Growing your own in a small city home

By Philip Hampsheir
Business reporter

Image caption,
Naomi Schillinger says that food can be grown in a very small area

"Try this one," she says. "It tastes of mustard"

Naomi Schillinger leans down and plucks a cutting from a small plant in her garden.

The spiky leaf is such a deep, dark red, it almost looks purple. It tastes hot and tangy - a little like wasabi peas.

She leans back and grins, before pointing to another plant on the edge of the ping pong table-sized, corner plot front garden of a house in Finsbury Park, north London. This one looks like chives.

'No food miles'

Ms Schillinger is one of a rising number of urban gardeners, using space anywhere they can find to bring vegetable growing back to the cities.

"I love to grow stuff on my doorstep because I can just go out and pick it," she says. "There's zero food miles. It's not sprayed. It's fresh.

"I've got a 10ft sq patch outside and I can eat salad all summer long."

Ms Schillinger started a blog that became so popular she was asked to write a book. The result was titled: "All You Can Eat in Three Square Feet".

Neighbours saw what she was doing and it has grown into a community of around 100 people who between them share tips, meet for street parties, and swap vegetables among one another if they have too many.

Small is beautiful

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Vertical gardens are one way of growing in minimal space

Growing and producing your own food seems to be an increasing trend, not just in cities but across the country.

The proportion of households getting eggs from their own chickens, for instance, rose from 5.1% in 2009 to 7% in 2013, the latest year for which the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has data.

Overall, Defra says that, in 2012, some 2.7% of all food eaten by households was home grown. By 2013, the figure had risen to 3.5%.

Some put it down as a reaction to "austerity Britain" - middle class families, who 10 or 15 years ago would not have bothered to "grow their own" looking to save money wherever they can.

"It does save me money," Ms Schillinger says. "I don't buy a lettuce all summer long."

Most seeds cost between £1 and £2, depending on the item.

Once tools and compost are factored in the only major expense is the gardener's time.

The community of home growers suggest that a single person can feed themselves for the year from a plot of 4ft by 4ft.

They can also get crops that are more suited to their individual tastes or that might be harder to buy in stores.

"It's not just cheaper," Ms Schillinger says.

"A lot of the things that I grow - like sorrel and sweet cicely - I simply couldn't buy in shops. Or if I could, they'd be gourmet.

"The whole point is to grow something different."

'Interest from young mums'

Image caption,
Mike Thurlow says there is a shortage of allotments

Mike Thurlow, horticultural adviser to the National Allotment Society, says more and more people want to grow their own.

"It's taken off. The last 10 years or so, when you think it's going to die down, it doesn't," he says.

He thinks the trend is fuelled in part by people questioning the provenance of what they serve for dinner.

"I can remember, 25 to 30 years ago, some of the members were looking after three or four allotments just to keep the plots in cultivation," he says.

"All of a sudden, young mums, young families, who are concerned about the food they eat, come along and now there aren't enough plots to go round."

There are spill over effects for those catering to this new army of prospective vegetable growers.

Alexandra Palace hosts the Edible Garden Show.

"We've had a bumper year in terms of the number of exhibitors and interest," says Geraldine Reeve, the event's show director.

"Last year, we had just over 11,000 visitors. This year we're on track to exceed 20,000."

Of course, with waiting lists in many areas for allotments and modern housing meaning small or no gardens, part of the boom has been in encouraging people to think creatively in how they grow.

Blogs have sprung up on the internet explaining how to build vertical gardens - using anything from shop-bought kit to repurposed wooden pallets to grow herbs and vegetables on walls.

"I've got a limited amount of space," Ms Schillinger says.

"When you're living in urban situations, you don't have huge fields.

"People can always think about window boxes, using pots for beans and tomatoes on balconies or growing things upwards."