Window-box allotments: how to grow veg in tiny outdoor spaces

Clever use of the tiniest outdoor space will give you fresh foods to enjoy all year round.
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Penelope Bennett has an allotment, which is nothing unusual, except that hers is on the second-floor balcony of her flat in Chelsea. In a space only 16ft by 8ft, just beyond her kitchen window, she cultivates a hugely varied harvest of fruit, veg and herbs, ranging from artichokes and alpine strawberries to Texsel greens and Japanese mizuna.

Planting on a balcony
© All photographs by Clive Boursnell
The small terrace of a flat in Chelsea proves the perfect spot for growing all kinds of edibles
Reader offer: Window-box Allotment (Frances Lincoln) costs £16.99 but Homes & Property readers can buy it for £13.59 incl p&p by calling 01235 827 702 and quoting ref 46WBHP. It is also available as an ebook costing £9.99.
It is an all-year kitchen garden, so not only can she snip mangetout and salad leaves from her hanging baskets right now, she can take her pick in January from endive, spinach, garlic chives, rocket, parsley, Swiss chard and even celeriac.

In October she harvests saffron filaments from the flowers she grows from corms; in November she grows mushrooms indoors; in December she sprouts seeds.

Her orchard — fruit trees grown on dwarfing rootstocks — comprises a fig, comice and conference pears, two Victoria plums and a Sunburst cherry, trained and pruned to keep them within bounds on back wall and railings. An evergreen jasmine, the stems wonderfully wiggly because its growth is restricted, competes for the finest fragrance with a pot of regale lilies, a honeysuckle and a Japanese mock orange, grown from seed brought back from a roadside in Crete. On open shelving units, cut-and-come-again salad leaves flourish in wide plastic saucers and are brought to the dinner table for guests to snip, while potatoes, as well as Jerusalem artichokes, are grown in deep plastic sacks.

The point, says Bennett, is not to be self-sufficient — though she has had window-box gluts from tomatoes, basil and courgettes — but to have fun.

Planting on a balcony
A range of vegetables can be grown in tiny spaces, such as tomatoes, potatoes and plums

After 30-odd years of balcony growing, she still calls herself an enthusiastic beginner, and says there are advantages to small-scale gardening: “Containers can be placed at eye level. Because such gardening is intimate, you are more a part of it and can observe more of what is going on. Although it is small, the enjoyment, interest and enrichment it produces are immense.”

In her book, Window-box Allotment, she shows just how much fun you can have, detailing how to make a compost wormery from a wine box, set up a bird café with a varied menu and install a pond with a fountain: hers is host to a pygmy water lily. For novices, she takes the terror out of seed sowing. “It is one of the simplest things to do. If birds and breezes can do it, it should not be beyond humans.”

Planting on a balcony
The bird café, guarded by a pigeon, is always open for business

Her balcony experiments through the years have informed her what is foolproof to grow: rocket, mixed salad leaves, runner beans. “Potatoes are easy as well, and there’s something exciting about putting your hand into soil and finding a treasure. Tomatoes are straightforward; Gardener’s Delight are much tastier than those great fat fruits like Sumo wrestlers. Remove the side shoots, grow them to the size you want, then pinch out the tops, and feed with liquid seaweed.”

Small cucumbers, she says, are a revelation. “They thrive through a poor summer, have far more flavour and are noisier to eat; grow them up stick supports in window boxes. Alpine strawberries are happy in shade, and after one season you get runners, so you can grow them until eternity.”

Bennett loves the delicate flowers of vegetables and her latest passion is growing equally dainty wildflowers, which she is currently cultivating in three plastic saucers on her terrace table. “I’m trialling turf that you cut from a roll, and a seed mat impregnated with wildflower seed.” She says she has no idea what she’s growing, but intends having a lot of fun finding out.

Photographs by Clive Boursnell

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