“My Growing Life” — guest post by Antonia Kanczula

April 30, 2012

Antonia Kanczula is a writer, freelance journo, City University London MA student and full-time London enthusiast. This week she’s agreed to tell us about her experiences growing in London.

London is many things – noisy, frenetic and downright expensive – but chiefly, it’s surprising. And no more is this true than when it comes to producing food. If you look past the gridlocked traffic and the high rises, you’ll stumble across industrious people growing tomatoes on a balcony, cultivating a vineyard, tending to an orchard on a roadside verge or transforming skip into a mobile allotment. Londoners are VERY good at making the most of the little space they have.

You’d think I lived in some rural idyll from my slideshow. In fact I reside in particularly built-up and grey corner of north London and yet within a short schlep of my house I can source locally laid eggs and locally made honey (from the wilds of Tottenham Marshes), embark on an organised foraging expedition, pick fresh fruit and vegetables at one of the UK’s best PYOs, visit a city farm and an award-winning community allotment.

And, crucially, I have just about enough room to grow some of my own produce.

This is my garden in a former life.

Now it’s more like this.

Tucked away in the right-hand corner, you can see it if you squint, is my plot. And for the past two summers, despite a total absence of horticultural know-how on my part and the obvious space restrictions, this 4ft by 4ft patch has proved pretty fruit (and veggie)ful. It’s yielded a bounty of delights including sprouting broccoli, potatoes, rocket, runner beans, beetroot, rhubarb, tomatoes, chard, spinach, courgettes, kale, and blackcurrants.

It almost goes without saying that home-grown green stuff is cheaper and infinitely tastier than what what’s on offer in supermarket aisles, but for me, the chief benefit is the simple pleasure of growing. There can be few more gratifying things than harvesting and eating some food you’ve grown.

If I (an utter novice, on a budget, in a heavily urbanised area with limited space and time) can produce a modest crop, anyone can. So, I thought I’d pass a handful of foolproof tips.

  1. Get composting. All the organic waste from my home goes into a composter and back (eventually) on to the soil. My veggie patch gets a nourishing injection of nutrients – and a load of worms – with virtually no effort or expense. And I cut down on household waste. Find out if your local authority provides subsidised or free bins (most do).
  2. You don’t have to fritter lots on seeds and plants. Seek out council or volunteer-run garden centres, rather than relying on the likes of Homebase. These smaller nurseries aren’t so easy to find but they are much cheaper and their stock is usually better quality. Plus, like my nearest one, they often run outreach schemes for school children and vulnerable people, so you support their valuable work with your purchases.
  3. If you’re a space-poor gardening beginner, ponder a few factors when you’re deciding what to grow. Weigh up what you like to eat (doh!), versus what’s easy to grow and hardy should you neglect it, how much space it occupies, what it costs to buy in the supermarket and how tasty it is in shop-bought form. For instance, home-grown potatoes are delicious but they’re also patch-hoggers and relatively cheap to buy, so not always worth the effort.
  4. Fair enough, you want to make the most of your tiny plot but don’t get too excited and overplant. Give things space. A tomato plant on its own and tended to properly will produce more than three plants crammed into one pot.
  5. Start small and build your growing confidence with herbs. Mint, thyme, chives and rosemary are virtually failsafe. Keep in pots or troughs close to your kitchen so they’re within easy picking reach and you can benefit from the aroma on a balmy summer’s day.
  6. Gardening blogs and books can be intimidating. Get yourself some non-jargony guides and bookmarks; my favourites are fennelandfern.co.uk, The Thrifty Gardener by Alys Fowler and New Urban Farmer by Celia Brooks Brown.
  7. If you’re lucky enough to have space, get some bee-friendly, wildlife-alluring plants such as scabious, verbena and the mauve wallflower erysimum.
  8. And continuing on from that, don’t consign your crops to a hidden part of your plot; mix attractive-looking plants in with your flower beds. The inky green leaves of cavallo nero and rainbow-coloured Swiss chard deserve top billing, for example.
  9. Urban foxes are nothing short of a pesky nuisance. Deter them and their voracious digging by planting plenty of spikey plants, avoiding fish, blood or bone meal fertilisers (which they mistake for buried food) and cultivating any delicate crops like lettuce in table top troughs. See www.harrodhorticultural.com.
  10. Irrespective of whether there’s a hosepipe ban, be water wise. Get yourself a cheap and unobtrusive slimline water butt. And use nettles as a thrifty plant food; how-to details here.

    Follow me @msantoniak on Twitter.