Londoners love to grow their own food.
As someone who has battled to grow aubergines in the Oval, nurture wild strawberries in Bermondsey Street and harvest figs in Greenwich, I think I have finally worked out what is worth growing in small spaces and what really isn’t.
My book Crops in Tight Spots is full of tips so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.
The problem with most London gardens is that they don’t offer much space and some, as with courtyards, don’t even have soil.
When space is tight, there is no point growing cauliflowers, potatoes or parsnips.
Instead, grow crops that taste better than they do from the shops, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, or grow things that are expensive to buy — for example, cape gooseberries, figs, samphire and lemon verbena.
Here’s how to make the most of the tightest of tight spots…
Growing crops along walls and fences
However little room you have at ground level, you’ll have plenty more above your head. Is there somewhere you can fit a wall bracket, or railings you can sling a hanging planter over?
Try online company Crocus (crocus.co.uk) for chic planters such as the hanging aged bowl, £24.99, and fill them with Pilgrim cranberries, Cherry Falls tomatoes, strawberries, Ruby Falls raspberries and Black Cascade blackberries from Thompson & Morgan (thompson-morgan.com) for a fruitful hanging garden.
A watering attachment (Hozelock telescopic lance spray, £27.99 at crocus.co.uk) makes high-altitude irrigation a breeze.
Leafy Asian greens such as mizuna, mustards, tsoi sim and Chinese broccoli (realseeds.co.uk), and other salad leaves, will appreciate the cool of a shady wall in high summer and grow well in fabric pocket planters that you can attach to the wall, such as Burgon & Ball’s Verti-Plant, £7.99 (burgonandball.com).
Cover sunnier walls and fences with Japanese wineberries and the cocktail kiwi vine. The grape-sized kiwi Issai, £14.50, is eaten skin and all and thrives in the London climate, while Japanese wineberries, £12.50, have sweet dark red berries and diva pink stems with orange bristles. Both from Otter Farm (otterfarm.co.uk).
Grow hardy herbs on balconies and terraces
Many vegetable plants dislike roof terraces and balconies because they can be such windy places. But Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and thyme can tough it out.
Compact kales including Red Russian, plus chard, beetroot, carrots and dwarf beans will also shrug off the wind in raised beds, as will globe artichokes. To filter strong winds plant lavender, rosemary or hyssop around the perimeter.
Spice up your windowsills and ledges
Sunny windowsills are a great spot for samphire, the beach-growing vegetable beloved of upmarket fishmongers. It’s easy to grow as long as you remember to add sea salt to the water to make it feel at home.
Mediterranean herbs, small chillis such as Sparkler or Stumpy (Seaspringplants.co.uk, £2.50 per plug plant) and Ponchi-Fa tomatoes (Suttons, £6.99 per plant) also love a window box. Save shady windowsills for spinach, watercress, parsley and mint.
Disguise your drainpipes
Even downpipes can have an upside. Use pipe rings (spanishrings.com, £4 each) to hold terracotta pots to the pipe, planted with strawberries and herbs if it’s sunny.
If in shade, you can plant the pots with buckler’s leaf sorrel, parsley or mint instead.
Growing fruit and vegetables in courtyards
If you have a sheltered, sunny courtyard fill it with large terracotta pots and grow herbs, figs, chillis, blueberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes. If you have room you won’t regret buying a couple of small raised beds.
I like the corrugated metal beds that can be bolted together in minutes (Original Veggie Bed, two for £149.98, suttons.co.uk). A couple of these and you can grow all the veg you need, all year round.
Use your side return
Wooden crates are great for these spaces, and eBay is a good source. They’re big enough to grow pretty much anything, light to carry and they look natural.
Stack them in a pyramid along a side return wall, planting sun-loving herbs, tomatoes and courgettes at the top and shade-tolerant crops like chard and spinach in the lower crates and you’ll still be able to walk down the side.
- Crops in Tight Spots by Alex Mitchell is available to buy, priced £18.99 at Kyle Books (kylebooks.com).