You don't need land to grow your own
The Ecologist, February 2007
My first attempt at growing my own food was small-scale and short-lived. Ten years ago I was living in a flat in London with a couple of friends. We had no garden or roof-terrace or anything upmarket like that. We had a flat, with five rooms and four windows. Even though I couldn’t cook, and certainly couldn’t grow food, I took it upon myself to get a couple of window boxes for this flat, and to use them to grow herbs. Herbs, I thought, were a bit more manly than flowers, and if I grew them I would have to do something with them, which would force me to learn to cook. They would also smell nice. Why not?
It was a nice idea, and one which utterly failed. A few weeks later, with my small, cold herbs still squinting in the springtime of their life, my friends and I held a house party. The next morning, I awoke with a splitting headache to discover that neither of my window boxes had survived the night. Both were three storeys down, in several pieces, one on the pavement and the other in the garden of the ground floor flat. Due to the nature of the party, nobody could remember who was responsible.
That was the end of my food-growing experiments for quite some time. But I wish I’d persevered, because I was on to something. You see, contrary to popular mythology, you don’t need a lot of land to grow your own food. In fact, you don’t need any.
I’ve been writing about allotments in this slot for the past year. I love allotments, and mine supplies me with a lot of what I eat. But, as some of you have told me, not everyone can get access to one, and not everyone has time even if they can. So I’m going to cast my net wider in my mission to help everyone to grow their own food. The thing is, you see, it’s actually a lot easier, cheaper and perhaps more enjoyable than a lot of people think. And I’m going to prove it.
Let’s start small. Say, for instance, you’re in the position described earlier. Say you live in a flat, without a garden, and you don’t have an allotment. You have some windowsills and, if you’re lucky, a fire escape, but you don’t want this lack of land to stop you from growing your own food. Where do you start?
The first, easiest and most obvious possibility is those window-box herbs. Everyone has windows, and most of them have outside sills big enough for the kind of window box you can get for a fiver at the garden centre. For a few more quid you can get yourself a bag of (peat-free) compost and some herb plants. Choose whatever you might use, or whatever you like the smell of – rosemary, parsley, thyme, bay, coriander and basil would be a good basic selection. Take them home, plant them and put them on the sill – southfacing, if possible, to soak up the sun. Remember to water them and – well, that’s it. In a few months, you’ll have fragrant windowsills and more interesting dinners.
But this is only the start, for it’s not just herbs that will grow happily in window boxes. What about something a bit more ambitious – tomatoes, for example? If the compost is deep enough in the box and your windowsill gets a lot of sun, then it should be possible. Choose a dwarf, outdoor variety, and away you go. You’ll be surprised how much fruit a small area can produce. Grow some basil on another sill and, hey presto – instant salad.
The more you think about it, the more possibilities unfold. How about spring onions? These are small and easy enough to grow in a window box or large pot. Or what about radishes, beetroot, garlic or even a line of lettuce? I’ve never tried these in a window box myself, but I know it’s possible (if you have, please let me know the results!). You could even try some fruit – buy some small strawberry plants from your garden centre and you’ve got a dessert to follow your homegrown salad. All this is before we even get to the other side of the glass – the inside of your flat – which, given enough sun, can act as a mini-greenhouse. Even if you don’t have windowsills on the outside you’re bound to have one inside, and this can be a haven for food plants too. I know for a fact that chilli peppers will grow riotously behind a well-lit window. So should capsicum peppers.
Sprouting seeds can be grown in a spare space on the kitchen draining board. Buy, or make yourself a seed-sprouter (see right) – you can use an old jam jar – and you’ve got immediate, easy and cheap access to a variety of healthy, vitamin-rich sprouts. Then there’s mustard and cress, grown on pieces of wet kitchen paper. Remember that from school? Well, it still works. Save any plastic punnets you buy fruit or veg in, or old margarine tubs, and sprout your seeds on the damp paper in these.
In other words, however limited your space is, you’ve got options. Growing your own food doesn’t have to be a chore, an all-year operation, or even a reason to leave your house. As much as anything it’s a state of mind – a desire to give it a go and see what happens. Now you know you can do it anywhere, there are no excuses! What are you waiting for?