Saturday, 27 June 2015

Growing up - the DIY vertical garden

Lack of space is probably one of the main reasons why many people don't get into gardening, especially in an urban environment, where outdoor space is often at a premium. We have guests at the Secret Garden Club in London who want to know what they can do with a courtyard, a patio, or, often, just a balcony.

We reckon, if you can't grow out, you can grow up. We've been experimenting with an number of inexpensive and DIY vertical gardens and presented some of these ideas at our Herbs and Microleaves workshop last Sunday. Herbs are an ideal starting point for trying out vertical garden ideas as many herbs are more than happy to be grown in pots. Small plants are also readily available and inexpensive to buy.

We've experimented in the past with creating a vertical herb garden from an over-the-door-shoe hanger (like this one, for instance). It's cheap and effective and would last about an season before the material starts to disintegrate. A number of companies have taken the shoe hanger idea and created a more bespoke product for plants.  
One of them is Burgon and Ball, which makes Verti-Plant, above, a small vertical garden frame out of tough non-woven fabric and with six pockets for herbs. The one we used here cost £9.95 for a pack of two hangers, so enough for 12 plants in total. It comes in a number of different colours and takes just a few minutes to screw into a suitable place on an outside wall.The upper pockets have drainage holes in them so that the pockets don;t get waterlogged and also to help water the pockets below.

Ours is planted up with mint and just outside the kitchen door to make it easy to pick a couple of leaves for mint tea. As with the repurposed shoe hanger, we think the Burgon and Ball product would last a season before beginning to show signs of wear and tear. 

Thinking of something a bit more permanent, we started looking at using wooden pallets as a framework for a vertical garden. There's a thriving pallet furniture community over on Pinterest, showcasing everything from using your pallets simply as shelving, to creating vertical gardens using succulent plants that look more like works of art.

The great thing about using pallets is that they are available free of charge, which means you can experiment to your heart's content without major outlay. Also, although there are standard sizes for pallets, they come in an astonishing number of permutations: wide slats, narrow slats, square, rectangular ... the best way to get started is to fold down the back seats in the car and go foraging around the neighbourhood, or your local builder's yard.

Be choosy: don't pick up any pallet that is broken, or too dirty. And I always find someone to ask before taking a pallet from someone's property - and that includes in their skip. No-one has ever yet said no. 

The picture at the top of this post is the simplest way to create a vertical herb garden using a pallet  - and yet it's surprisingly effective. Find a pallet with slats both on top and underneath which create a framework to hold a small pot, when the pallet is stood on end. Pots with 0.5l capacity (check on the bottom of the pot - they are all labelled with their size) should fit snugly in-between the slats. Pot up your herbs (or other plants, if you like) into 0.5l pots and arrange over the pallet 'shelves'. Remember to water regularly: small pots will dry out very quickly.
This mature living wall at Capel Manor College in Enfield, uses a bespoke vertical garden frame with wedge-shaped planting pockets. 
Our final challenge was to create something which could approximate to the living wall style of garden, where the plants have enough root space to grow bigger and up into the light. This can take up a semi-permanent space on a balcony or patio and when fully grown will look spectacular.

Our prototype uses a close-slatted pallet, lined at the back with woven plastic membrane and filled with multi-purpose compost. I used black cardboard at the front and inside to hold the plants in place which at the time I thought was very clever (ie, by the time it had degraded the plants would be well established and kept in place by their root system) but I am not now so sure.
We planted it up with herbs: rosemary and thyme on the top, parsley and chives in the middle and more parsley and lemon verbena at the bottom. As the plants mature, they will grow upwards towards the light and spread out.

Overall the vertical garden is extremely heavy - the pallet frame isn't light to start with and using ordinary compost weighs it down too, especially when it's wet. The one we made here can be used as a standalone system, which is a good thing - I think if I tried to hang it up on a fence it would bring the whole thing crashing down.

For our next one we'll work on making it lighter - mixing in something like vermiculite as the growing medium and we'll use something more durable to hold the plants, like fine black wire mesh maybe. But the principle holds good, and the construction works - below shows how we built it, step by step.
1. Stand the pallet upright and start affixing the plastic membrane to the back of it with a staple gun
2. Fold over the raw edge of the membrance to make a 'hem', otherwise it will fray horribly.
3. Tuck in the corners neatly to ensure there not gaps where compost could spill out.
4. Cut the membrane to fit the back of the pallet neatly and staple the membrane to the wood. This is the bottom of the vertical garden - leave the top open so you can plant it up and water the garden from above.
5. Turn the pallet back right side up and start adding compost.
6. Pack the compost in well: it will damp down when you water it and the plants will slip if you leave gaps.
7. Slide strips of card or another unobtrusive lining to keep the compost in place before planting up.

Words: Zia Mays
Most pictures: MsMarmitelover

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Midsummer night's eve Secret Garden Club.

Secret Garden Club menu, herbs workshop 

It was all the stuff we had for midsummer's eve, Swedish style, with a few dishes added on:
Bloom's Gin with lemon balm sugar syrup, lemon verbena garnish and soda water
Canapés of skagen, egg and Kalix roe on Peter's Yard crisp bread
Smoked mozzarella with lovage and broad beans and hay smoked oil
Strawberry cake topped with wild strawberries and red currants from the garden
Apple fritters with cinnamon sugar

Zia Mays gave a workshop on herbs and microwaves as well as demonstrating her vertical palette garden ideas. More on this in our next post and recipes will be up on over the next few weeks.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Lilac is out

For about three or four weeks the bottom of the garden is two shades of pink: lilac and clematis montana intertwine. I cut flowers for the house, the scent forecasting summer.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Pictures from the Secret Garden Club Mediterranean Vegetable event

Sicilian dried tomatoes with pistachios Secret Garden Club
Roasted sweet peppers with helium and pesto secret garden club
avocado mozzarella salad secret garden club
artichoke, broad bean, mint salad secret garden club
caponata secret garden club
learning to graft tomatoes secret garden club
Guests learnt to graft tomatoes then sat down for a mediterranean inspired lunch.


Raki and orgeat cocktail
Sicilian sun dried tomatoes with pistachios
Roasted sweet peppers with halloumi and pesto
Avocado, mozzarella, hay smoked rapeseed oil, red wine salt salad
Broad bean, artichoke, mint salad
Gnocci in tomato and basil broth
Cheeses with Sheridan's brown bread crackers and MsMarmitelover's seaweed oatcakes
Blackberries, frais des bois, crystallised rose, lavender, mint Eton Mess with creme fraiche

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Secret Garden Club supper club this Sunday 26th April

The Secret Garden Club is back with a 'med veg' gardening workshop and a brilliant sunshiney jewel-bright lunch cooked by msmarmitelover. Click on this link to buy tickets here

Growing workshop:

  • We will be showing how to grow Mediterranean vegetables in the UK without a greenhouse. It can be  possible. 
  • How to graft tomatoes for bigger, stronger plants.
  • Hot, or not? Growing chillies and peppers for flavour.
Supper club:

I will be cooking with Mediterranean vegetables, my favourites, using ideas from my trips to Istanbul, Athens and Sicily over the last few months. I'll also be pouring a glass of the fantastic British sparkling wine from Ridgeview in Sussex that I visited last weekend. But do feel free to bring your own drink, I recommend who will deliver directly to my house.

Copies of my new book V is for Vegan will be on sale. 

I can't wait to see you all and cook for you. 

Buy tickets here: £40 starts at 2pm. 

Love msmarmitelover


Monday, 9 March 2015

Book review: Grow For Flavour, by James Wong

James Wong maintains that for too long, kitchen gardeners have been following rules laid down by the Victorians that were designed mainly to boost yields. Wong now wants to turn attention away from size and towards flavour. After all, he says persuasively, that is why we grow our own fruit and veg, isn’t it? To get better tasting food than we can buy in the shops.

He pitches straight in with tomatoes, an excellent choice of crop for reappraisal, as tomatoes, although a popular choice for growers, can be fussy and finicky to raise. 

Wong’s approach is to distrust a lot of received wisdom and to start again from his own ethnobotanical viewpoint. A botany graduate who trained at Kew, he is at pains to stress the botany/chemistry principles that inform his ideas and the scientific trials that back up his findings. 

About the tomatoes, he suggests doing away with the watering plans, the trimming and snipping and the pinching out that we spend so much time doing each summer. Instead he prescribes salt water and soluble aspirin, working to increase the flavour of each fruit, even if that means reducing the overall number of fruit. Better one delicious tomato than three disappointing ones, he reckons, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Wong goes on to similarly deconstruct our growing habits for salads, blueberries, beetroot, peas, carrots, corn, before moving on to less conventional crops such as edible flowers, grapes and sweet potatoes. He loses me a bit on beetroot, before I realise that the earthy beet flavour Wong complains about is precisely the thing I like about them. But my Secret Garden Club colleague MsMarmiteLover will be delighted to know that he has found a sweet, non-soily beetroot for her.

As well as radical growing advice, the book also contains some recipes, again leaning towards the unusual and impressive – the floral jams, pear in a bottle (a must-try, that one), truffle ciabatta and a fluorescent purple carrot cheesecake are hardly the stuff of quick ‘n’ easy suppers.

Wong writes informally and with verve, rattling off statistics and findings from trials at a brisk pace. The scientifically minded reader will appreciate the detail and the backing; if you’re more of a layman like me, you can simply be carried along by his enthusiasm. The book isn't all about using exotically new techniques to grow vegetables: there is some solid and fairly conventional advice about pruning, for example, and many of his recommendations are based around choosing specific varieties for the flavour you desire.

Thanks to this book, I now have added a persimmon tree to my shopping list for this season. Now to find somewhere to put it ...

James Wong
Published by Mitchell Beazley, price £20.00

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Bringing Mediterranean sunshine to a London patio

A sunny day in February brings hope and a promise of spring to come like no other. The days are getting longer, the light is higher and stronger ... and it always reminds me that it's time to sow my Mediterranean vegetable seeds.
Compared to the Mediterranean climate, our English summers are cool and wet. But by starting early and waiting patiently until the end of the season, we can raise a fine crop of Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, both the hot and sweet varieties.
These are extraordinarily satisfying vegetables to grow: the plants are attractive and the colourful fruits bring the patio to life as they ripen. Being able to pop out to pick a chilli to spike up a supper dish (not hot enough? Just go and get another one) or to eat a tomato straight from the bush like an apple is immensely rewarding.
In the UK these vegetables are ideal for people with limited outdoor space, as they do well in containers. There's not reason why you shouldn't grow tomatoes and chilli peppers in the open ground, but in a nice big pot you can choose exactly the right place to put. Aubergines and sweet peppers definitely like somewhere warm and sheltered: the hot spot on the patio, perhaps, or better, one of those soft plastic grow-houses with the door left open once summer is underway.
In April, the Secret Garden Club will meet to discuss all aspects of growing Mediterranean vegetables: focusing on tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and sweet peppers, but with a nod to courgettes, beans, and leafy greens as well. We'll explain how you can make sure your Med crops grow and fruit successfully, and look at the possibilities of grafting the plants to make them stronger and more fruitful. The afternoon finishes with a Mediterranean-themed meal created and prepared by MsMarmiteLover: in the past, guests have enjoyed homemade sourdough with tomato butter, chocolate aubergines, peperonata, and tomato confit with vanilla cream.
Growing Mediterranean veg: how to start

Now is the ideal time to start off your Mediterranean plants if you are growing from seed. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines will not withstand frost, so you need to find a warm sunny place indoors for them. A south-facing windowsill is ideal. 

  • Take clean 3-inch pots and fill with seed compost (available from garden centres) to about 1cm below the lip of the pot. 
  • Use a watering can with a rose (diffuser) to water each pot well.
  • Place two seeds on the surface of the compost per pot. Cover very lightly with more compost.
  • Label the pot carefully: either use a marker pen on the pot itself or a plant label in the pot. While tomato seedlings are quite distinctive, aubergines and peppers are easily confused when they're tiny and chilli seedlings look just the same as sweet pepper seedlings!
  • Put the pot in your warm and sunny place to germinate. You can place the pots in a larger seed tray with a clear plastic lid, or cover each pot with a polythene bag to help speed up germination.
  • You should see the first tomato leaves emerge after 3-4 days, aubergines 4-5 days and peppers in about a week, maybe even longer.
  • Once the seedlings appear, remove any plastic covering and leave them to grow on. 
  • Water gently and try to get as little water on the new leaves as possible.
  • Keep seedlings indoors until all danger of frost is past. Then they can be planted out into the open ground or into containers.
Join us for Mediterranean Food at The Secret Garden Club, Sunday April 26th, starts 2.00pm.
Tickets £40 for workshop and lunch. Bring your own alcohol.