How To Grow Your Own Veg (Even If You Don’t Have A Garden)
Illustration by Mr Andrea Mongia
There are impressive lockdown projects, and then there is Mr Neil Campbell’s garden. When the chef – of Mr Yotam Ottolenghi-owned restaurant ROVI in London – found himself with a lot more time on his hands back in March last year, he set about transforming the patio-clad space in his new home into a thriving kitchen garden. Almost a year later, he’s harvesting vegetables from Calabrese broccoli to beetroot, geeking out over soil health and scouring the internet for rare seed varieties.
“I’ve always had a connection to the wilderness,” says Mr Campbell. “Growing up in rural Scotland, foraging was the norm, and Mother gave me my own patch of ‘land’ in the back garden as a child, where I took great pleasure sowing potatoes and tomatoes.” While developing his career as a chef, his awareness of unsustainable food production broadened. “I wanted to improve my knowledge and to be proactive when developing recipes for ROVI by choosing sustainable channels,” he says. It doesn’t get much more locally-sourced than your own backyard.
Mr Campbell insists the size of your garden – or even whether you have one at all – shouldn’t hold you back from getting green-fingered. “Any outdoor space can be utilised,” he says. With that in mind, we asked Mr Campbell to share some expert gardening advice – garden optional.
How to get started
Figure out how to use the space you’ve got – however tiny. “Use your imagination,” says Mr Campbell. “Window boxes, plant pots on your driveway or patio, or your neighbour’s unused corner of land. Or speak to your local council to see if there’s an allotment or community gardens nearby.” Start with simple herbs and salads, such as basil, mint and rocket. “The majority of these grow well in confinement. To get the most out of them once they’re ready, pick the leaves from the outside, rather than the heart.”
Think about maximising your available space. “I would grow vertically when space is tight,” says Mr Campbell. “Legumes, peas and climbing beans are fantastic for this – they can grow up very fast and can be trailed over pretty much anything. I used some old piping and string I found to create some trailing arches. I like the stringless runner beans.”
No grass for a veg patch? No problem. “Tomatoes work really well in grow bags,” says Mr Campbell. “Carrots and beets also work and require very little effort – my favourite is boltardy beetroot.” Among your veg, sow some flower seeds. “This encourages insects for pollination. Some flowers, such as nasturtiums, sweet peas, and dwarf French marigolds, can be eaten in salads or used in cocktails, too.”
The joy of growing your own food is being able to enjoy heritage produce that’s streets apart from the standard supermarket fare. “Freshly harvested food not only tastes amazing, it provides a constant source of inspiration in the kitchen, too,” says Mr Campbell.
Plan your year in growing
It all starts with a bit of forward planning. “I like to draw a floor plan of the space I’m growing in, taking into account sun, shade and ground space,” says Mr Campbell. To find out what works best for you, he continues, “you’ll need to do some research. Think about how much you’ll eat, and the climate where you are. I divide my growing year into three parts – spring, summer and autumn-winter. Then choose the correct seed to plant in each to maximise the plant’s growth”.
Experiment with unusual veg varieties: “some of my favourites are Touchstone Gold yellow beetroot, Row 7 Badger Flame beet, purple Ukraine tomatoes, Manchester table carrot, cinnamon basil and red perilla,” says Mr Campbell.
Source the best seeds
Not all seeds are created equal. Once you’ve decided on what to grow and where, Mr Campbell recommends seeking out heritage varieties from reputable producers. “I use small-scale growers and organic companies. The seeds are fresher, which helps with germination,” he says. Try Row 7 Seeds (founded by chef and founder of the Kitchen Farming Project initiative Mr Dan Barber), Real Seed Catalogue and Tamar Organics.
You can also experiment with “saving seeds” to be sown the following year. This process involves deliberately overgrowing your plants to allow them to flower, then drying, cutting and beating the seeds and dividing them from their husk.
“It’s a very sustainable way of farming,” he says. “You are encouraging bees and other insects who are attracted to the flowers that bloom when you overgrow a seed. It works best for open-pollinated plants rather than hybrid breeds, such as heirloom tomatoes, peas and beans.”
Crack your compost
Your carefully sown seeds will stand little chance of sprouting without decent compost in plentiful supply. “Without adding compost, life beneath the earth will slowly diminish – and ultimately make your plants sick” says Mr Campbell. “Think of it as food for your soil, giving it vital nutrients and improving the soil’s structure without the need for chemical fertilisers.”
When it comes to creating your own compost, “think about having equal ratios of nitrogen and carbon – or, put simply, green and brown matter,” says Mr Campbell. “Start your compost on a bed of straw or sawdust, then keep layering.”
Grass clippings, surplus cardboard boxes and fruit and veg scraps can all be added. Microbe-rich leaf mould is also good for your compost. “It can be found in woodland, close to where wild mushrooms are growing – look for the white, spider web-like stuff, called mycelium,” says Mr Campbell.
Soil health is a zeitgeist topic among chefs, food experts and environmental campaigners. Mr Campbell is a strong believer in the “no-dig” soil movement, of which Sir David Attenborough and author Mr Charles Downing are advocates. It’s not just for farmers – it can be employed in your own garden. The approach involves keeping soil disturbance to a minimum. “By not having to fork or till the earth, the soil needs less time to heal, allowing more time for organisms to grow,” says Mr Campbell.
Lay compost and top soil directly onto untreated earth where possible. “In my own garden, when we moved in, I lifted the bricks just from those areas we wanted to plant in, maximising south-facing ground, and put my compost and top-soil directly straight onto the earth,” says Mr Campbell.
The delicious reward you’ll get makes gardening well worth the effort. Does Mr Campbell think homegrown produce tastes better than shop-bought? “That’s like asking whether fish taste better from the sea,” he says. “Yes!”