Monthly Archives: May 2014


I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that most gardeners crave more plants for their gardens than they have room to indulge.  This is even more critical for those of us who have teeny-tiny growing spaces, and choosing plants an even more agonizing task.
For me, deciding on what veg to grow and what varieties to opt for has always included a desire to protect genetic diversity.  The Heritage Seed Library helps keep veg varieties in existence that might otherwise become lost:  if they are not on the National Seed List they cannot legally be sold, and slowly these varieties disappear.  Membership schemes bypass this law, as seeds are exchanged for a signing-up fee.  I joined the HSL many years ago, and through lapses in membership I endeavour still to grow heritage seed where possible.


‘Where possible’ has become more tricky, as I’m now ‘growing-my-own’ in a patch averaging four hours of direct sunlight, and I have a mild obsession with tomatoes!  I like their taste; for me, they have been problem-free (haven’t encountered Blight yet); and saving seed from them is no different to eating them… except for the destination, of course.  Even though they are sun-lovers, I tried out tomatoes on my five feet of landing last year, as an experiment.  I’d read an article saying that small tomatoes cope with some shade, and I wondered if this meant little plants or diddy fruit, or both.  I grew a dwarf bush type (‘Whippersnapper’); and two tall cordon types: one with cherry fruit (‘Millefleur’), the other with bigger fruit (the confusingly named ‘Green Bell Pepper’).  The sort that did best was ‘Whippersnapper’.  Having realised I could just about get away with growing a certain kind in the shade, I was nonetheless determined not to bother with tomatoes this year, and focus on other things instead.Another sun-lover I thought I’d test was the french bean.  Seeing as the short tomatoes did okay, I hoped I’d have reasonable success with dwarf Phaseolus vulgaris.  Who am I kidding? I tend to have difficulties with french beans anyway, and two attempts didn’t even germinate (old seeds?) When I sowed the second batch earlier this month, I also sneaked in some ‘Whippersnapper’…  I couldn’t resist.  I assured myself that they’d be for friends, but as my french beans amounted to nada, the toms will take their place.  I usually fare better with runner beans, the related Phaseolus coccinea which are more suited to shadier spots. HSL variety ‘John’s Best Long Bean’ consistently gives longer-than-average pods, but again, I’ve had the seeds a while and it doesn’t look like they’ll sprout.Generally in a small plot, it’s best to choose crops that produce food quickly e.g. not broccoli or cauliflower which need to go into their second year before harvesting (though the Real Seed Catalogue offers a quick-heading calabrese which is productive in just a few months).  Salad leaves are a good option.  I’d not realised how good baby kale is until I had occasion to grab lunch in a sandwich chain (which shall remain nameless!) As a result, I’m using kale as a cut’n’come again crop, along with rocket and red mizuna.  Thanks to Vertical Veg, I’ve made a couple of other shady discoveries – coriander (surprisingly) and young broad bean leaves, which taste like mange-tout.  The real mange-tout is currently lashing its way up a wigwam.

Other plans include a hanging basket with golden chard and scarlet flowered nasturtiums, and if I’m organised enough, post-midsummer greens such as ‘Dragon’s Tongue’.  Basically, I’ll see what I can shoe-horn in.  Like every other gardener.



Leave a comment

Filed under Five Feet of Landing

Mollusc Madness

Ornamented metal-work spotted while on holiday

Hands up!  Who’s guilty of hurling a snail over the wall into a neighbor’s garden?  A recent survey by the RHS revealed that a fifth of those questioned admitted to such an act, with Londoners being the most likely and Scots the least likely (another reason for Scottish independence?!) Shortly after I’d heard about this survey, I discovered a book called A Slow Passion which was to become my holiday reading.  Forget about Mills & Boon bodice-rippers, this was the tale of granny Ruth Brooks and her investigation into the alleged homing instinct of snails.  It was a totally accessible read and a real page-turner.  I was gripped!

Snails, and their fellow gastropods slugs, are generally quite reviled for the damage they exact in the garden. A quick straw poll of gardeners that I know suggests a preference for the snail, given a choice.  One friend tells me it’s due to the two textures of a snail that makes stamping on them all the more satisfying, the crunch yielding to a delightful squish!  Another, less murderous explanation, was that snails appear more refined, their shells affording them greater modesty than the naked slug which is more brazen in its mucosity.  Some slugs do have shells, however: the Testacellidae family, of which there are three species in the British Isles, have an insignificant shell that sits towards the tail-end of the slug’s body – a kind of fig leaf of modesty.
Whether it’s slugs or snails who are favoured, people tend to regard them as outright pests, and stock up on slug pellets and copper tape with a view to slime-icide.  Yet not all belly-foots do damage in the garden.  Comparatively few species are keen to eat their greens.  In this respect they are similar to humans!  Some are detrivorous, feeding on dead organic matter.  These are handy in the compost heap, helping to break down our kitchen and garden waste into humus.  The Garlic Glass Snail (Oxychilus alliarius) is one such detrivore.  It is a small snail with a translucent, flattened shell and gives off a strong whiff of ramsons when handled.  Along with compost bins, it haunts the darkness under logs and stones.  Another mollusc posing no threat to horticultural efforts is the Yellow Slug (Limax flavus).  It slicks around in cellars and out-houses, grazing mainly on rotting matter and mould.  Any living matter it may encounter is ignored.  Surprisingly, not all gastropods are even vegetarian.  The slugs of the the aforementioned Testacellidae family are carnivorous, dining on earthworms.  Capturing their prey by its tip using a ‘toothed’ tongue, the hapless worm is then slowly slurped down into this belly-foot’s belly.On the basis of the voracious activity of a few culprits, all slugs and snails are maligned, smeared with guilt. Maybe if we sent them over the wall more often, on holiday so to speak, we might co-exist easier.  And yes, I am a Londoner!

Mollusc Madness
White-Lipped Snail (Cepaea hortensis)

Further Reading!
Ruth Brooks, A Slow Passion: Snails, My Garden and  Me (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Michael Chinery, Garden Creepy Crawlies (Whittet Books, 1986)


Filed under Uncategorized

Finding the Spaces In-Between

A slow inspiration took hold a few years ago when I fixed on the idea of growing edibles in containers – an experiment in food-growing in small spaces.
I had attended the 2005 Science and Sustainability Symposium at the Centre for Alternative Technology, and went to a talk by Annie Sugrue of EcoCity.  This South African environmental NGO strives, amongst other things, to ease poverty in an urban context. They encourage people to cultivate their own crops, as even a few home-grown veg can provide a degree of poverty alleviation.  It is not necessary to have fields or large areas in order to grow food, and Sugue spoke of “finding the spaces in-between,” those marginal pieces of land which could be utilised for food growing.

That phrase lodged in my head and two years later the inspiration became reality.  In 2007 I started my experiment by growing crops in containers on a sliver of ground in the gardener’s compound where I worked.  It was a stretch half a metre by seven metres along a fence. The following year, the situation changed and I had to conduct my experiment along two shorter fence lines, including under shade.  Now I’m growing food in pots closer to home – a new home where the growing space is even smaller than I’ve ever had!

“Finding the spaces in-between” translates very well into London living.  The reasons why people want to grow food are numerous.  Heading the list in a survey by Vertical Veg was the simple pleasure of growing.  Other reasons include taste; knowing the food is organic and chemical-free; saving money; and growing different or exotic food.

The inspirations may be varied… but the enthusiasm is the same.

An Unpromising Start:
my growing space when I moved in 2013


Leave a comment

Filed under Five Feet of Landing