When vegetable shortages hit supermarkets earlier this month, I was probably less concerned than most salad lovers. I’ve been an urban gardener for seven years, growing my own food in an 8x5m space in London. It all began for me as a tribute to my grandfather, who taught me everything I know about gardening and the living soil around us: how to use every part of the fruit and vegetables I grow; the importance of micro-organisms; using organic practices to nurture plants and protect Mother Earth.
Now, I’m on a mission to help other people to grow their own food, to recreate the missing link with nature and to reduce their impact on the environment. I want to empower people with the knowledge to start their own supply of homegrown food, in order to stop relying completely on big corporations and start being more self-sufficient. You don’t need any specific skills to do this: by following some easy and basic steps you will be able to grow your own organic food at home.
Supermarkets sell grow-at-home lettuce plants that stay fresh for longer. But what about one that grows back after you cut it, meaning you won’t have to buy it again for months? You can spend what you save on new plants, as once you start you will be hooked. The more that plants enter my living space, the happier I feel.
Direct sowing is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to start growing. It just means that you sow seeds directly in the area where you want your plant to be, rather than starting them indoors and moving them out, or starting them in trays and transplanting.
You will need to sow at just the right time, which is when the last frost has passed and the soil is warm enough to welcome new seeds. As a rule of thumb, you can start sowing a few hardy varieties outdoors three to four weeks after the last wave of frost – things such as beetroots, turnips, radishes, parsnips, broccoli and a few varieties of leafy lettuce. Check online to find out when the last frost will be, or visit your local nursery and ask people working there, but be aware that this won’t take into consideration your own particular microclimate, or variations due to climate changes.
Lettuce grown at home is perfect for beginners: it’s packed full of flavour, easy and gives quick results. All it wants is direct sun and shelter from the wind. Sow seeds directly into the ground, grow-bag or pots in direct sunlight, keeping the soil moist. You will want to grow a few plants at a time in succession, so you have a continuous supply. Early and late sown seeds may need to be protected from frost. You can do this with a fleece, cloches or a plastic tunnel.
Sow seeds in rows about 30cm apart, with about 1cm of soil over them, and water generously. As the seeds start to germinate and grow, thin them out by picking out the weaklings, until you have strong plants about 30cm apart. Harvest when the lettuce looks like it’s worth eating. Use a sharp knife to cut it away from the stem close to the ground.
If you only have a small space, for instance your balcony, think about what is likely to thrive there. Vines such as tomatoes, peas and green beans are great for vertical spaces such as balustrades and trellises. If you have room for larger pots, try bushy vegetables such as courgettes and peppers, or small fruit trees. You can buy these grafted on root stocks that restrict their growth, so they won’t grow too big for your space.
One great advantage of growing in small spaces is that you can use the shade to your advantage. If you grow cucumbers vertically up a trellis, like I have, you can move your pots around on hot summer days so your lettuces can follow their shade. This is a bit like people sitting around the pool on holiday, chasing the sun or the shade as the sun moves.
Many gardeners struggle with growing lettuce in the middle of summer; sitting in direct sunlight causes it to bolt and go into flower. Thanks to your small space, you can succeed with plants that people with larger gardens will struggle to grow. You just have to be mindful of how the sun moves.
Alessandro Vitale is the author of Rebel Gardening: A Beginner’s Handbook to Creating an Organic Urban Farm
This content was originally published here.