As a gardener I struggle with winter. Just as others look forward to Christmas, I plant the garlic and put the garden to bed for several months. There will be a few forays out there to harvest tough crops like hardy lettuces and kale but mostly, winter means wrapping up warm, perusing seed catalogues and longing for spring.
After New Year’s Day things start to look up slowly. It’s a little premature to be heading out in the garden in January but at least I can sow a few tomato seeds on the windowsill. Come February a few more seeds go into modules: broad beans and some early lettuces. By the end of the month, there is enough daylight to head out and get the garden ready for spring, warm up the soil, fill new pots with compost… Welcome rays of late winter sun, some fresh air, a few hours of pottering in the garden and I feel like a gardener again!
Never enough windowsills
Once the growing season starts, my home takes on a ‘lived in’ look, pretty much till early autumn. The only way to achieve a productive edible garden in a small growing space is to start seeds off indoors in modules, which means taking over every sunny windowsill.
The first round is relatively easy, involving a few propagators. I sow my seeds in a peat-free soil. Technically seeds don’t need particularly fertile soil. However, once the seedlings have sprouted a pair of real leaves (i.e. the second pair of leaves), I pot them on into larger pots. The books tell me to lift the seedling gently from the soil but I always find it easier to pot it on with all the soil from the module, so I may as well use good compost from the start.
Potting on, however, causes space issues. A small tray, containing 12 to 20 modules, takes up a third of a windowsill; twenty pots take up the whole windowsill! And it’s not as if the module tray disappears into the shed at this point! The other secret to successful vegetable gardening in a small space is successional sowing. As I plant seedlings out into their final bed or container, I will be potting on more seedlings so that a next crop can be planted as soon as I harvest the first.
In other words, pots and modules proliferate in spring and summer, so finding space is critical. My ideal solution would be a ladder shelf arrangement, but as wooden decorator’s ladders are a thing of the past, I would need to make one myself. It’s an ideal job for the dark winter months but somehow, I didn’t get round to it this year. I therefore make do by moving a cheap, ugly bench in front of the windows during growing season to stretch the available space. It won’t win any style contests but it does the trick!
Every nook and edge
Urban vegetable growing does not just involve juggling space inside. It also means conjuring up space in the garden.
My garden is much like my kitchen. Small, yet highly productive. Some friends have commented on how tiny both are for somebody who loves cooking and food growing as much as I do. Of course, I would like more growing space. However, I love our home and neighbourhood. I love being a five-minute walk from a community college with amazing pottery facilities, not to mention living half an hour from some of the best symphony orchestras and theatre companies in the world. And, of course, near my friends. So, despite all its quirks and limitations, I embrace my small garden.
Constraints, however, fuel creativity and every year I seem to find new ways to eke out the space. This year, we have literally ‘stretched’ space. We finally got round to repairing the back wall, which had been bulging out precariously since we moved in. In the process we seem to have gained an extra six inches. Half a foot may not sound like much but in a tiny patio garden, six inches means another row of pots for herbs or bush tomatoes. The sounder structure also means we can hang a shelf to grow more salad leaves!
We also got round to replacing the small decked pit directly outside the backdoor. Rather than tossing serviceable decking planks in the skip, I’m using them to assemble makeshift benches along the darker edges of the patio. Raising pots eight inches off the grown gives them access to a little more light, which brings more space into production.
And then there is vertical growing. Last year I finally mastered growing beans. I hit upon a mix that the plants seemed to like, with help from the elements, of course. So this year, I plan to grow more legumes. When space is at a premium, growing vertically is essential so I’ve invested in more runner bean seeds and some borlotti beans, as well as extra tall heirloom peas.
The desire for more
Every year I seem to want more from my garden. I certainly ask more from it. This year I should like to harvest from my garden all year round. I’m not talking about being self-sufficient in vegetables. That would be impossible in the space we have! I would, however, like one meal a day to contain at least one item from the garden, whether fresh or preserved, as eating homegrown food cheers my spirit.
This requires planning though. It means growing a variety of vegetables to stretch the season and shrink the hungry gap. It means opting for summer crops that will produce gluts for storing, like summer squashes for preserves and beans for drying. It means growing Jerusalem artichokes to provide tubers for when the potatoes are a distant memory. It means winter hardy lettuces for early salad crops. And, of course, it means feeding the soil as much as possible, by foraging for nettles to make nitrogen-rich nettle tea; scavenging leaves for leaf mould; and composting religiously to turbo-charge the soil.
Sometimes I wonder whether demanding more from my garden is to me what endless shopping is to other people? On the face of it maybe. However, my desire for more is not just about more food from the garden. It’s about getting to know my garden even better and working with it. It’s about understanding the garden’s cycles and attracting other visitors – okay, maybe not the slugs and snails but definitely the pollinators and birds. It’s about appreciating the resources and relationships that go into growing food. It’s about fresh air, sunshine, patience and many other experiences and insights I can’t find in a shop.