Monday, September 29, 2008


Although this piece is to do with growing vegetables in pots, allow me first to picture my London walled garden. It measures 4 paces by 14 paces. So by most people’s standards it is a very small garden.

The ground surface is paved with concrete flagstones, except for a narrow strip of soil at the north side of its length.

At one end of the garden is a small, two-seat summerhouse, known as “the shed”. In it, summer and part winter, we spend a lot of time. Blackbirds enter to eat crumbled Scottish oatcake on the carpet floor, and robins fly in to eat cheese bits from either our hands, from my knee or from the top of some birdseed boxes next to where I sit. A dunnock likes small cheese bits thrown out to it. Goldfinches (who seem to be the only birds that eat niger/nyger seeds, but drop a lot for mice and the creation of seedlings galore), great tits, blue tits, green finches, wrens and dreaded wood pigeons all visit the garden for food and drink. Rare visitors have been parakeets and a great spotted woodpecker, the latter robbing our robin’s nest of young.

On the house wall at the other end (west end) of the garden is wall box accommodation for swifts, sparrows, house martins, flycatchers, wagtails, blue tits, great tits, robins, bats, butterflies, bumblebees and other bees. Not many are used, but they are there – in case. All are hand painted to roughly match the London stock bricks behind them. Beneath these potential summer homes is a large tank for collecting rainwater from the roof.

VINES. When I left living in the country some 19 years ago (1989) I brought with me several varieties of vine from my experimental vineyard. The experimental part was to find disease-free or certainly disease-resistant vines – and other tests, mostly regarding fertiliser, methods of pruning and vinification. So there had to be a place made for the transported vines.

I found a blacksmith who made for me arches, made of 1” (2.5 cm) reinforcing rod that were attached to the north and south walls of the garden to form an arbour. These arches were braced diagonally with fencing wire that was also used to form intermediate arches.

Having once designed scenery for the theatre, I created this arched arbour in perspective – making the near arches (to the house) higher than the far ones and positioning the far ones closer together than the near ones. The intermediate wire arches, the bracing wires, and the rod arches themselves, were then painted with black mastic paint for preservation.

There are now several disease-free vines covering the arbour and trailing along wires on walls. The white grape grown is Seyval Blanc, and the main red one, Triomphe d’Alsace. The white is there for the pleasure of seeing its lovely bunches and making a little white or rosé wine. And the red one (Triomphe d’Alsace, which now runs for 73 metres (say 220 feet) over and around the garden can produce from a dozen or so to a maximum 88 bottles of excellent wine each year. Birds love the red grapes, and are a constant threat to a good harvest. They leave the white ones until last. I am unable to net the vines, so have to rush out to rattle a bamboo on hard surfaces to deter the birds. They are quick in learning to be careful, but love to glide in quietly and deceive me.

ROSES. Grown along the strip of soil beneath the north wall are roses (one Reverend F. Page Roberts and, in my opinion, the best of all roses, Typhoon).

SCULPTURE. A 4’ 6” (137 cm) high elm sculpture of lovers stands beneath the arbour. It is inclined to split in the summer and close up in the winter. That is the way of elm wood. Done by me in 1981 (as discovered from the sculpture link in my blog), it is sprayed occasionally to combat rot and woodworm. Few people are brave enough to get on their knees to look beneath after I have told them of the generously carved action details that I added after creating it.

FLOWERS. In pots of various colours, shapes and capacity, are flowers, grown on moveable brickwork, organised at different heights to form of a peninsular, almost dividing the paved garden. This configuration is altered throughout the year.
The flowers grown are two kinds of fuchsia, three large pots of impatiens (for a constant blaze of summer colour), hibiscus, Bolivian begonia, hydrangea, mahonia, pieris, geraniums (pelagoniums), potentilla, cyclamen, lilies, camellia, tulips, foxgloves (gratefully, as digitalis once saved my life) and calendula.

TREES. From the soil exposed by extracting a flagstone beneath the south wall grows a morello cherry, trained in espalier fashion on wires. The cherries are harvested in late summer for céries eau de vie, to be enjoyed at Christmas time.

The trees grown in pots are two bay trees (one given to us as a cutting by a dying religious lady, now trained to point to heaven), an apple and a pear (both more decorative than productive). A fig tree and ivy share a pot. A horizontal, pot-growing juniper, rises to cover the surfaces of both apple and pear pots.

Cuttings of Triomphe d’Alsace grapevines are grown, not in pots but in a corner of the garden as gifts to those locals who want to collect them in early December each year.

HERBS. Since coming to London I have had a collection of herbs in pots – some being more successful than others – depending on soil, light and shade, and the weather conditions during the year – not to mention neglect when on holiday. In these pots I grow parsley (from the supermarket), rosemary, chives, French tarragon, and thyme. I have had trouble in growing sage, but having obtained one with variegated leaf, it has done well. But the leaves are not as strongly flavoured as “vulgaris”. Initial coriander growing was a disappointment. I should have known better, having written on the subject for the Financial Times in November 1988. Sometimes rocket, grown in a corner of the garden, has done splendidly. It did not do well this year. But I saved some seedpods, from which I obtained summer-dried seeds to plant in a pot in September - for autumn harvesting. Mint, grown in a large, sunken pot to keep it within bounds, does well each year. But this year, many of its late leaves were eaten by some bug or other – probably flea beetle. I should have harvested them earlier and turned them into mint sauce for winter use.

Inside, on the kitchen window sill, I grow a new lot of sweet basil each year (obtained in a pot from the supermarket, thinned and replanted in good compost), a small “tree” of chillies (they turned out to be jalapino this year – and very successful), and an aloe vera. I give branches of this spiky and fleshy plant to a West Indian lady, who uses it in cooking and for healing purposes.

SOFT FRUIT. To grow strawberries seemed a real possibility when I saw a special earthenware pot for them, made with an open top and holes at the side. Several varieties were planted, working from the bottom up, keeping their potted roots in place and sticking the foliage out of the holes as the pot was filled with compost. The outcome was disappointing despite plenty of watering and fertiliser. What runners developed were pushed into already-occupied holes. We await better results next year. The pot looks quite decorative – and fun. The gift of a blueberry bush has produced fruit – mainly for the birds. We expect brilliantly coloured leaves on it in the autumn.

VEGETABLES. It was in 2007 that my sister, June, thought about giving up part of her allotment and growing vegetables in pots in her little London garden. It was about this time that people were becoming more conscious about using some of their town gardens for growing vegetables – sensing that the financial pinch was on its way, seeing that self-sufficiency was becoming popular and fashionable, and wanting to reduce the import of foodstuffs. Her initial experiments with carrots were a great success, as they were with her mixed lettuces.

For me, growing vegetables in pots started in the spring of 2008 with, of all things, ASPARAGUS. I was given a very large flowerpot by a near neighbour and did not know where it might go in the garden and what to plant in it. Asparagus came to mind, not as a large crop for future degustation, but to be able to eat one or two spikes and enjoy the sight of its ferns and autumn berries. So into the big pot went a lot of composty soil and two bought asparagus crowns, claimed to be two years old.

In spaces around the crowns I planted seed, with considerable expectation, having once established a large asparagus bed, all from a packet or two of seeds. The rest of the seeds were planted in a small pot.

The crowns produced one thin spear each. The seeds planted near to them grew and subsided quickly. But the seeds in the small pot did splendidly. Their little crowns will augment the larger crowns in the big pot, and the rest, I think, be put in the soil beneath the cherry tree, where a short row of mini daffodils flower each spring.

I wanted a globe ARTICHOKE for its foliage and possibly a fine flower or two. Given an off-cut with a little root, it started well, died away, but has now (almost October) started to produce new leaves. Not all is lost.

CARROTS were an obvious choice. My gardening sister told of the delicious thinnings to be enjoyed before the main crop could be harvested. Our thinnings were very small, but delicious. And those left to grow fatter never became much larger. I will experiment with other varieties, as hers were far better than mine.

BEETROOT made a decorative pot, and the leaves were used in salads and omelettes. But the bulbs were never large enough to count as beetroot.

FENNEL, grown as a single plant from a garden centre pot, provided fronds as wanted in the kitchen and a good crop of fresh seeds. In a way it was a success.

DWARF FRENCH BEANS. These did well, but I did not plant them thickly enough in their pot.

CLIMBING FRENCH BEANS (Blue Lake) provided several dishes, but as the garden is not really large enough to grow them, despite a “cat’s cradle” of string for them in a corner. I will grow more dwarf French beans on a high shelf next year, and add a few climbers to them see if they will trail.

BROAD BEANS. I grew two buckets-full in a darkish corner. They grew well, but produced no more than half a dozen pods. I intend to persevere, planting a dwarf variety very soon (autumn).

SORREL, from seed, has been a success. We have harvested the leaves several times for omelettes.

TOMATOES have usually been most productive, beside being a decorative and delicious crop. All went well this year, until I came into the garden one morning to find that blight was spoiling the entire lot. The leaves had shrivelled and patches of rot had appeared on the tomatoes. It was a disheartening and disgusting sight. But I will persevere.

COURGETTES (zucchini) were both a success and failure. We harvested quite a few courgettes and they were delicious to eat. But the failure was mine, in not realising that the plants would crowd us out of our small garden. They will not be tried again – due only to lack of space.

GARLIC has already been autumn planted in the area where rocket grew. Rocket has now been consigned to a pot.

SHALLOTS have been planted with the garlic. Both are from magnificent French “seed”, sold for culinary purposes in the Dieppe market.

LAMB’S LETTUCE will be planted in a pot as soon as I buy some seed.

MIXED LETTUCE will be planted in the spring.

SPINACH will also be tested.

That is as far as my London garden experiments have got. I recommend anyone to join me for the fun and upward learning curve.