What can you do with a balcony garden? People claim to grow edibles, lugging bags of compost back from Homebase on a bicycle and up three flights of stairs, but surely that’s an exaggeration? Not according to allotment expert Lia Leendertz, who last year tracked down people who grow veg in ridiculously cramped conditions, yet who produce edible crops.
“So many people don’t have much space to grow in, but the small spaces they do have can be really productive. I wanted to show it could be done,” she says.
Leendertz’s new book is a collaboration with photographer and gardener Mark Diacono, who captured both crops and croppers with warmth and humour. From a floating orchard to sprouts in windowsill jars and a much-too-good-to-eat hanging lettuce ball, these are gardeners tackling space issues with wit and enthusiasm.
Leendertz has answers to all my concerns about the trickiness of raising a crop in such confined spaces.
“In a way, it’s a lot easier than doing it on a big scale. If you have your growing space close at hand, you can check on it every day. It removes a whole layer of the work: the ‘I’ve got to get down to the allotment’ bit,” she points out.
But she’s also clear on the difficulties.
“The most successful had good, straightforward watering systems,” she says tactfully.
“And on a timer, so it’s all done regularly, little and often, just as the plants need it.”
Leendertz has experience of growing on her veranda.
“We have a waterbutt,” she explains, and the warmth near the house allows some exotic pot crops – “nectarines and peaches, each tree gives between six and 10 fruits.”
It’s not too late to start some cold-weather salads, such as winter mustards, rocket and lamb’s lettuce.
“As it’s now getting a bit cold to sow direct, look in your local garden centre for plants that have already got going.
My Tiny Veg Plot: Grow Your Own in Surprisingly Small Spaces, by Lia Leendertz, Pavilion, £14.99
From ‘dangerous attention-seeker’ to ‘possessor of immaculate taste’, through to ‘couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks’: what is your front garden saying about you? And is it what you meant?
One person plants a single row of identical pale blush roses and thinks it looks tremendous. Meanwhile, the rest of the street sees it as yet another indicator of undiagnosed control freakery.
There’s an endearing oddness about our front plots – for a start, they’re the only place many of us have to express ourselves creatively in public. Which leads to all those tiny ponds with working windmills, fishing gnomes, stegosaurus topiary, crazy dahlia fireworks, dead houseplants, elaborate bin shelters, and hedges that colonise most of the pavement.
Front gardening is also often sociable.
When I first moved in, I spent months quietly digging out the back garden. Then it was time to make a stab at the front. Within an hour, I’d chatted to what felt like almost all my new neighbours.
The front garden charmed people. A rosemary bush grew over several summers into a raidable resource for residents roasting lamb. One of my sweeter neighbours made a rosemary bouquet to lay in Princess Diana’s memory. That single herb was a community event in itself.
But while I like a community event, I can also be a curmudgeonly loner. And that’s where the garden says it all. That means no more rosemary, and letting the wisteria grow over the windows. I leave the melianthus, never a small plant at the best of times, to grow 7ft tall. I let it fall over the path, so anyone who wants to ring the doorbell on a rainy day will get wet just trying to pass it.
It’s taken me a long time to see how unwelcoming this is, in all sorts of ways.
Lately I’m interested in making life easier, not just for my long-suffering postman and assorted other delivery people, but also for myself. For all these reasons, I’ve cut back around the front path, trying to rethink the way the planting works. I miss the rosemary and I miss stroking its fragrant leaves every day.
So, as thoughts turn to next year, and new resolutions to be put into effect, mine is to render my front path more welcoming.
Starting with planting a new rosemary; scented plants under my hand, for winter and summer, never more than hip height; no more looming giants and dripping-wet climbers.
So, rosemary and scented geraniums it is – and a viburnum for floating, pungent scent on cold, still days as spring begins to flicker into being.