Growing food in small spaces: views from the balcony
by Mark Ridsdill Smith
View of my 9 x 6 NW-facing balcony. copyright: Sarah Cutttle / Vertical Veg
Three years ago, frustrated by the long waiting list for an allotment in north London, I decided to start growing food at home, using my nine-by-six-foot balcony, six window sills at the front of my building and a patch of concrete outside the front door. Finding ways to coax a worthwhile harvest from such a small space (with no soil to be seen), has been a challenging experience but also an immensely satisfying one, with plenty of unexpected rewards along the way. Sadly though, it’s now time to say our goodbyes to the balcony as the whole family is moving north, to Newcastle, for my wife’s work.
As I pack up the pots and take down the hanging baskets, I reflect on whether I’d embark on this adventure again and what I’ve learnt from it. The first question is easy to answer (yes!) but the second is a little harder because I’ve learnt so much: how much food it’s possible to grow without a garden; how to get a good harvest from containers (and how not to!) and how many benefits growing your own can bring.
How much can you grow without a garden?
This has been a constant surprise! The balcony and window sills supplied all of our salad (and we eat a lot of salad) and herbs for nine months of the year as well as many of our vegetables (I estimate 70 per cent of all our fruit and veg from May to October).
In 2010, I challenged myself to grow £500 worth of food at Ocado prices and grew over £900 worth. In 2011, I increased the target to £1,000 – but this time at Tesco prices. After six-and-a-half-months (May to mid-November), I’d grown £450 worth. This was more than in the same period in 2010 but significantly less than I needed to hit the £1,000 target.
On reflection, I think £1,000 worth of food is an achievable target though. I would have needed to plant my fruit trees a year or two earlier to give them time to mature and bear fruit. I should have also stuck to sowing salads all year round (I got a bit lazy in the summer) and not taken three weeks’ holiday in August, the most productive month of the year!
Learning how to grow
My first growing attempts were not very successful – I even struggled with rocket! Over time though, I’ve picked up lots of ways to boost yields from containers and to make the most of a small space – these are my top six tips:
An early lesson was the value of good quality compost (this makes such a difference). I found New Horizon peat-free compost and municipal compost from north London both performed well.
Crops, particularly fruiting crops such as tomatoes and courgettes, need regular feeding to give a good yield. I bought a wormery to convert our food waste into a free and top-notch fertiliser – and mixed this into used compost to rejuvenate it. Chicken manure pellets worked well for leafy crops – I added a handful each time I replanted. Crops such as tomatoes and aubergines need a weekly feed once they start fruiting. I used a potassium-rich fertiliser such as comfrey juice or a commercial organic tomato feed.
I learnt that little and often is the secret to container gardening – checking plants every day to see if they need watering and for any signs of pest damage. Luckily, I find that wandering round the balcony and observing plants in this way is a lovely thing to do at the end of a busy day in London!
Salads, root crops (such as carrots, radishes, turnips and potatoes), peas and beans do OK on a north-west-facing (not very sunny) balcony. Tomatoes and chillies, on the other hand, need more sun so I moved these crops to the south-facing windowsills.
I discovered that there’s always space to fit in another pot, somewhere. It’s a fun way to use your creativity. By going vertical you can cram more into a small space: shelves on walls, ladders and hanging baskets are all fairly simple DIY projects. Climbing plants, such as runner beans, vine tomatoes and ‘Tromboncino’ squash are another good way to make the most of a small space.
I experimented with many different containers but the ones I found most useful were self-watering pots. You can make your own or buy them from garden centres – they’re brilliant for crops that need lots of water, such as tomatoes, runner beans and courgettes. I’ve personally had a lot of success with EarthBoxes (www.earthbox.com). They’re not cheap but they’re well designed for vegetable growing, and should last many years, so they’re a good investment for the serious container grower.
Not everything I’ve tried has been successful. Crops I’ve struggled with include sweetcorn (looked great but yielded poorly), broad beans (ditto), and beetroot (the leaves grew well but the roots didn’t swell).
Another challenge has been sourcing and carting around large volumes of good compost – I broke two bicycle axles by overloading my panniers!
How it has changed our lives
An obvious benefit of growing at home is the regular supply of super-fresh, high quality food that can be picked minutes before eating. A less obvious advantage is the way in which the flavour of home-grown fruit and vegetables can make even the simplest dish taste like good restaurant food. And the herbs! It has changed how we use them completely – we often now include three or four different herbs in one meal.
Growing food at home has touched our lives in other, unexpected ways. The crops in front of my building have aroused the curiosity of neighbours and passers-by and offered the perfect excuse to strike up a conversation. I’ve met more of my neighbours in the last year than I did in the previous seventeen. It has also been a joy to introduce our two-year-old son to gardening. He loves sowing seeds and harvesting the beans and tomatoes.
And, of course, it has provided a wonderfully relaxing and rewarding hobby – watching the seedlings emerge every spring, enjoying the colour and the flowers (yes, even food crops can have lots of flowers!), harvesting the crops, and observing all the wildlife they attract: the friendly robin and blackbird, the woodlice that live under the pots, the hoverflies and bees.
I’m often asked if I’d still like an allotment. The honest answer is yes. But if I had the choice of an allotment or a balcony, I’d now choose a balcony every time. There’s simply such a joy and convenience in having all this, quite literally on your doorstep.