In Britain, cities feed cities

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

A British vegetable 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.

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

a. Accessibility: 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:

a. 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.

b. 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? 

c. 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 (note: DWARF) 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 ft) 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 (“you did WHAT?”).

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 (Royal Horticultural Society) and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall

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. 

A short list of the ‘veggie’ gardens that we visited includes:

Rosemoor Garden in North Devon.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall.

Kew Gardens, London

From prior trips I can highly recommend:

Wisley Gardens, Surrey

Garden Organic, Coventry


Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40.  He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden.  Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at


Organizations: Horticultural Society

Geographic location: Britain, Lost Gardens, Cornwall Peas Devon North Devon Kew Gardens London Wisley Gardens Surrey

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