Some Thoughts on Urban Gardening

I’ve been attempting to grow fruit and vegetables on my balcony (actually several balconies), for a few years now so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned. I am by no means an expert but I do feel that next year I know exactly what I want to plant and, more importantly, what is actually worth growing; often I’ve been sucked into the trap of thinking, ‘ooh wouldn’t it be cool if I grew that!’ rather than properly considering the conditions it might need. This has led to a lot of disappointment. Occasionally however, I have managed to learn from my mistakes.

Tomatoes are probably the first vegetable most cooks try to grow at home and I’ve had varying degrees of success over the years. What I’ve generally found is that trying to grow full size tomatoes in pots or grow bags in a limited space is not really worth it; they often toughen up into ‘London tomatoes’ – thick skinned and mealy. Cherry tomatoes are the way forward for me. This year I discovered the ‘Vilma‘ variety which are specially bred for growing in pots. They shot up really well from seed to produce strong and somewhat stocky plants that trailed over the pots and produced lots of really sweet and flavourful fruits over a long season. I’ve come to realise though, that with tomato plants, quantity is key – you need to grow more than three to make it worthwhile.

I’ve also had great results with chillies and I find you only need a couple of plants to get a really good yield. This year I grew one batch of seeds from a little self-contained pouch I got when I won the Tipped chilli cook-off and the others I grew from some chillies kindly sent to me by Jess, again for winning the cook off. They nearly always grow easily and look all pretty on the balcony as the fruits turn from green to purple to red.

I’ll also be growing more salad leaves next year. I’ve had success with every type I’ve bought including different varieties of rocket (which is much more peppery than the shop bought stuff) and Beet Bull’s Blood. They grow so fast it’s hard to keep up; you keep cutting them and they grow back within a week.

Other successes include the bay tree (an incredibly useful addition to the kitchen garden) and of course some herbs; not all of them mind you – I’ve had the least trouble with hardy ones like rosemary and thyme. Among the softer herbs, basil has worked well (particularly the Greek variety) and I did manage to keep parsley alive once, although not for very long. The one herb I have never been able to grow is coriander. If anyone has any tips on that then please let me know.

And now for some of the fails…

When I heard it was possible to grow potatoes in containers, I was excited. Generally, I am not a big potato eater but the flavour of a home grown spud is so spectacularly different from that of a shop bought one. It brings back memories of lazy summer lunches in my parents’ garden – forking up the potatoes, shaking off the dirt and tumbling them into the basket ready to be washed, cooked and made ready to receive butter. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when the ‘great potato harvest’ turned up just three teeny spuds from one flamboyantly leafy, lush plant. I had to laugh as Chris desperately scrabbled through the dirt with his fingers, “where are they? where ARE they?!”

Next, the padron peppers. Not a total failure as you can see but the problem here was one of quantity. The three plants I managed to keep alive produced just four peppers between them and I think it was a real struggle bless ’em; the plants are now yellow, scrawny and basically on the way out. I suspect a greenhouse might be a more suitable environment.

And finally, the strawberries. These were  incredibly disappointing because they had so much promise. I bought a variety bred for growing in pots. They even managed to survive a week wrapped up in the post office depot (the postman failed to leave a card to let me know they were there) and went on to recover well, producing a pleasing amount of scarlet fruit. When it came to the eating however, the berries were hard and sour, no matter how long I left them to ripen. I really don’t know what went wrong.

So there you have it – the fruits of my rather limited labours. Next year I’ll be growing more tomatoes, salad leaves and chillies and experimenting yet again with the herbs. I also like to grow some non-edibles for a bit of colour; sweet peas are absolutely essential as my favourite flowers and the lily trees (top photo) were spectacular, provoking gasps (actual gasps!) of joy from visitors.

I’ll be trying some winter salad leaves now but I’m also looking for a new addition for next year. What have been your successes? Any vegetable I simply must try growing? Any tips on keeping herbs alive will also be very gratefully received!

You can see my full urban gardening Flickr set here.

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26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Urban Gardening

  1. Very inspiring for us city dwellers, or those with small yards. Great success you’ve had, and great photos. I really appreciate the wisdom on gardening you share here too. Thank you!

  2. Glad you found it to be useful. To be a good gardener, you need to think like a plant.

    The questions here obviously caught me at a weak moment. I don’t usually respond to blogs, let alone with such lengthy replies! I think I was avoiding work at the time.


  3. Muriel – I am in awe of your gardening knowledge! Thank you for taking the time to pass on your thoughts, this is very useful information indeed.

  4. Hi from Canada

    I discovered this blog when looking for info regarding farro. Just couldn’t resist giving a few pointers here, regarding growing vegies, as I have quite a large vegetable garden here.

    First, tomatoes, pepper and aubergines (we call them eggplant here) are all from the same family and need similar growing conditions – that being lots of sun and lots of heat units. LOTS. They also need a long growing season, and I repeat, with lots of sun and lots of heat units. The choice of variety is very important if you are in a shorter growing season. The long skinny aubergines (Japanese) should produce fruit faster than the large egg-shaped ones.

    With peppers and tomatoes, you need to research the varities that are better for a short growing season. With tomatoes it is generally the small-fruiting tomatoes that are best for container growing or short seasons. Hard skinned tomatoes are likely from lack of water, as the plant protects the all important eggs (seeds) so that they can ripen to produce viable seed.

    The large varieties of squash need an even longer growing season.

    Courgettes (we call them zucchini) may need to be hand pollinated. It seems to me that if water (by rain or irrigation) gets into the flower, then it destroys any hope of the zuke developing properly, but I am not positive about this.

    Parsley, lettuce, chard, etc will bolt faster if dry or too hot. They should all do extremely well in London’s climate, if the slugs don’t get them first.

    Cilantro needs to be grown from seed. It has a tap root, so buying starter plants is not a good idea, as the roots simply does not like having been cramped in a small space. Parsley also has a tap root but is slower growing. I have found it important to buy quite small plants, as the large lush ones will bolt much faster. My guess is that the cramped roots signal to the top of the plant to hurry and and produce those off-spring, as it can’t do much more at the bottom.

    Regarding strawberries, my guess is that irregular water is the reason the berries were rock hard. When a plant is growing its fruit it needs plenty of moisture.

    Lush tops with few potatoes is probably a result of too much nitrogen. Vegetables need fertilizer to get them growing but as they are nearing fruit-producing time, you should change to a fertilizer that is high in the last number (potash).

    The reason potatoes have dirt piled up around the stem is to keep the light off of the potatoes as they are growing under the ground. Light turns them green. I use leaves rather than hilling them, as the leaves keep the light off and contribute to the health of the soil. With the early varieties of potatoes, which are they types that do not keep well in storage over the winter, I don’t even bother to put anything around the stem. My goal with that variety (Warba) is to steal the babies when they are around golf ball size. Then the plant keep producing more (remember its need to produce offspring) until I have disturbed its roots too many times and it gives up and dies. Usually a plant is good for about 3 such disturbances. It is important to water the plant after doing this.

    If you haven’t been to a fantastic website called, I highly recommend it! They have countless categories of forums regarding gardening (and home renos too). I expect they have one on container gardening.

    This is getting way too long. I must get back to work!

  5. Hi Helen

    We too have been growing vegetables on the balcony for the last three years and have had similar results. Good tomatoes, chillies, lettuce, rocket and most herbs, disappointing or disastrous everything else – special mention going to this year’s aubergines. Problem is just as everything is beginning to bear fruit we bugger off on our summer hols, coming back to parched shrivelled wasteland.

    Like the redesign by the way.



  6. Nate – Well, they are exposed but the balcony is kind of sheltered by some bamboo screening all the way round. I keep them all on the sunny side. I’ve tried growing things on the sheltered side but nothing will grow there. Literally nothing. Not even shade loving plants.

    Jeanne – Ah that is interesting about the beans. I had some and was going to plant them in pots myself but never got around to it. I guess at the very least they looked nice! I wonder if you can get a special variety for growing in pots – will look into it. ooh look this person has had some success

    On the Isle of Wight too – nice! Anyway, chillies. I don’t actually know what overwintering means but I am guessing it means bring them in over the winter?! Previously, I have let them die but this year I have decided to bring them in. It just never occurred to me before until I read about it somewhere. Will see what happens! What do you do?

    I will pass the info about butternuts onto my mum. She has tried this year but with no success either. Perhaps it just isn’t possible then.

  7. Very impressive indeed! I’ve had success with tomatoes in pots (even though they didn’t ripen in last year’s ghastly “summer” – the green tomato chutney was good!) – this year we had a good crop from 6 plants, although I think we have developed tomato blight towards the end of the season. Note to self – change that soil! I was very dissappointed with my runner bean – masses of foliage and lovely flowers… but the beans all shriveled and fell off before they were 2 inches long. Maybe they just don’t like pots? next year, I will try courgettes I think. Tried very hard to grow butternut for 2 years but this is not the climate for them and they kept throwing off their fruit. Chillies have always been a good crop – I might try growing a few different varieties this year. Do you let yours die or do you overwinter them indoors?

    And my rosemary, sage and basil have grown like weeds!!

  8. Congratulations on your container gardening! Too bad your padrons didn’t produce that much. I guess you have to plant more next year!

    Do you keep your plants under the eaves or exposed? How much sun does your tomato plant get?

  9. Lizzie – Ah, so maybe those thick skinned tomatoes just needed picking earlier! I am wondering whether the courgettes might need a grow bag. A bit of a hassle to get home I know but then they would be able to sprawl on the floor and you certainly have the space on your balcony.

    Kavey – Wow! You grew a lot of stuff there. I suppose things are different if you have an actual garden though. One day, one day…

    aforkfulofspaghetti – ooh you had such an interesting range of veg there! I actually bought some radish seeds but never got around to planting them. Do you think they would be fine in pots? Only small, aren’t they?!

    Jenn – Yes! Except I reckon you must grow GIANT versions of the things I grow with all that sun!

    The Graphic Foodie – Well I think we just had them with a simple meal like a roast or something. I have to say though, the flavour of them was amazing! Such a shame but yes, very funny. The one huge advantage of having a balcony and of course being in a very urban area is that the bugs don’t really bother us. My Dad actually goes into his veg patch every night and removes all the snails by hand! Depends how squeamish you are I guess…

    LexEat – PSYCHO-SQUIRREL! Cute, but a pain in the ass I imagine. Maybe you could try eating HIM ? 😉 IThe seeds need to be sown between March to April but I have done it in May and got away with it before.

    Charmaine – Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s too late now to start growing chillies. Definitely do it next year though, they are so easy to grow.

    Gourmet Chick – Ah yes! A friend did tell me that if you move it then it just gets all stroppy.

    James – I love the idea of growing coriander cress, that is brilliant, thank you. As for the cucumbers, I did want to grow them – can you grow them in pots? The spaghetti squashes have always fascinated me too, you just use a fork to get the strands out don’t you? I’ve seen them on American blogs and for some reason thought you couldn’t get them over here.

    Judy – Haven’t got a hydroponic growing site by any chance?

    The Fastest Indian – Ahh, so maybe I should try my peppers again next year but keep them inside? Sounds like a good plan. That is interesting about the coriander. I will not give up!!

    Helen – It’s frustrating isn’t it? I hear you on the salad leaves though. They are amazingly easy to grow and shoot up so fast. Incredibly satisfying.

    eatlivetravelwrite – So glad to have inspired you!

    Johanna – Ah yes, I have done exactly the same to a bay tree before. They do recover but it takes a couple fo years I’m afraid. As for the mint, yes I grow it too. It is actually a weed, which is why it grows so fast!

    Ollie -ooh I didn’t know that about the potatoes but it does make perfect sense! I also heard that you are supposed to keep building up the earth so there is more room for potatoes but I didn’t write about it as I’m not sure of the method.

    Sophie – Me too! I will check out that parsley variety as I would like to try a more robust variety. Are tumbling tomatoes the same as the ones I grew where they trail over the pot?

  10. Great pics – I love reading about other people’s gardens!

    Our strawberries were a real let down too – I think my irregular watering and unwanted attention from the chickens was just too much for them. And our bay tree was killed by an ant infestation.

    I’ve found parsley OK to grow – it seems to need moisture and not too much sun to stop it from bolting. The Giant of Napoli parsley seeds that I have seem quite a robust variety.

    I definitely agree about growing smaller tomatoes – so much easier to manage, even in a reasonable sized garden. I’m planning to try tumbling cherry tomatoes next year on advice of a colleague.

  11. Well, nice one, on the whole. I think the key with potatoes is to cut the plants back as much as you dare, otherwise they put all their energy into the leaves instead of the tubery stuff underneath. Beautiful photos, as always.

  12. looks gorgeous – your bay tree looks more healthy than mine which I fear I used too much but it is showing some new signs of life in the spring – the herb I have found most productive is the mint – so long as it gets water you can’t stop it – it even jumped into the next pot and colonised it

  13. We’ve been growing lots in the garden this year too (and learned plenty of lessons!). The strawberries were most disappointing, after a promising start. The other blueberries just didn’t grow (unlike the blackberries down our lane!). Successes were courgettes, Swiss chard, chicory and other salad leaves and all the herbs. As for the jalapeno peppers – there’s one baby one growing!

  14. Ooo- that’s all very interesting! And impressive that your crop was all grown in containers too.
    I’ve done pretty well on the tomato front, and was particularly pleased with the rosada variety which are amazingly sweet.
    My other half has several chilli plants on the windowsill that are constantly fruiting. We’ve now also added a pepper plant (can’t remember the variety!), which has produced at least 8 really good sized fruit. I’m not sure that they would have done so well outside. But the sill they are on ususally has the window by it open so the pepper plant now has its own resident ladybird- best of both worlds!

    About corriander- my mum used to grow loads of this in the garden. I am pretty sure she soaked corriander seeds overnight and then just planted them in shallow rows outside, and it always seemed to thrive. I would guess that drainage is more of an issue if growing in pots though, so maybe some stones in the bottom of the pot might help?

    Am still bitter about the loss of courgettes to slugs though- grrrrr!

  15. Wow, your photos are lovely. I was like you a year ago, no luck with growing strawberries. Now, ever since I switched to hydroponic growing, my hydroponic strawberries are luscious. My kids simply love them. Moreover, we can now enjoy the berries all year round, fresh from the garden.

  16. Peppers like the sun. Or greenhouse. If you had a huge (5litre+) plastic bottle you could put that over it, open at the top – that might help.

    Coriander – what about growing it as coriander cress?

    Cucumbers? The ones you can grow taste so different to shop brought ones. And excess ones can be pickled or juiced. Cucumber, celery and apple juice is lush. Tried cucumber and mint sorbet once too.

    I would have said courgettes too. Or vegetable spaghetti. I’m definitely going to try that again next year, been too long. Looks like a marrow on the outside but inside it’s spaghetti like strands.

  17. This is a really useful post – will have to try cherry tomatoes next year. As for coriander, mine always goes to seed so no tips there – apparently if you move it then this is what happens so maybe the trick is to grow it from the seed.

  18. I wish I’d grown enough this year to write a similar post :) Do you think it’s too late to start growing chillies? I had high hopes for your padron peppers, too, seeing as I became too lazy to order some. Think next year I’ll definitely try out more plants, and get some chard growing as well!

  19. Impressive Helen!

    I too failed at coriander – mainly b/c psycho squirrel keeps getting into our terrace and digging it up. At least he’s got taste I guess.

    When do you suggest starting to plant cherry tomatoes for next year?


  20. Check you out! That is so funny about the potatoes… what did you cook with them?

    I vow never to waste time growing flowers and focus my efforts on things I can eat. Plus I think chillis and purple sprouting broccoli are prettier than any flowers I’ve seen.

    My problem was that I was the only person growing anything within a half mile radius at my old place so my little yard became the sundown hang out for aphids, caterpillars and snails (DAMN YOU SNAILS).

    Now I’ve just moved to a new place with a little yard where there is a huge gardening community so the bugs are shared out a bit better. Fingers crossed for next years crop!

  21. You know Helen, I agree 100% with all your advice, as I have had similar successes and failures! The fact that we couldn’t be further apart geographically as well as weather wise, gives even more truth to what you say here when see in the light of container gardens. Here’s to a bountiful harvest next year!

  22. Great post, Helen, and lovely photos!

    Had similar mixed bag of results – broccoli + cauliflower bolted for the most part, chillies almost a complete failure, tomatoes so-so.

    On the other hand – had an abundance of courgettes, lettuces, chard, spring onions, radishes, and sorrel. Carrots, leeks, and beetroot looking good, and chard still going strong.

    Hmmm. Must try harder next year, methinks. Will be trying padron peppers, though not too hopeful given your experience!

  23. We’ve been growing more and more vegetables each year over the last several years… but we still get fails/ disappointments too.

    Our toms finally started creating lots and lots of fruit far too late in the season so today I’ve been harvesting a lot of the green toms to make chutneys and ketchup. To be fair, we did get off to a late start, but only a matter of a few weeks, less than a month, so would have expected them to catch up. Tigarella is the one that’s given most yield, albeit green. Ildi gave us next to nothing with just two, yes two, single teeny tiny yellow tomatoes that I picked tody. We also had a handful of plums from plants my mum gave us.

    Our potatoes did well but we put them in the ground not into pots. Then again mum did some in bags and got a reasonable yield so not sure what happened to yours. Must have been so disappointing!

    Peppers did better for us last year, but we have got some teeny fruits.

    Just ONE single aubergine, goddamit, and quite small. Am harvesting tonight, I think.

    Lots of fabulous sweetcorn.

    Carrots and parsnips still in ground, though took up a handful of carrots. Taste is fantastic but shapes are bizaare and make peeling difficult. And they do need peeling.

    Cabbages and leeks are set to give us something in winter/ spring.

    Courgettes were plentiful, just couldn’t keep up! Lovely shiny yellow ones, two plants of spherical variety and two of regular shaped variety.

    Lizzie, re your courgette flowers dropping off and not getting many courgettes, were you giving them a helping hand by transferring pollen from male to female flowers? If the females are fertilised the flower and teeny tiny courgette drop off rather than grow into proper fruit. :(

  24. I was inspired by your urban gardening last year and started my own. The chillis were definitely the most successful and they flourished; yellow cherry tomatoes have also been good but I left the first batch to ripen a touch too much and they were thick-skinned so I’ve been picking them earlier and they’re really tasty.

    My courgette plants were a massive fail; the yellow flowers kept dropping off and dying, and I’ve only had one teeny tiny courgette so far. The aubergines are just starting to appear… they seem quite hardy plants, so watch this space!


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