Gardening Guru: In Britain, cities feed cities

Published on July 19, 2014

Is it just me, or do you see the beauty in a well planned and well kept food garden? 

As Canadian enthusiasm for local food increases, so does our interest in growing our own. Fruits, berries, vegetables and of course herbs are all taking their place at the front and centre of the garden. In many cases, we are integrating our food plants with the ornamentals and in other cases we are planting in containers to make them much more accessible.


What the British can teach us

If growing food on your balcony, rooftop or in your yard interests you, I have no doubt that you will be interested in what the British have to teach us.

During my recent tour of great public British gardens with my daughter, Heather, we discovered some nifty techniques for food gardening that I would like to share.


1. Herbs off the ground. In many instances the ‘herb garden’ is not a garden as we think of it but a series of raised beds.

This provides a number of advantages including:

Accessibility. There’s no more crouching down to ground level to meet the sage (or thyme or parsley). The sage is brought closer to you. I am always in favour of convenience, especially where food plants are concerned as the household cook is often in a hurry, with something boiling on the stove, when the need for some herbs arises. 

Drainage. As I have said before here, most culinary herbs originated in the Mediterranean region where it is hot and dry. A raised bed filled with herbs drains freely, especially if you pay attention to the quality of soil that you use.


2. Staking. Consider giving support to veggies besides the tomato plants with a stake, pea or bird netting, a trellis or what have you.

Here are some good reasons to consider staking this weekend:

Double your crop. Tomatoes are not the only food crops that produce more when they are supported off the ground. The increased air circulation and exposure to the sun produces more accessible flowers to pollinators, less disease and fewer insect problems.

Space. Perhaps it goes without saying but the space required to grow your food is greatly reduced when you use the vertical space available to you. I remind you that the vertical space in your garden or balcony is free. Or, put another way, you paid for it so why not use it?

Screening a view. Peas or cucumbers growing up netting look cool; are great discussion starters and can screen out an unsightly view.


3. Training. We plant an apple or pear tree in the middle of the yard and there it sits, hopefully producing fruit. Truth is, most fruit bearing trees produce their best offerings every second year. If I was to tell you how to grow five to 10 times the number of fruit trees in the same space as you would normally use to grow one, would you be interested?

A number of years ago I visited the gardens of Claude Monet at Giverny. There he trained dwarf apple trees along a fence. They looked very cool and the crop was maximized in the least amount of space. I came home and did the same thing along a 70-metre (200 foot) stretch of my vegetable garden. Six years later, I can tell you that the amount of fruit it produces is astounding. And it is the area of the garden most commented on by visitors.

Fact is, this is very easy to do. It takes some planning and some pruning but the maintenance is not what you would think. It takes me about 10 minutes a year to prune each of my 24 espalier/fenced apples. 

We saw wonderful examples of this at Rosemoor Garden in Devon and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

Go ahead: train a dwarf pear or apple at 45 degrees against a brick wall or a freestanding structure. Have fun with it. 


4. Vermin proof your garden. It is astonishing the extent to which British gardeners go to avoid the interference of rabbits, birds and the like. Berry bushes are completely covered with plastic bird netting; metre high fences are built around carrots and lettuce and anchored with pegs to prevent rabbits from digging under them. Most secure of all, I suppose, is the use of greenhouses to grow in. There is nothing much safer than a shut door at night to keep out the raccoons.


5. Start early/play late. It seems odd to me that here in Canada where we experience a much shorter growing season than in Britain and yet the use of greenhouses and cold frames has just not caught on with mainstream Canadian gardeners.

An inexpensive cold frame allows the gardener to sow seeds of frost hardy plants like peas, lettuce, broccoli and kale much earlier. Also, come August, we can sow again for a fresh crop of the cold hardy veggies to harvest in October, November and early December.

I could not help but notice that in Britain every public veggie and fruit garden employs cold frames and greenhouses for this purpose. Many allotment gardens do as well. Clearly the idea of season extension is not a new one in Britain.

Once again, a trip to some of the great gardens of Britain has opened my eyes to new possibilities. I will be assembling my new greenhouse later this summer. I will stake and support more of my produce, build more containers for our herbs and generally just get more serious about the whole thing. As a Canadian food gardener, I have some catching up to do. 

Here’s a short list of the 'veggie' gardens I have visited and would recommend readers check out.

• Rosemoor Garden in North Devon —

• The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall —

• Kew Gardens in London —

• Wisley Gardens in Surrey —

• Garden Organic in Coventry —



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Mark Cullen is Canada’s best-known gardening broadcaster and writer. He is the spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at and watch him Wednesday mornings on Canada AM. His column, which focuses on our growing zone, appears in the Hants Journal every two weeks.