Small city gardens can pose challenges but they have benefits too, as three new books explain, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
IT CAN BE hard being a square-metre sort of gardener, which is why whenever city gardeners are asked what, if anything, they envy about their rural counterparts, their answer is almost invariably the same: the abundance of space, they will yearningly reply. The possibilities it offers. The opportunity to grow 100 different kinds of roses, or to plant 1,000 tulip bulbs all at once. The chance to cultivate a patch of native woodland or a giant oak tree. To create a wildflower meadow, a sculptural land form, a hammockery, a maze or – the most heartfelt crib of many city gardeners – to grow their own food.
Forget pointing out the downsides that often come with looking after a large country garden (the long hours spent hoeing, strimming and grass cutting, the generally harsher climate, the millions of slugs, the trillions of weeds, the depredations caused by deer, rabbits, hares and other animals), the city gardener will merely sigh dolefully and say that he/she would willingly put up with a herd of deer, a colony of rabbits, a drove of hares, even a bloat of hippopotamuses, in exchange for just a little more . . . space.
If that sounds all too familiar, then three recently published books will provide more than a little solace. The first is Trevor Sargent’s excellent Trevor’s Kitchen Garden (Orpen Press, €18.99), the second is the fascinating The Urban Kitchen Gardener by the London-based gardener and food writer Tom Moggach (Kyle Cathie, €20), while the third is a revised, expanded and illustrated edition of the very charming Window-Box Allotment by Penelope Bennett (France Lincoln, £16.99).
All three authors are ultra-resourceful city gardeners with long experience of growing food organically in the smallest, tiniest, most confined of urban spaces. And while each of them would agree that every square metre of growing space counts, they are also quick to point out the many pluses of urban food growing.
One is the fact that kitchen gardens can not only offer a leafy retreat from the noise and stresses of city life but also a favourable microclimate (several degrees warmer than the country) that allows urban gardeners to sow earlier, harvest later, and experiment with a wider range of tender food crops than would be possible for many of their rural counterparts.
Food gardening in small spaces also encourages a more disciplined approach, suggests Moggach. “We’re actually the lucky ones, gardening in an urban environment. Smaller spaces help us to focus.”
Bennett points out that container gardening, is “perfect for the elderly, children and the disabled . . . for those who cannot see . . . for backs that cannot bend . . . for those who find sitting (especially in a wheelchair) easier”.
Small is also best when it comes to avoiding the more tedious garden chores. As a young school principal working in West Cork many years ago, Sargent once rented a house with a large, rambling garden in Drimoleague. It was, he told me, “just too big for me, the growth just too abundant. I’d come home after a long day’s work and the weeds would be thumbing their noses at me.”
As a result, when he chose his Dublin home, it was because the town garden that came with it was “small and manageable”.
Which isn’t to say that the smallest, most manageable of city plots can’t also be astonishingly productive. A dedicated GYOer, Sargent’s suburban plot in north Co Dublin has the distinction of being the smallest certified-organic holding in the country. He manages to grow a diverse range of fruit, herbs and vegetables in a back garden that measures just six metres by nine metres.
His book is not just an ultra-practical week-by-week guide to growing food in a small urban space, woven throughout it is a wealth of tasty recipes, useful addresses, gardening quotes, poems, fascinating facts and figures as well as several dozen quick-fire interviews with many of Ireland’s most experienced GYOers.
Both Sargent’s generosity of spirit and his lifelong commitment to the organic gardening movement shine through, while the environmental, economic and political imperatives that underpin the importance of urban food growing are made crystal clear.
Meanwhile, as an experienced allotment holder and co-founder of a company that teaches people how to grow and cook food, Tom Moggach (son of novelist Deborah Moggach) has tended vegetable plots in poky back gardens, tiny patios and cramped balconies all around London. Rather than grow the obvious staples, his advice is to “save your space for chillies and strawberries, or shiso and sorrel – hard-to-buy herbs that are easy to grow”.
As befits a young urbanite/professional food writer, his gardening book is also filled with recipes that put those hard-won ingredients to their tastiest use: chocolate mint in Bourbon Stinger cocktails, pea pods/pea shoots to make hangover cures in the shape of Feel Better Broth, nasturtium soufflé and flambéd strawberries.
As for Penelope Bennett, the story of her miniature allotment/ roof garden in central London, where she grows everything from wild strawberries to aubergines, is further proof that a glorious array of fresh food can be grown in the tiniest of spaces, with enough room left over for a pint-sized garden pond.
Envious urban gardeners should take careful note of her recipe on how to make ice-cream from your own, home-grown saffron (she grows the corms of Crocus sativus in deepish pots). Now there’s one sure-fire way to trump those country cousins.
10 edible things you can sow/grow now in a small, city garden
Pak Choi (seed)
Coriander (seed, deep container)
Basil (seed, sunny windowsill)
Nasturtium (young plants) Carrots (seed, in a container at least 20cm deep)
Chillies (buy as young, well-established plants, keep on a sunny windowsill, don’t forget to hand-pollinate flowers)
Sligo-based company quickcrop.ie stocks a wide range of raised-beds growing systems which it will deliver, assemble, and plant up on site with a range of vegetable, salad and herbs
Date for your diary
The Steam Museum and Lodge Park Walled Garden, Straffan, Co Kildare will be open on Saturday, June 30th and Sunday, July 1st (2-6pm) and there will also be a musical BBQ/children’s sports event taking place in the gardens from 7pm on Saturday, June 30th. All proceeds in aid of Celbridge Multiple Sclerosis Self-Help Group