“I am a self-taught grower in a tiny, organic, urban garden in London, whose focus is growing food for my family – high-quality produce at a low cost.
I started to realize the food I was buying in the supermarket wasn’t as good quality as I originally thought, but buying from premium shops was too costly. My father and grandfather before him had always grown food, and I thought that I’d give it a try but without incurring big costs. I challenged myself to see how much I could grow without spending more than the cost of the food in the supermarket. This meant being thrifty and figuring out how to build beds from recycled wood and make my own soil from kitchen scraps.
I really love the taste of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. In the UK, store-bought is completely different to freshly-grown produce. Fresh fruit and veg reminds me of my childhood and my family, as food was always the centre of our family time. Growing plants was something I neglected for most of my life, and, once I started growing, I realized it was a practice that was ingrained in me from an early age as all my family grew a few things at home on balconies in southern Italy. We were always surrounded by fresh produce which would always make its way into our food. I think many kids of immigrants could relate as the kitchen (and by extension the garden/balcony/allotment) are so important to many different cultures.
I live in London, UK, what we call Zone 2 of the city, so quite central, our garden is 24 ft x 15ft or 360 sq ft, but a large portion of it doesn’t receive any direct sunlight unfortunately. As London doesn’t really go below freezing, we are lucky in that we’re able to grow a few more things with less cold-stress than our northern neighbours, like citrus or figs. Our garden is mostly grown in-pots/containers with one main vegetable bed. When we moved here the garden was all concrete so we decided to grow almost everything in containers so we could move things around depending on what we are growing. This has helped as it lets us follow the light in different times of year.
I grow a range of food, but I prefer to focus on food that produces year after year and with not much upkeep on my end. Blueberries are some of my favourite – berries do really well in a British climate, and they’re a real treat in early summer. I also grow about 60 different types of figs in containers – some in our front garden. In terms of vegetables, tomatoes are our main crop as they are a great summer food – in a salad or as a sauce, they remind me of my summers in Italy as a child. We try to grow food that we really love or food that is too expensive to buy organically. As it’s such a small space, there’s not much room to experiment, so everything we grow we have to love.
At the core of everything I grow, is soil. We grow everything organically. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to spend money. I sustainably forage in the city’s green spaces for pine mulch, decomposing wood bark, and leaf litter. It’s not hard if you know where to look, but also goes to show that nourishing soil doesn’t have to cost and can be done for free with a little patience. As for pest management, we have our fair share of problems with slugs and snails – most Brits will; we are working on how to reduce this.
I have only recently discovered the Instagram and Facebook growing communities, and it seems there are great seed swaps going on there. As I don’t have much space, though, for now I save seeds from previous years. Our tomato bed has so many seedlings pop up from previous years, meaning we always ‘accidentally’ grow a good range of tomatoes – which I love.
In a small garden like ours, space and light are the biggest hurdles we face . As our garden is small and doesn’t face south, it means we don’t get full sun all day – to combat this I try to grow vertically, placing shelves along the sunniest part of the garden to allow me to grow more. The lack of space can be disheartening at times, as I’ll never grow one of those Instagram-worthy apple orchards! But it also shows that plenty of food can be grown in less-than-favourable conditions, too.
The taste of freshly picked fruit in the summer is one of my joys. I love waking up, and picking berries in our garden for breakfast. It’s a calming way to start the day and even nicer doing it with family or children. I also love specific scents – herbs (rosemary), flowers, or fruit, as I have so many memories locked in with them. It’s like dipping into your past even if only for the summer.
No matter how small your space is, you can grow something that will be delicious. It might be fresh salad leaves or it might be a large apple tree, but with a bit of patience it can be done. You don’t have to go to horticultural/agricultural college and you don’t have to have lots of money. Growing and gardens shouldn’t be just for those with lots of money. For some reason the industry has tricked us into thinking we need their products to grow good food. We don’t. Reduce, reuse recycle – we can grow so much food by managing our waste system a bit better, whether it’s composting kitchen scraps or reusing a food container to grow plants. If you’ve ever had an inkling about growing plants or food, start today and enjoy the produce that will come.”