The rise of the 'rurbanites': London's gardeners become city farmers

Do you love life in the capital but hanker for the country? The good news is you can have the best of both, as the city has room for coffee shops and countryside
Honey bees
Honey bees love the diversity of city flowers
We Londonders love the city but many of us have a hankering for the country. Could it be possible to have the best of both worlds? You bet, says confirmed townie Alex Mitchell, who identifies the "rurbanite" as someone with a passion for the countryside, coupled with a reluctance to leave the city any time soon.

"Urban homesteaders and city farmers are popping up like dandelions from Brooklyn to Berlin," says Mitchell, who, in her book, The Rurbanite: Living in the Country without Leaving the City, shows how we can grab the good life in the city's pavements, parks and waste ground.

"They're meeting on beekeeping courses, learning to forage, and harvesting unwanted local fruit. They're greening their cities with seed bombs and bulbs. Neighbourhoods are reinvigorated as people meet through community gardens. Cities are once again seen as a chain of urban villages: we're falling back in love with the local."

* Reader offer: The Rurbanite by Alex Mitchell (Kyle Books) costs £16.99, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £13.99, with free p&p, by calling 01903 828503 and quoting code KBRU/HP (offer closes May 27, 2013).

According to Capital Growth, if all the available growing space in London was used, it could produce 26 per cent of the city's fruit and vegetables. Good reason to turn that neglected patch at the end of the road into a community garden, or claim a square foot of concrete with a crateful of compost and get planting. "There are plenty of ways you can grow food beyond your own borders," says Mitchell, suggesting doing an internet search for a garden share, claiming that strip of land between your block of flats and the road or getting permission to garden on a brownfield site.

A bug hotel
A bug hotel with cosy rooms can be made from scraps of wood and cut bamboo
Avoid anxieties about soil contamination by growing crops in food crates and builders bags, suggests Mitchell; another plus is that on waste ground they can be moved when the developers turn up. The big one-tonne builders bags are ideal for community projects, holding a fruit tree with other crops, while the 50kg bags suit smaller spaces. If the white plastic offends, hide it with a roll of garden centre bamboo, willow or reed fencing.

The resourceful rurbanite doesn't need a garden to connect with nature on home turf. If you have a windowsill, you can make a nectar-rich window box for bees and butterflies, planting it with lavender, marigold and oregano; if you have a bird table you could add a green roof of roll-out sedum matting; if your home has a flat rooftop that isn't higher than a large tree, you might use it, as an increasing number of Londoners are doing, to keep a couple of beehives.

"Honey bees love cities because there are fewer insecticides and a great diversity of flowers," says Mitchell.

Chicken coup
© Christian Barnett
Hens take to the urban garden like ducks to water
If you yearn for the unspoilt charm of a wildflower meadow, and you just have a balcony, grab yourself a dustbin lid. Drill a few holes, prop it in a pot and you have a shallow dish just begging for compost and wildflower seed. But if you do have a garden or allotment, you can have your own farm in the city. "We want more from our gardens these days than somewhere to park a deckchair," says Mitchell. "You can have raised beds and compost heaps, plant fruit trees, grapevines and rows of potatoes. You can grow enough food to make jam, jellies and chutneys. You might even have room for a few hens."

On the rurbanite patch, no space is wasted: cover bare soil with nasturtiums, and use the leaves to make a spicy colcannon, the flowers to add a peppery note to salads and the seed pods for crunchy pickles. Instead of planting a climber to hide the fence, plant an edible hedge, and have a forager's paradise as well as a wildlife corridor.

Mitchell sums up the rurbanite movement neatly: "City people really don't have to move to the country to meet nature head on. Which is a relief, because the coffee's better here."

* Reader offer: The Rurbanite by Alex Mitchell (Kyle Books) costs £16.99, but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £13.99, with free p&p, by calling 01903 828503 and quoting code KBRU/HP (offer closes May 27, 2013).)

Pictures by Sarah Cuttle

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