The following excerpt is from Mark Ridsdill Smith’s new book The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening: How to Grow an Abundance of Herbs, Vegetables and Fruit in Small Spaces (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2022) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
For those with itchy growing fingers in flats in the middle of the city, there are often three options: to get an allotment, grow in containers at home, or help out at a community growing project. All three are excellent in their own way and one often leads to another. It comes down to individual preferences, how much time you have, what community projects or allotments are available near you, and what, if any, growing space you have at home, so it’s worth quickly looking at the main differences.
Allotments are ideal for growing space-hungry vegetables, such as parsnips, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, broad beans, and larger fruit trees. They’re often lovely, quiet spaces to escape to at the weekend and on long summer evenings. Travel there and back can eat into growing time (mine is just a 10-minute walk away, but that’s still a 20-minute round trip) and, with busy lives, many people find it hard to get there regularly enough. Most sites are friendly and welcoming, but check first as stories of allotment feuds aren’t uncommon.
Community growing projects vary hugely in character, resources and how they are run. The choice of what to grow and pick is usually made by the community, and this may differ from what you’d choose to grow at home. They can be wonderful places to help out, enjoy the community vibe, meet others and pick up local growing tips. If there are any near you, do check them out.
The biggest benefit of growing at home in containers is that the plants are on your doorstep. You can enjoy them every day, pop out and tend to them when you have 10 minutes to spare, and pick what you want as you need it (it’s hard to overstate the value of this). Although the community benefits of growing at home are less obvious, they are still significant, as we will see. The potential for growing at home will depend on the size and suitability of the growing space. Many small spaces can be highly productive, but please bear in mind that container gardens are less suitable for space-hungry crops like parsnips and Brussels sprouts and they do need more regular attention than allotments.
With container growing, you are also in complete control of how many pots you have and can therefore avoid the stress that a large allotment or garden often creates.
I grow in and love all three of these options. However, if I could only have one, I would grow in containers at home. Simply because I like having plants (and nature) on my doorstep where I can enjoy them and pick from them every day. I also enjoy the opportunity it gives me to meet other people in the immediate vicinity of where I live.
How much food can be grown in a small space?
It’s possible to grow more food in many small spaces than is often realized. For example, in 2010, on my northwest-facing balcony in London, south-facing windowsills and a growing ladder outside the front door, I was able to grow 83.4 kilograms (184 pounds) of food, worth approximately £899 (about $1,220) in one year. This value was calculated using premium supermarket prices but justifiably, I think, on account of the quality of homegrown produce. See ‘Table 1.1 Harvests from My Balcony and Windowsills in 2010’ (below) to get a better idea of what we actually managed to produce and the equivalent number of supermarket packs—a lot of salad and herbs as you can see!
Of course, the amount that can be grown in a space varies hugely, depending on both its size and suitability for growing. Some spaces are sunny and sheltered, and ideal for plants to thrive; others present a challenge such as wind or shade that needs to be overcome first. The shape and design of the space will also affect how many containers can be squeezed in and the weight of soil that can be supported. And size, of course, is very relative. I often talk about my ‘small’, 1.8 by 2.4 meter (6 by 8 foot) balcony, but many flats have less outdoor space and some have none at all.
It often comes down to luck as to whether your space is good for growing or not. But, even in the least promising of spaces, it’s often still possible to create a worthwhile and rewarding garden, after a bit of trial and error. Container gardens do not need to be expensive, large or highly productive to give joy and change lives.
Even just a few pots of herbs can be rewarding, add flavour and nutritional value to almost every meal, look pretty and smell wonderful, attract bees and other pollinators, and offer new opportunities to meet neighbours. For example, I once created a small kitchen herb garden with just three pots on a shady windowsill.