Elly West is encouraging us to have a go at growing our own this month…
Anyone who has ever grown their own edibles will know how rewarding it can be, and it’s a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond the obvious health and cost benefits. Whether it’s a few strawberries or tomatoes tumbling from a window box, some fresh herbs planted in a sunny spot, or a full-on allotment filled with peas, beans and cabbages, there’s nothing to stop anyone with some outside space having a go.
Many of the gardens I design include space for crops, and this can be achieved in even the smallest of plots without sacrificing aesthetics. The early cottage gardens of the 15th century, through to Victorian times, were practical and densely planted, necessary to provide sustenance, and every inch of ground was filled with flowers, fruit, veg and herbs. Flowers, with their lure of colour and fragrance, were included to attract pollinating insects. With the introduction of the mass production and distribution of food, flowers began to take more priority in the average garden and fewer people chose to grow their own vegetables. Today, we’ve seen a resurgence in growing your own, with more and more people wanting healthy, organic, home-grown, seasonal food.
Incredible edibles at the Bear Pit
Growing your own doesn’t have to mean boring rows of uninspiring greenery. There are lots of ways to introduce edibles to your garden that are attractive as well as practical. If you’re short on space, containers are a great, as you can control the soil type and position them where the edibles will grow best. Most vegetables like full sun, as do fruit and herbs, but there are crops that are more shade tolerant. Mint grows well in shade, and leafy veg such as rocket, lettuce and kale are happy with shade for some of the day, where they are less likely to bolt. The other advantage to container growing is that you can move the pots into the borders to fill gaps. Just remember to keep them well watered.
If you have more space, then a raised bed is a good idea as you can bring in new, decent soil, incorporating lots of well-rotted manure and other organic matter. Raised beds provide better drainage, which is useful if you are gardening on clay, as many of us in and around Bristol are. They look attractive and are easy to maintain, and also suit many people’s preference for compartmentalisation in the garden. Multiple square beds with different plants in each can create a pleasing patchwork effect.
Think like a designer with your edibles – in terms of shape, colour and texture – and use the power of repetition as you would in the flower borders. Mix in flowers, both for added colour and to attract beneficial insects that will attack aphids and help with pollination. Grow edible flowers such as nasturtiums. Choose flowers that complement the colours of your crops. Red poppies will echo the round fruits of tomatoes, for example, while the bright blue flowers of ‘love-in-a-mist’ will create a popping colour combination with tomatoes and strawberries.
Add ornaments to embellish your edible plot, such as statuary, colourful pots, bird baths, sundials. Treat it as an ornamental space, rather than purely functional. Make it close to your seating area, especially if you’re growing herbs, where you can enjoy their fragrance and their good looks.
If you like formality, then you can’t beat the crisp lines of neatly trimmed box hedging, for the traditional parterre-type kitchen garden. Or you could border your plot with purpose-made edging, old roof tiles, sleepers (although avoid reclaimed original sleepers, as harmful creosotes could leach into the soil), even half-buried upturned bottles or other recycled objects. Stepping stones criss-crossing the space, or paths between the plants, made of wood chips or crushed gravel, are relatively easy ways to add interest to your edible plot, as well as having a practical purpose.
Lots of vegetables need support, which gives a further design opportunity to add height with trellis or wigwams. Squash can be grown over an arch. Pleached or espalier fruit trees trained as a hedge or against a wall are particularly attractive and take up less space than traditionally grown fruit trees. And at ground level, herbs such as thyme can be squeezed in crevices, between paving stones, or in cracks and gaps in a wall. The only limit is your imagination, and if that fails, then there’s always Pinterest!
Elly’s top five beautiful edibles
Artichokes: These are tall and majestic, and loved by bees
Chard: Try variety ‘Bright Lights’ for vivid stalks through winter
Fennel: The bronze variety has especially beautiful, feathery foliage
Chives: Great for chopping in salads, and the starry flowers are gorgeous too
Curly kale: Choose ‘Scarlet’ for its unusual dark-purple crimped leaves
Incredible Edible Bristol
Cropping up around Bristol are numerous gardens growing fruit, vegetables and herbs for the community as part of the Incredible Edible Bristol project. Founded by Sara Venn, it’s seen 39 gardens built by volunteers and partner organisations around the city since its inception in 2014. These are in parks, street corners, even on station platforms – there’s one in the Bear Pit – and they’re thriving. “It’s about challenging the way we see our public realm,” says Sara.
Sara at RHS Malvern Show
“More and more people are living in cities and we need to bring nature into those cities.” As well as making areas more attractive and welcoming, the gardens are also providing free food for people in the community. “It’s a gift economy,” Sara explains. “Anyone can help themselves. Some of the people making use of the food are those who really need it, but there’s also a community of foodies – people taking the food, and making and sharing recipes on social media.” Sara also hopes to encourage more young people to get growing, and stresses this is a project anyone, young or old, can get involved with, as well as local businesses. To check out some of the gardens, why not take part in the Urban Food Trail? This consists of 14 gardens between Bristol Temple Meads and Millennium Square. For a map of the route, visit ediblebristol.org.uk
Find out more about Elly at ellyswellies.co.uk