Lockdown has made us crave green spaces more than ever, especially when we were unable to go outside. For those of us living in the city, one of the starkest divides to emerge was between those with private outdoor spaces (gardens or balconies) and those without. The lucky ones could tend to their plants, cool down during hot weather and generally experience the outside, while the rest of us had to rely on our daily walk and an open window.
According to the Office for National Statistics, one in eight households (12%) in Great Britain has no access to a private or shared garden. This figure jumps to one in five households in London (21%); the next highest is Scotland, at 13%. In England, this disparity becomes even greater when you account for race. According to survey data from Natural England, Black people are nearly four times as likely as white people to have no outdoor space at home, whether that's a private or shared garden, a patio or a balcony (37% compared with 10%).
But as the past weeks have shown, lack of a garden does not mean you can't garden altogether. People have been more inspired than ever to be creative, rethinking how they access their food, taking more time to tend to their windowsills and having the space and pleasure to watch, day by day, as a new plant germinates.
If you want to grow but you don't have a plot of land to call (or rent) your own, that doesn't mean you can't; you just have to think outside the window box. We spoke to three women who did just that: from growing your own food in containers to specialising in windowsill planters that thrive in shade, to curating a garden 40ft up in the air, these women show there's no reason to think you don't have green fingers of your own.
I got into growing completely by chance. I was living in New York and working in documentary film, and was out for a walk with a friend looking for a flea market. We happened to walk past a sign that said 'come and visit our farm on the roof' so we went up eight floors in the lift and suddenly there was an amazing acre or so of land full of vegetables. I couldn't believe it was real and started volunteering every weekend. About a year and a bit later (just over five years ago) I came back to London and changed everything to realign my life towards growing food in the city. I retrained and started working and doing anything I could possibly do that was related to growing plants and nature. I've done all kinds of things to make it work.
It's so necessary for our mental health to have access to some level of greenery. It's not just 'woo' – not that I feel like you have to have science tell you that. I think we all know that instinctive feeling when we're in a space that is dominated by green and fresh air. But science does say that access to nature is really, really important for humans to flourish. I think that such a huge spotlight was thrown on that when we were limited to going out for an hour a day. I don't think spring has ever had quite such a captivated audience... I've never watched it with so much anticipation. It was really quite beautiful.
Most of my growing has happened within cities and has always been on land that hasn't been mine. I'd never had a garden of my own until this year when I left London. There's a number of ways that you can grow in urban spaces and it depends on what you have access to. I lived in a one-bedroom flat, two floors up that didn't even have an exterior windowsill I could use [so] I started volunteering. I realise it's not an accessible option for everybody but the gateway in for me was I found the nearest market gardens and urban farms where I could spend a bit of time to see where I could meet this need that I had tapped into. I found my way to Growing Communities (a social enterprise that has market gardens around Hackney) where I started volunteering. That was where I was able to see the pathway into this world. Fortunately London's actually got a lot of green spaces that are very welcoming for volunteers, so it's definitely a good way to explore a burgeoning interest.
I think a really important thing for people to do is learning to grow in containers. Even if they have got outside space, a lot of people don't necessarily have access to soil or earth where they can actually grow plants. So learning how to grow in containers is a great skill to have. It's a different route into doing that nurturing seed-sowing and plant-raising that doesn't require you to have a garden you'd see on Gardeners' World. As long as the container can sit outside (even on a windowsill), it will probably thrive. I'm a big fan of it – it's why I wrote a book about it!
I would always say salad leaves are your best starter for growing your own food. They're where I started, and you can eat it even just directly after it's germinated. Obviously you'd want it to grow a little bit longer, but growing something that you can eat at any stage in life is always a good way to start. Leafy greens are reasonably straightforward, they don't require a lot of sustained and complicated care. If you don't have loads and loads of sunlight you can grow them as microgreens, chop them when they're young and throw them on top of your dinner. You can grow herbs, you can grow kale, you can grow mustard greens and lettuces...Go green and leafy because those plants don’t need as much sunshine as the ones that bear fruit. You can cultivate them within limitations.
Susanna is an avid gardener and the cofounder of Linda, a London-based shop selling shade-loving plants and lushly planted boxes for windowsills and balconies.
My shop Linda is essentially a friend's backyard. It was completely full of junk, just off Hackney Road, and it was really dark, next to a bingo hall that got knocked down – they built some new, fancy flats and it cuts out all her light. But I was sure we could make it into a garden. So we cleared it all out and planted it full of things and it was just amazing. It's all thrived, it's full of pollinators and we weren't expecting any of that.
I'm a really passionate gardener and I'm always walking around really frustrated when I see all these balconies that are bare with no plants on them – apart from it being so much better for the environment, it's just so much nicer to live in. But I know loads of people think they can't grow anything because the balconies are overcast or they haven't got any direct light. So we thought we'd just open it and decided to make everything for sale and make it an inspiration as much as a shop. Nearly everyone who comes in says that they don't get any light or only a few hours in the morning and are really surprised to see what you can grow there. Now we either advise people on what to buy that they can grow in pots or we plant people's pots or balconies or windowsills up for them.
The thing with gardening is that if you have a few goes at it and it turns out really badly, you just think you can't do it. When you have a space with little light, it's so easy to see something you love but you have no idea that it needs eight hours of full, hot sun and [so] it dies. So you assume you haven't got 'green fingers'. It's like when you see some people who are naturally good cooks – they throw everything in and they've obviously got an instinct for it. But you can still cook if you just read the recipe and buy the right stuff and I think it's the same for growing. Some people might be better at it than others but it's so easy to be put off. And it can be hard to see how you can green up spaces like balconies because they're so un-green and made of steel and glass and concrete.
We specialise in really deep planters for windowsills so you can have a garden on your windowsill rather than just bedding plants that are not very sustainable and you have to replace every six months. We don't do evergreen gardens where it's there all the time, we want you to be able to see things die down. That's the thing about balcony gardening and windowsill gardening that I think is the nicest thing about it – you get to see [plants] come up in the spring and you can get really close up to them. If you have something on your window like bulbs and you just watch them come up, every day you can see them coming up a tiny bit... It's so rewarding. It just makes you slow down for a minute. And when your bulbs finally come up it's genuinely really exciting. I think having something that close to you through your window or on your balcony is really good for you.
In my mid 20s I moved somewhere that had a really great balcony with an amazing view of the city, but it was just a concrete box. I wanted to grow herbs out there, so I started and killed all of these herbs instantly. But I was undeterred and would love the feeling of being out there: tending to these plants, watching them grow and, if they died, working out how. For all of the failures, every tiny success felt amazing. And it was completely addictive. I felt compelled to go out there, it wasn't even as logical as making sense of what those feelings were doing for me, I just knew that I needed to do it.
I found it gave me something that was quiet and (for want of a better word) mindful. The rest of my life was caught up with trying to endlessly be better, push harder, achieve more, earn more, do more... When I was gardening that didn't matter. There was nothing to achieve, it just made me feel good. It was an activity in and of itself.
I've actually moved in the last week and finally got a garden, but I feel like I'm still very much a balcony gardener at heart. So often balconies are spaces where people put their bikes or their washing or it's a dead dumping ground. This makes sense because our entire horticultural industry and societal fetishisation of gardens cherishes the big, the expensive and the ambitious. You don't really see many balcony gardening goals in this country. In other countries, where there's a lot more people who garden on balconies, you see incredible things in small spaces but in England we've always prioritised gardens. And so I think seeing how much can be done in a small space is quite inspiring. It shows that it doesn't have to be perfect but if you put a few pots out you can transform this otherwise redundant space into something quite beautiful. And beyond beauty it's a place that makes you feel good – during lockdown I've been staying at home with my partner in a small, one-bed flat and the balcony has become like another room that's made a huge difference. I feel very lucky to have it.
When I first started balcony gardening, there was a brilliant book by a gardener called Isabelle Palmer called The Balcony Gardener and I learned a lot from that. But beyond that Instagram was either full of people with homesteads in Brooklyn, or people with huge country gardens, or people with a load of houseplants, there wasn't really anyone [gardening differently]. When I was looking for it myself and for things online, all of the things that I could find were just speaking to people who had loads more space, time and money than me. So my first book in 2017 was very much a case of, "I grew all of this on my balcony so if you've got a garden, great, but if you don't, you can do it as well."
If you want to start growing yourself I think you should just do it. I kept my gardening secret for a really long time because it felt ridiculous as a hobby, especially when I didn't know what I was doing. But whatever your excuse is, you should just do it! Buy some plants in the supermarket, pot them up, water them a bit, watch them grow and let them give you joy. If they die, try and work out why and don't be dispirited – just keep going.
Looking at where your light comes from and how much you get is crucial, whether that's indoor plants or outdoor plants. The amount of light you get really dictates what you can achieve, and shade gardening is incredible but you're much better off looking towards those plants, if you don't have that much light. Whereas if you have a really exposed balcony then you're going to want more sun, Mediterranean tropical plants.
And finally, get the biggest containers you can. So often people start gardening with tiny little pots and those plants will die quite quickly. They need loads of water and loads of nutrients – they're quite fragile, like babies. So get the biggest pots you can and everything will get a bigger chance of survival. And also it looks a lot better from a design perspective if you have the biggest pots you can get, rather than a clutter of little ones. The minute you start getting height is when you get the illusion of an urban jungle.
I always like to recommend people start with geraniums – they're dirt cheap, in cities they will keep flowering all the way through, their leaves smell amazing, they teach you the basics of deadheading and feeding and stuff but they're also very sympathetic if you forget to water them. I don't think you can go wrong with a geranium, they are a classic and they look great on a windowsill. They're the plant I started to grow with, and I still love them now.