Gardens: Big plans to grow food in small spaces

Nowhere is too small or too unlikely – from an unused swimming pool to the back of a pick-up truck – to grow your own food

Compost bins and beehive nestle in the floating orchard barge in London created by kitchen gardener Nick Lacey – one of the innovative kitchen gardens that features in Lia Leendertz’s book, My Tiny Veg Plot

Compost bins and beehive nestle in the floating orchard barge in London created by kitchen gardener Nick Lacey – one of the innovative kitchen gardens that features in Lia Leendertz’s book, My Tiny Veg Plot

 

Presented with the challenge of growing even a little of our own food, it is remarkable how ingenious and inventive humankind has proved itself to be, from

when, roughly 12,000 years ago, hunter- gatherers first learned how to cultivate what had, until then, been wild plants.

Since then, there’s been no stopping us. By the 3rd century BC, the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the earliest examples of urban farming – were on a list of must-see sights for ancient travellers.

By the time of the Roman Empire, we had come to understand the importance of crop rotation, developed mechanical reapers and had devised ways to control weeds, pests and diseases. Fast forward to the Victorian era – a generation of expert plant breeders and nurserymen was introducing an ever-increasing range of delicious fruit and vegetable species/varieties into cultivation.

Some of the problems that 21st-century kitchen gardeners face, including increased urbanisation, dwindling land banks, soil degradation and the threat of climate change, can seem very different to those tackled by the world’s first farmers.

In many ways though, they’re not. An example is climate change. Research suggests that drought and a swift, dramatic rise in global temperatures is the very reason why we first began to experiment with growing our own food, as a means to solving the problem of food shortages.

As for soil degradation, something that causes many modern gardeners much angst, the decline of both the Mayan civilisation and the Roman Empire mirrored the decline in the fertility of their eroded soils – a cautionary tale of unsustainable agricultural practices if ever there was one.

However, for every problem, humankind has always striven to find a solution, so another thing that hasn’t changed is our entrepreneurial, can-do attitude to food growing, as proved by an excellent new book by the British garden writer Lia Leendertz.

My Tiny Veg Plot, charmingly illustrated with photographs by Leendertz’s friend and fellow garden writer Mark Diacono, shows the fun, joy and sustenance to be had from growing your own food in the strangest and most unlikely of places. It could be on the roof of a London shed, as a floating orchard planted inside a huddle of rusted old barges moored beneath the shadow of London’s Tower Bridge, in the remains of an unused swimming pool or on an exposed Hong Kong rooftop.

The book also illustrates the many imaginative ways in which fruit and vegetables can be cultivated in the smallest of productive spaces: in windowsills, planters and hanging baskets, on front steps and on balconies. It even features a New York urban farm in miniature, created in the back of a pick-up truck.

Those who like the idea of mobile gardening, albeit on a more modest scale, will also enjoy the sections on planting up an edible wheelbarrow garden. Its compact size aside, one of its great advantages is that the barrow can be moved throughout the garden during the day to enjoy maximum sunlight, as well as somewhere out of the way when the space is required for garden parties, games or sunbathing.

Some of the ingenious ideas featured in Leendertz’s book, such as the shipping containers transformed by the French designer Damien Chivialle into miniature mobile city farms fitted with glasshouses and hydroponic systems, are relatively high-tech solutions to the challenges of urban food growing. Others – for example the section on how to grow popular culinary herbs such as thyme by planting them into pavement cracks – are as simple as it gets.

Inevitably, when space is this tight, the focus is on growing highly flavoursome, productive, high-worth plants with the power to completely transform a home-grown meal. The most obvious examples are salad crops and herbs, many of which are easy to cultivate and take up so little space that they can be grown in a small window box.

Leendertz’s book even gives readers a step-by-step guide on how to grow hardy herbs such as chervil, parsley and coriander in a winter herb terrarium.

She also gives plenty of useful tips on growing many other more unusual food crops in the smallest of spaces, including shiitake and tree oyster mushrooms, sprouted seeds and micro-greens, all of which can be cultivated indoors during the winter months.

As for Leendertz’s very own tiny veg garden, a small veranda measuring just 3m x 6m that she built on to her 1920s terraced house, it is yet another clever example of how, with just a little imagination, an impressively productive urban growing space can be created.

Fitted with a roof made out of clear sheets of polycarbonate that allow in plenty of light, it offers a warm, bright, sheltered environment where heat-loving plants such as nectarine and peach trees, grape vines, tomatoes, turmeric, mashua and scented geraniums thrive.

All are delicious proof that, as Leendertz puts it, we should “never underestimate the power of a small garden, it can achieve big things”.

My Tiny Veg Plot by Lia Leendertz is published by Pavilion, £14.99

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