Container enthusiasm: How to grow lockdown veg in a tiny space

By Judith Burns
BBC News

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image copyrightHana Evans
image captionHana Evans is growing her own organic veg on a tiny balcony in Paignton

Supermarket queues and the fear of lockdown food shortages have inspired a new generation of backyard veg growers - but what if your only outside space is tiny?

"I guess I have green fingers now," says healthcare assistant Hana Evans.

She moved to an attic flat in Paignton, Devon, for work late last year. The upside is the "gorgeous" sea view. The downside? It's quite dark inside and the only outside space is a balcony less than a metre wide and three metres long.

In her previous home, Hana had dabbled in gardening and even had an allotment where she battled "massive slugs" in her efforts to grow organic veg.

image copyrightHana Evans
image captionThe sea view from Hana's flat in Paignton

It was the lockdown which turned her from "a beginner" with a neglected vegetable patch into someone who has crammed 31 pots into her tiny outdoor space and acquired myriad handy gardener's tricks.

She's growing five types of lettuce, five types of tomato, pak choi, kale, spinach, peas, cucumber, two types of bean, chives, parsley and thyme.

She has two redcurrant bushes, a sunflower plant and an array of edible flowers, including nasturtiums and cornflowers.

"I've crammed it completely full," she says. "I've got things hanging off the walls."

image copyrightHana Evans

Hana prefers organic veg and doesn't have a car, so the lockdown made food shopping hard.

"So I decided to grow as much as I could next to my kitchen."

The garden centres were shut but Hana still had a few seeds left from her allotment days.

She bought children's seaside buckets - discounted due to the lack of tourists, made pot hangers out of string and found a local nursery willing to deliver compost, which she bulked out with kitchen scraps, pieces of rotten wood and dead leaves.

image copyrightHana Evans
image captionHana has crammed her tiny balcony with pots

She's doing an online course in permaculture which encourages gardeners to mimic the way soil forms naturally, and is now growing more per square metre than she ever did on the allotment.

"I'm eating so much better since the lockdown" she says.

Vertical veg

Newcastle-based Mark Ridsdill-Smith was one of Hana's inspirations.

He runs a website called Vertical Veg which encourages gardeners with limited space to think beyond the horizontal. The website has had a lot more traffic recently, he says.

Growing your own from a balcony or window ledge not only improves your wellbeing and immediate environment, you can actually grow a lot of veg, says Mark.

He calculates that by his second year he was producing more than 80kg of food, worth almost £900 at supermarket prices.

He admits drainage is sometimes a problem for balcony gardeners - you don't want water dripping on to your downstairs neighbours . But if you can solve that problem, the advantages include better light and fewer pests than at ground level.

image copyrightMark Ridsdill Smith
image captionMark tending his runner beans

Just a window ledge?

Mark's tips include:

  • using coir bricks instead of dragging heavy bags of compost upstairs. Soaked in water, coir bricks expand to six times their original volume but need extra fertiliser, being low in nutrients
  • if you only have a window ledge, try growing "microgreens" like pea shoots in trays. If you plant the seeds so they almost touch, you can harvest up to half a kg of pea shoots from each tray within three weeks, once you've harvested the shoots, you can reseed immediately for a regular supply
  • again, for window ledge growers, try re-potting supermarket living herbs. Each supermarket tub contains multiple plants, so split them into bigger, separate pots and they can last for months. The same goes for supermarket "living salads"
  • planting seeds from your spice rack - coriander, fenugreek and mustard seeds work well - and you can even try dried peas or chickpeas.
  • boosting your container-grown tomato crop by using liquid feed regularly
  • starting informal plant swaps with other local growers

"I've met people who get as much pleasure out of growing food on balconies as people with huge gardens," says Mark.

And even when some of your improvised techniques don't work out, "it doesn't stop it being fun as long as you keep an open mind".

image copyrightRobyn Wiles
image captionRobyn and her partner made vertical plant containers out of old pallets

In Beeston, Nottingham, Robyn Wiles says the patio at her ground floor flat used to be "a bit of a sad space".

As a locum physiotherapist she has had a lot of time on her hands during lockdown.

Her mother, "one of those people who has a nice garden", was just a phone call away for advice and now Robyn is growing sage, mint, basil, rosemary, peppers, chillies, fennel and orange seedlings, alongside some flowers.

She found seeds, 19 plastic pots and some compost in a local supermarket.

She and her partner Alex used old pallets to make vertical plant containers, and even created a pond and a makeshift greenhouse.

During cold snaps they dutifully carted the 19 pots and their contents into the flat every night and out again the following morning.

But it's worth it she says. The garden has attracted bees and there are "blackbirds, male and female, that come and visit us most days".

image copyrightSheila Brand
image captionRagnar the cat, enjoying his balcony garden in Rotterdam

And it's not just a UK phenomenon. Freelance graphic designer Sheila Brand lives and works in a third-floor flat with a balcony one metre wide and four metres long in Rotterdam, with cats Ragnar and Rollo.

She's already harvesting raspberries, radishes and courgettes and is also growing tomatoes, aubergines, herbs and even a pumpkin.

"Most of the days now are the same," she says, but watching the plants grow "is very exciting: 'Oh it's got a new leaf.'"

image copyrightSheila Brand
image captionSheila Brand with some of her crop of radishes

She says everything is growing massively and there's barely enough room to sit on the balcony.

She's planning to give some of her crop away to neighbours once it's ripe, including the pumpkin which will be ready in October at the earliest.

"I hope we'll all be hugging each other by then," says Sheila.