A lack of space is one of the top reasons people give for not having a garden, but with a little knowledge and ingenuity, it’s possible to grow flowers, herbs and even vegetables in urban environments. Mark Ridsdill Smith has become a trusted authority on container gardening in small spaces, and he’s my guest this week, here to share his advice for getting started.
Mark champions growing at home because he knows it leads to greater well-being and builds community. He helps people in cities to reconnect with food and nature by establishing a green oasis. He now lives in Newcastle, England, but he got his start gardening in London. He runs the website Vertical Veg and put all of the knowledge and lessons that he accumulated over two decades of small space vegetable gardening into his new book, “The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening.”
I know the topic of small space vegetable gardening will resonate with many of you, especially the urban dwellers. Mark’s tips and tricks for making the most out of the space we have available are helpful for any gardener. You may find yourself reconsidering the spaces you once thought would be inhospitable for a vegetable garden.
As populations move into urban environments, more and more people are living without gardens and some don’t have an outdoor space at all to call their own — not even a balcony. But Mark says some folks in London get really creative. For instance, if they are entitled to a parking space but don’t own a car, they get permission to use the space for a container garden. Others grow on the roof at their place of work.
Today, Mark lives in a terraced house, or row house, with a small concrete front yard where he grows flowers and vegetables in containers.
To get his plants into as much sun as possible, Mark added five layers of wall shelves to elevate them. To use the south-facing, sunny spot where his garbage bin goes, he added a ladder. Now plants sit above the bin and conceal it.
Mark also finds places where he can attach strings so climbing plants such as vining squash and tomatoes can grow up into higher light. He encourages thinking of spaces in three dimensions to discover more room where plants can grow.
As can be seen in Mark’s book, these are not small vines. These are huge leaves and heavy fruit — and they had no problem seeking that higher level. At the same time, they are quite attractive and ornamental. Marks says it’s especially attractive when compared to concrete and gives not only the grower a lot of pleasure but those passing by as well.
Before going any further with my discussion with Mark about container vegetable gardening, let me take a moment to remind you that I have a book of my own coming out in September. The title is “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest,” and it’s available for pre-order now. It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
How Mark Ridsdill Smith Found Container Gardening
Mark lived in London for about 20 years before he started gardening. He lived in an apartment (or flat, as they call it in the U.K.) and had nothing but a small balcony. He applied for an allotment, which is a piece of land he could rent to grow food crops, but he found out he’d likely be on the waiting list for 30 years.
“So I thought, well, if I want to grow stuff, the only way I’m going to do this is to grow stuff on my balcony,” he recalls.
Back then, the internet wasn’t a big thing, so Mark couldn’t just go online and find out everything he needed to know to grow on a balcony successfully. He had to figure that out on his own by trying different things.
Mark expected he’d only be able to grow some rocket, or arugula, but was surprised to find that in time he was picking food just about every day for just about every meal, whether it be herbs or tomatoes. He says he discovered it was actually possible to create a really meaningful and very productive garden in a very small space.
What’s really amazing about Mark’s gardening journey and success is he is self-taught. His parents had an allotment, but he was never much involved. When it came to his balcony garden, he just had to learn as he went.
“I had no direct practical experience so I was making a lot of mistakes,” he admits. He finds that growing food, on one level, is something you can keep learning about for the rest of your life, but on another level, it’s actually quite simple and just a matter of giving it a go and not worrying if everything doesn’t work out.
When he was getting started 20 years ago, the seed packets he bought didn’t even say how much light a plant needs — information that we expect to see when seed buying today.
Urban spaces don’t have full sun, he points out, and his balcony was north facing. He learned through trial and error what he could grow easily and what didn’t work. Leafy vegetables and herbs grew quite well. Tomatoes were a challenge. In time, he developed his own set of rules around what could grow in less sun.
Mark also learned that he couldn’t just reuse the same old soil every year and expect to have the same results. He discovered that the soil needed feeding to provide plants the fertility they require to thrive.
He also learned that in a small space he could have a wormery, or worm composter — a type of vermicomposting. He fed the worms his kitchen scraps and they rewarded him with castings, an excellent fertilizer. When he started adding worm castings to his containers, his plants grew better and experienced fewer pest and disease issues.
In Mark’s second full year of gardening, he logged 180 pounds of fresh produce, including 63 pounds of tomatoes. He says he did put thought into his garden but a bit of luck went into his success as well, such as cooperative weather. He also acknowledged that not everything he tried worked.
Because he grew enough salad greens to have a salad every day of the year, having a garden also changed how he eats.
Mark’s Tips for Getting Started
Mark offers a number of recommendations to get started growing food in a small environment without feeling overwhelmed. He inspires people to reach success without taking on too much at one time.
Get started with just a few containers. It’s easy to be successful on such a small scale — though Mark also warns that it should be enough of a garden that you feel invested in it. A single container is easy to forget about. If you have a few, you’re more likely to remember to water them and look after them.
You may be surprised by how big the seeds you plant grow, so starting small can save you trouble later.
Grow Sooner Rather Than Later
If you are always waiting until you know enough to start gardening, you’ll never start. The way to learn how to garden is to garden. Don’t get hung up on what you don’t know — and don’t procrastinate.
Don’t Feel Like You Need to Know Everything
It’s good to pick up some basic information about gardening and your crops, but if you convince yourself that you need to know everything there is to know, you’ll never be satisfied.
There are some important things for beginner gardeners to know, such as how much sun their gardening space gets in a day and what can grow in that much sun. Mark also wants beginners to know that using high-quality potting compost, or potting mix, is important; if they start with poor compost, their plants can’t thrive.
Getting out into the garden and checking in on what’s occurring is one of the most important things gardeners can do to ensure success. Plants grown in containers can become stressed quite easily — not enough nutrition, not enough water — so observing plants and intervening when necessary is essential. Pest and disease issues can get out of control if you aren’t identifying problems early on through daily observation.
Use Reliable Sources
The internet is full of bad gardening advice. Websites throw together posts and charts that are optimized for search engines but completely unreliable. But there are also quite a few gardeners who are writing articles based on their real-world experience, and those are the ones you want to follow and learn from.
Match Crops to Your Sun
As mentioned above, it’s important to know how much sun your growing area gets in a day, whether it be a patio, porch or balcony. You can use a sun calculator if you really want to get scientific about it or just pick a day to check in on the growing location regularly to observe how many hours of direct sunlight it gets before the sun moves and an obstruction like a building or tree casts a shadow. You may find that half of the location gets full sun (6-8 hours in a day) while another gets less.
Put subtropical fruiting crops like tomatoes, eggplant (aubergine), peppers, squash, etc. in full sun. Peas, beans and root vegetables can be planted in 5 hours of sun. In 2-4 hours of sun, leafy crops and herbs — even the herbs that the books say need full sun like basil — can grow just fine, as well as rhubarb and woodland fruits like blackberries, blueberries, red currants, black currants and gooseberries.
“Pretty much all crops grow best in full sun, but if you’ve got just got three or four hours, there’s still a wide choice,” Mark says.
Choose the Right Container Size, Plant Size & Growing Medium
Edible crops can be grown in small plastic pots, but it’s much harder. Mark recommends using the largest pots you can, especially for fruiting plants like tomatoes.
Many container gardeners recommend growing bush beans rather than climbing beans because they are more compact and, the theory goes, more suitable for a container. Still, Mark prefers climbing beans that can use all that space above the pot when given something to climb up.
There are other compact crops that Mark thinks work quite well for container gardening. I really like dwarf tomatoes for growing in containers. There are now 140 varieties of heirloom-style dwarf tomatoes available, with a mature size of 4 feet compared to indeterminate tomatoes that can grow to great heights. It’s the best of both worlds in a small tiny package.
Because of concerns about climate change and ecological destruction, peat moss sales to gardeners in England and Wales will be banned in 2024, and already gardeners are choosing peat-free potting mixes. Often, coir, a more sustainable resource, is taking the place of peat in the mixes. Other mixes are made from composted green waste and food waste collected from homes or from composted wood chips and bark.
Coir maintains its structure better than peat, so Mark’s been able to use the same coir-based potting mix for five years, just taking care to add fertilizer.
Water Consistently & Check for Proper Drainage
A major concern with container gardening is how quickly they dry out, but on the other hand, if a container does not have proper drainage or is full of poor potting mix, the growing medium can quickly become waterlogged.
Add drainage holes to containers that have none or are slow to drain. Use a finger to check the moisture before adding water to a container; don’t assume that a wilting plant needs more water. Wilting can be a sign of a plant that needs water but it can also be a sign that a plant is drowning in too much water.
Another quick way to ascertain whether a container needs water is to try to pick it up. Once you have a sense of how heavy it is when it’s watered properly, you can quickly judge if more water is needed.
It’s easy to forget to water, so it needs to become part of your daily routine. You may not need to add water daily, but you should check the soil daily.
If you don’t water consistently, plants will become stressed and, as a result, more susceptible to pests and diseases. Pests love a stressed plant.
“Watering is really important to plant health as well as just simply keeping them alive,” Mark says.
Watering plants mindfully doesn’t feel like a job. It’s a pleasurable thing to do, he says.
Space Plants for Optimum Growth and Harvest
When growing in a small place, it’s hard to leave room between plants. Still, I am a big advocate of spacing plants adequately to allow for light and airflow to get in.
Leafy vegetables are crops that can be grown close together, and you can get quite a harvest quite quickly, but those crops are competing for resources, namely moisture and nutrients in the soil. They can lose steam rather quickly, Mark says. After the young, tender, tasty, nutritious leaves are harvested, the plants can be pulled out and resown. This can be repeated every couple of weeks in hot weather. Alternatively, if given more space, leafy greens will grow larger and healthier and live longer.
Fruiting plants will not yield well if crowded together, though Mark finds that beans are an exception. Quite a few beans can grow in the same pot successfully.
Feed Your Crops
Slow-release nutrients that feed your plants each time you apply water will enable plants to thrive in containers. If the moisture is not there, the nutrients are not getting into the plant. You will need to top up the fertilizer periodically as the nutrient bank becomes depleted, though slow and consistent release is still better than a jolt of a high concentration of instant, chemical fertilizer.
Don’t Pursue Perfection
In the world of social media and Instagram, we’re all putting our best foot forward, and if you’ve got even a hint of an ego, it’s hard to show anything but your best. I’m making an effort to air the dirty laundry rather than present a false reality. The reality of gardening is there is no such thing as a perfect garden and the pursuit of it is a waste of time.
Grow for Community
Growing in your front yard or on a balcony that can be seen from the street is a great way to get to know your neighbors. Even if your garden is out of view, other gardeners will be excited to share advice and resources with you. You can make even more friends when you share the produce you grow with your neighbors. Soon you’ll be swapping seeds and plants.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Mark Ridsdill Smith and learned something new. If you haven’t listened yet, you can hear this episode now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you practice vertical vegetable gardening? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the wait list here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.