BOXING clever means Penelope Bennett can grow a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, despite having little room
If someone told you that their home-grown January produce included Swiss chard, frizzy endive, pak choi, perpetual spinach, lamb’s lettuce, garlic, chives, rocket, mitsuba, celeriac, winter purslane and curly leaf parsley, you’d imagine they had a major polytunnel operation going on in the back garden. But Penelope Bennett lives in a small London flat and her plot consists of window boxes, pots and hanging baskets on a 9ft by 16ft roof terrace. If you’re sceptical about how much fruit and veg you can really grow in a tiny space then her book, Window-box Allotment, is sure to change your mind.
Bennett doesn’t have a long list of horticultural qualifications, she’s learned through years of experience, and as a result her book is light-hearted, easy to identify with and contains disasters as well as triumphs. “This asset – being almost horticulturally-illiterate – allows reader and writer to understand the same problems,” she says. So if you’ve been driven over the edge by birds eating your crops or struggled painfully to understand fruit tree pruning, this book provides gentle encouragement while reassuring you that you’re not alone.
Early in the book Bennett makes the point that window boxes don’t have to be home to “petunias, geraniums and dusty rags of trailing ivy”. She also explains that miniature allotments are well suited to children, the elderly and the disabled – no matter how small or stiff your hands are it is easier to trowel-dig compost that is only a few inches deep than tackle a garden veg plot.
Even if you don’t have a window ledge you’ve still got options – you could try seed sprouting or mushroom-growing. Where others might find the lack of space to be a hindrance, Bennett sees it as an opportunity. She says that it’s a more intimate way of gardening, allowing you to look really closely at what’s going on with your plants. “In a way it resembles a mini-laboratory,” she says. “If you looked through a magnifying glass and really observed what is taking place in and on one square foot of soil, it would take you a couple of hours.”
Window-box Allotment guides us month-by-month through a year in Bennett’s garden. In January she discusses the fear of sowing, saying “It is astonishing how many grown-up people have never sown a single seed. If birds and breezes can do it, it should not be beyond humans, and 75 per cent of the work is done by the seeds themselves.”
The truly nervous, she says, should spend the early months of the year trial seed-sowing, perhaps with parsley, which can be germinated indoors all year round. Far from needing a greenhouse or potting shed, all you require is a table spread with newspaper, a pot, compost, some seeds and a bit of faith. The instructions she gives for all of her projects are detailed without being off-putting. For instance, the ideal compost for seed sowing she describes as “fine and friable (easily crumbled) to create a comfortable bed for the seeds and their roots to grow in – imagine yourself living in the compost.”
Having tried and tested a lot of different crops, Bennett has her favourites, which she shares. ‘Gardeners Delight’ tomatoes get the thumbs-up for being small, sweet and juicy, while ‘Marmande’ is disdained for its soft texture and watery taste. Italian rocket (Rucola colitvata) is recommended for beginners as it germinates within days of sowing. The summer months bring dwarf beans, wild strawberries, lettuces, aubergines and lots more. With so many crops to look after, it sounds like a lot of hard work, but Bennett says: “On my roof garden not everything is growing at the same time – otherwise it would be like rush hour. I don’t really think of it as ‘time and work’ – just enjoyment.”
What’s really impressive is the range of fruit that Bennett grows; she describes her collection as an orchard, even if it is a compact one. Her roof garden started off with a ‘Comic’ and a ‘Conference’ pear, a ‘Victoria’ plum and a’ Sunburst’ cherry, all of which grew comfortably in 14x14x12in tubs, producing fruit. Bennett says that the only drawback is that she seems “incapable of comprehending even the simplest, most basic pruning instructions, even when lavishly illustrated”. The solution? She rings the nursery which supplied the trees and gets them to talk her through it, snip by snip. While the birds eat more of her cherries than she does, Bennett enjoys the chance to have so much wildlife right outside her window. Her tales of woe (bird food attracts mice; a feisty blackbird pulls up every seedling) almost always have a happy ending.
As well as the orchard, Bennett manages to fit in a small pond, a wormery and she even grows saffron. Her instructions on how to grow and harvest Crocus sativus make it sound like a fairly straightforward process and one that many gardeners won’t have considered. “I suppose there are some odd people who don’t care for the taste, smell, colour and history of this wonderful corm, in which case they might try cultivating another spice,” she says. “Growing a spice seems quite an achievement and adds an exotic feel to one’s garden.”
Bennett says there are still plants she’d like to introduce to her small garden – particularly wild flowers – and she intends to create a window box flower allotment “concentrating on the 3-B flowers: those which encourage butterflies, bees and birds”. And it’s not just colour and scent she’ll be looking for in her flowers. “Generally speaking, vegetables are rather subdued, silent plants – though I once overheard cabbage leaves creaking,” she says. “According to a friend of mine, some flowers – for example, the evening primrose and certain pine trees – can be quite talkative. Both make sounds which I can’t describe because I haven’t, yet, heard them.” By the end of Window-box Allotment, you can expect to be looking at, and listening to, your plants in an entirely new way.
• Window-box Allotment is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £16.99.
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