Notes From A Tiny London Balcony Vegetable Garden

charlie smiles holding a homegrown courgette

Last weekend, I harvested my first homegrown courgettes. Grown from seeds in a plastic propagator on my kitchen table, I dropped them just as the beginnings of tiny shoots had started poking out of the soil. The fact that I thought I’d killed these tiny seedling babies makes the fact that I now have a sprawling, thriving courgette-growing monster on my tiny London balcony an actual miracle.

Over the last four months, packs of seeds ranging from pin prick chives to mini granola clusters of perpetual spinach, have been nestled into pots with nothing but frantic Googling and blind hope to help them. As brown became peppered with green, my ambitions grew from the one chilli plant I’d bought, cared for and eaten from in 2019, to dreams of being a self-sufficient urban gardener. The flecks of life stretching out of soil became the first thing I’d check on in the morning, the source of endless procrastination, and my pride and joy. I don’t think I’ve ever grown anything beyond the obligatory black mould in my rented flat’s bathroom, and although a new leaf on one of my many (many) houseplants is exciting, it’s not a whole new beginning.

small tomatoes starting to appear from flowers

Growing vegetables has been an all-encompassing extra-curricular obsession with sharp learning curves amongst the successes and failures. I’ve had to finally learn some modicum of patience; a trait I hadn’t ever quite finessed in my 31 years! But as fast as a seedling first appears, I’ve realised that it takes much, much longer for it to produce anything edible. And even then, patience is tested as I realise my mistakes too late: planting spring onions outside too early, subjecting radishes to too much sunshine causing them to bolt. The disappointment has been bruising but not caused lasting damage to my gradually greening fingers. Some seeds won’t even germinate but there’s still a new leaf unfurling or flower blooming, and it’s those moments that remind me that it’s OK to be a beginner.

looking down at a window box with small seedlings starting to show, underneath are a number of green plants and charlie's feet are visible

In fact, I can’t think of the last time I tried something completely new. My bread baking experiments have flourished during lockdown but it’s not the first time I’ve put yeast to water. Any new job is started with a solid background in my industry and existing hobbies have been dusted off multiple times as interest wanes and then grows speed again. So my balcony garden is unknown territory. I find myself reading about fertilisers and organic pesticides (FYI neem oil is one of the foulest smelling things I’ve ever known!); when recent freak hailstorms hit, I was out putting pots in fleece to keep them warm.

looking down into a tall cucumber plant and seeing yellow flowers and small growing cucumbers

This tiny space has taught me to be still in a city that’s always demanded I keep moving. Every morning, I sit on the doorstep with a cup of coffee and feel calm. My gaze gradually takes in each individual plant, making a mental checklist of what needs pruning, watering, harvesting. I’ll often spring into action at the sight of a flea beetle or aphid who thought they could go unnoticed; I continue to be as grossed out as always and having a flicker of doubt about this new outside hobby. I can stand at the doorway for baffling stretches of time to take in every minute change that might have happened since my last peek. I’d like to say it’s excitement but it’s actually a blend of pride and anxiety – is this the day I realise I’ve overwatered or a plant has bolted? What will happen next with these living things that now depend o me for their survival – me! A total novice! How do owners of pets and children cope with the pressure?!

charlie's POV as she sits on her balcony with a cup of tea in front of her and surrounded my various plants

The thing is, I’m already preparing myself for when winter comes and they all start to slow down and the colours I’ve cultivated turn the dial down from green to grey. I don’t have the space to prepare a winter crop so instead my mind has turned to a life away from London and a garden I can call my own. My balcony has meant I now ache for the outdoors in a way I never had before, and it seems to have been the final push I needed to feel comfortable leaving the city I’ve called home for 10 years.

If I can transform a 2×1 metre slab of concrete into all this, imagine what could come next.


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