No Space to grow? No problem says creator of Vertical Veg
Mark Ridsdill Smith started Vertical Veg to blog about then challenges of growing food in containers on his balcony in London. He wanted to help others struggling to grow in small spaces and share ideas about the innovative ways he had discovered to grow food. Last year he moved to Newcastle where he continues to blog about growing food and teaches people to set up their own container gardens both online and offline.
Does it cost a lot of money to start growing your own food?
How much you spend on it is really as long as a bit of string. If you went out and bought expensive containers and lots of compost and lots of seeds you’d probably find that your vegetables were more expensive than they would be if you bought them from a shop. However, there are more and more people who are being very creative about it. They’re using things that people throw away as containers, they’re using green waste compost which is produced by the council from our waste food which is free or very low cost, they’re going to seed swaps, getting seeds at really low cost, they’ve got a wormery on their balcony. It’s very easy to make your own one for almost no cost and that will provide a lot of your fertiliser if not quite all of it. So it is possible then to start growing food very cheaply.
Can you grow most of your food on your balcony?
Growing food on a balcony has got huge potential in terms of adding a quality element to people’s diet in terms of fresh leaves, fresh herbs, fresh tomatoes and other vegetables in season. It’s impossible to buy leaves half an hour before you eat them and the taste is completely different. But I don’t think it can feed us totally. I guess that on our balcony we were growing between 5 and 15% of our food and it depends on how you calculate it, if you calculate it by value it was probably about 15% as we were growing a lot of expensive stuff, if you calculate it by vitamins and nutrients it was probably quite high around 15% but if you calculated it by actually how much energy we actually managed to grow probably it would drop to around 2% or 3% a lot of those foods have lots of valuable trace elements but they don’t necessarily have a lot of energy.
You have said that growing food on your balcony in London made you connect with the place where you were living in a different way. Is that something that surprised you?
It really surprised me. There just seemed to be a real interest from people. I’d often hear passers by talking about it stopping and looking at it and being really excited about it. I was surprised by that and also the sort of connections I made. I was going down to the local shops and cafés and saying “have you got any waste food I could feed to my worms?” and they’d be delighted by that and I made friends with them. It was unexpected really because people were really happy to help me and give me stuff. I think I was surprised because I’d lived in the same area for so long and I’d always liked the area but just never really felt connected to it in any way. I think in a small way it added something. If that sort of thing was replicated by more people it could have quite a big impact on city living.
Should local authorities do more to support people who want to grow food in cities?
I think people who growing food in the city adds benefits in so many different ways particularly when you’re working a busy job in the city just getting out and taking exercise and being with nature and understanding where food comes from; all these things are really valuable. I definitely think we should be finding more land for growing but also the potential for what people can grow without an allotment I think we shouldn’t overlook that because the thing about an allotment is it’s lovely to have one but even if it’s only a mile from you, or half a mile from you you’re still spending quite a lot of time travelling there. I think it’s quite different having it actually on your doorstep. I think it would also be good if people did more to raise awareness that if you don’t have an allotment you still can grow food and I think councils could be a lot more supportive of people. Some estates are very supportive of it but there are other estates where it’s a bit sort of frowned upon and they don’t really like people growing food in containers.
Do you think there’s a lot of people who are put off because they think they can’t garden?
There is sometimes a feeling that you either have ‘green fingers’ or you don’t and it’s some sort of inherent natural ability to grow food which I guess it’s like everything. There’s always some people who have slightly more ability than others but it’s like driving a car. Some people do find it difficult when they first start out but I don’t know anybody who hasn’t actually managed to pass. Actually the people who find it most difficult often become the best drivers later on. So I do think there’s this kind of mystique around growing plants and people don’t realise it’s something you can learn. I think the other thing is that people are just so busy they love the idea of doing it but then actually getting round to it and getting everything sorted out and planned is a different matter. Another of the myths around gardening is that you have to start at a certain time of year, if you don’t sow your seeds in March then you have to wait again for another year whereas actually there’s a really big window when you can start.
Had you any experience of gardening before beginning the project?
It’s interesting because quite a lot of us who are quite active in the food movement have some sort of memory from childhood of doing something related to food growing which is why I think it’s really important that schools do food growing now. We had an allotment as a family when I was growing up. My degree was in Biology and I did Botany so I have always been really interested in plants but when I actually started growing on the balcony other than those sort of childhood experiences of growing and bits of biological knowledge which has been quite useful to understand some of the things that were going on. Other than that I was a complete beginner and one of the reasons why I thought there was a need for something like Vertical Veg was that I found it really difficult to find out the information that I wanted to. Simple things like what size pots you should use for different crops or what compost you should use and whether you could re-use the compost in the second year. That’s sort where the idea for doing this came from. If someone told me all these things it would have made my life a lot easier.
Do you think some gardening books can be inaccessible?
There’s a whole language around gardening some of which is useful but the rest is just quite confusing. There are lots of people who have written books about container gardening but nearly all of them have got big gardens and they just know there’s a market for people who want food in containers so they write a book about it. But I think that when your only choice is growing in containers somehow it’s different. There are all sorts of difficulties you come up against; how you get your compost carry it all the way up to the third floor, water dripping down on the flat below. That’s one of the things that’s very different about what I was doing. I have no idea how to grow food in the ground other than my past experience growing as a child.
You’ve now relocated to Newcastle, how has growing there compared to growing in London?
There’s a different climate up here and of course it was the worst growing year ever last year so I had a pretty miserable growing year but we’ve moved house again since then and I’ve actually got a slightly better space for growing in and I know a bit more about the climate and I’m sort of expecting it to be another bad year weatherwise so I’m working out ways to provide cover for more of my crops and things like that so I’m learning how to grow up here.
There is a (growing community) in Newcastle but it’s very different from London. There’s a big allotment culture here so there’s an interest in what I do because a lot of the houses don’t actually have gardens they have backyards but there isn’t the same hunger that there is in London because people just can’t really get an allotment so here if you really want to grow food it’s quite easy. There is a green movement here with some very committed people doing some very interesting things but things like local food, at the moment it’s very hard to buy local vegetables in Newcastle, the only way of doing that is to sign up to a veggie box scheme— there’s hardly any farmers’ markets. It will come here, I’m sure it will come here but it’s a lot further ahead in London. In some ways I see it as an opportunity because it’s a good chance. The more of us up here doing this sort of stuff the better I think!