. Local authorities can be very receptive if a community shows initiative. See Naomi Schillinger’s blog Out of my Shed for plenty of tips.
The Rurbanite: Living in the Country Without Leaving the City by Alex Mitchell (Kyle Books, £16.99) is out now. All photography: Sarah Cuttle