Microfarming: How to Grow Your Own Lunch on a Windowsill
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The Grow Your Own (GYO) food movement has been rapidly gaining ground over the last few years. Individuals have become aware of the fitness and mental health benefits of gardening and, of course, the supreme nutritional and flavour quality of home-grown food. Read 11 Convincing Reasons to Grow Your Own Food here.
Lawns have been turned over in favour of raised vegetable beds while waiting lists for allotments have grown faster than Jack’s proverbial beanstalk.
But what of the landless duplex dweller and high-rise inhabitants who can but dream of mucking about in a pair of Hunter wellies? Are you to be denied the incomparable sweetness of a freshly podded pea, the joy of a sun-warmed, juice-squirting tomato, or the dubious pleasure of shelling out for some of Gwyneth Paltrow’s range of gardening kit?
The answer is micro-farming. Even if your space is smaller than the smallest small-holding, tinier than the most petite of plots, you can still cultivate it to produce your own food. A micro-farm might be nothing more than a sunny windowsill. If you have a balcony, the sky is, literally, your limit. Believe it or not, if you have room on your windowsill for a gardening book, you have space enough to grow your own lunch (and possibly dessert too!). Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
1. Dream Big.
Vegetables which can be successfully grown in tiny spaces include tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, radishes, scallions, baby beets, and spinach. Chillies are a particular joy.
A mind-boggling array of herbs will thrive on a window-sill. A handy supply of basil, coriander, thyme, bay or chives could transform your cooking. Mint and lemon balm are guaranteed to fill their allotted container. Both make delicious teas and look pretty frozen into decorative ice cubes. A selection of edible flowers will surely impress your guests. Violas, calendula, French marigolds and nasturtiums are all a joy to grow.
2. Choose Your Micro-Farmland.
Most vegetables need five to six hours of sunshine every day. It’s best to choose your sunniest windowsill even if that doesn’t happen to be your kitchen. If your windowsill is too narrow for pots you could shove a table up against it. A front or back doorstep might be an option. Tender herbs like basil and coriander will do best inside glass while hardier vegetables will grow happily in a window box attached to the outside of your window. You can gain yet more space by growing trailing plants like tomatoes, strawberries and nasturtiums in hanging baskets suspended either inside or outside the window.
3. Give Them Their Space.
It is wise not to overcrowd your containers. Plants will grow bigger and stronger, and ultimately produce more fruit, if they have sufficient space. Choose your containers accordingly. A single basil plant, for instance, requires a pot of roughly 12cm diameter. Carrots require a minimum depth of 20cm. Shallow containers are fine for salad leaves as they don’t have deep roots. Radishes develop at soil level and grow perfectly in seed trays.
Let your imagination run wild. A kitchen colander makes a charming home for trailing strawberries while there is an almost poetic pleasure in recycling tomato tins to grow more tomatoes.
If you do recycle tins, remember to punch drainage holes in the bottom and place a plate underneath to catch drips. Rusty tins will ruin your windowsill, said the voice of experience.
If you are truly limited to a mini-micro farm, you can germinate coriander seeds to produce delicious micro-herbs, turn a dish of peas into uber-trendy pea shoots or, at the limit of teeniness, grow cress in an eggshell.
4. Discover Variety.
Choose plant varieties to suit your space and, most importantly, your taste. Explore the wondrous world of heirloom varieties. Supermarkets select fruit and vegetable varieties based on appearance and shelf-life but that’s no way to choose a cherry tomato. RHS recommendations for tasty cherry tomatoes include Sun Baby, a fine-flavoured yellow fruit, Rosada, a plum-shaped and extremely sweet fruit, and Sweet Millions which is favoured by Chef Raymond Blanc. No matter which variety you choose it is important to remember that tomatoes grown indoors should be hand-pollinated by brushing a small paintbrush across the flowers.
Seek out dwarf varieties of peas and beans and remember that they will need staking. Opt for cut-and-come-again plantings of salad leaves rather than attempting to grow large heads of lettuce. Many seed sellers offer packets of mixed salad seeds for exactly this purpose.
5. Keep Them Happy.
Drought and starvation are the enemies of container-grown plants. It’s best to use compost which is designed for containers as it will retain moisture and offer additional nutrients. In warm weather the micro-farmer will need to water daily.
When plants are established, particularly longer term plants like chillies and tomatoes, they will benefit from a weekly dose of liquid plant food. The cooled cooking water from boiled vegetables is said to make a beneficial feed for plants.
6. Keep it Pretty.
This is your home after all. While there is an intrinsic beauty to a ripening fruit, you can add aesthetic pleasure by choosing attractive containers and pretty plants. Chives produce gorgeous, and edible, mauve flowers. French marigolds add vivid colour while deterring pests. Violas can be crystallized to decorate cakes. Match your décor if that makes you happy. Have fun.
Charles Spence, in his book Gastrophysics (reviewed here), tells us that it has been scientifically proven that we rate food we have prepared ourselves as tasting better. Our investment in the food preparation primes us to appreciate it, to savour every bite. It only makes sense then, that food we have grown ourselves, nurtured from seed to plate, will taste exceedingly good.
There are countless books available to guide you in growing your own food.
Here are some which focus on smaller scale plots:
Grow by Ben Raskin is a charming book. It's designed not exactly for micro-farming but rather for the littlest farmers.
The book is pitched toward children, with colourful stickers, gorgeous illustrations and pull-out games but the information on plants and small-scale vegetable growing is scientific and informative. My 5 year old daughter has taken this book to her heart and has requisitioned a windowsill farm all to herself. This is a lovely, inspiring book for families with all the information a micro-farmer might need to get started.
Grow All You Can Eat in 3 Square Feet from DK publishing is a guide to getting the greatest yield from your small space. With the clear photos and accessible information you expect from a DK book, this is a practical and comprehensive guidebook. Buy it here.
The Suburban Micro-Farm by Amy Stross. Stross, who turned to gardening as a way to cope with her auot-immune disease, is full of ideas and guidance for those thinking of converting a suburban garden to food production. Buy her book here.
American Grown by Michelle Obama. While far from small-scale, the story of the White House kitchen garden provides delightful inspiration. The book includes gardening tips, recipes and 200 photos. As kitchen gardening books go, this one is the creme de la creme.