Living in a flat in inner Melbourne with a small concrete and brick balcony, I figured my attempts at vegie growing were unlikely to get much further than the existing pots containing a depressed looking bay tree and a plucky-despite-the-odds rosemary bush. But that was before I’d read Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember’s excellent gardening book The Little Veggie Patch Co: How to Grow Food in Small Spaces. In the interests of full disclosure, I must tell you that after I’d flipped through its humorous, easy-to-follow pages, I got the authors around to do a number on my outdoor space, and now the rosemary bush and the bay tree – re-potted, fed and looking much better for it – share the balcony with thyme, oregano, marjoram, lemon balm, sorrel, chives, cos and mignonette lettuce, chicory, tatsoi, and lime and peppermint geraniums, and will soon be joined by a couple of varieties of bush tomatoes that fruit without the need for staking.
The best thing about all this greenery (aside from the improvement to my cooking – sorrel omelettes have become a weekend mainstay) is the way the plants actually make the balcony feel bigger than it did before.
One of the principles of the gardening philosophy of Pember and Capomolla is that gardens, no matter how small, should always look good, because, as they write in their book, “an uninviting patch… will help you become an even better procrastinator.” They’re also keen to stress that your vegie patch shouldn’t rule your life, so when it came time to design mine, the boys asked me how I used my balcony and what vegies and herbs I was likely to use: “You need to find a balance between your overwhelming enthusiasm, your needs, and the means at your disposal.”
On my now-lush balcony I have plants in a number of different containers, my favourite being the bespoke vegie patch/barbecue stand made from recycled packing crates. My small barbecue sits to one side of a 40cm-deep planter box, and there is enough room underneath for the gas bottle, a watering can, and space to hang barbecue implements and gardening tools.
To take advantage of a brick wall that gets a lot of morning sun and so will be ideal for tomatoes, an old, metal ammunitions box (painted a nicely weathered blue) has been planted with seedlings, given holes for drainage and attached high enough to catch all the sun.
Another ammo box sitting on the ground contains two rosemary bushes (both heavily in purple flower at the moment), and a series of brightly coloured glazed pots sport the bay tree, the marjoram and the thyme. On the balcony ledge are three long, narrow concrete pots ideal for quick-growing leafy greens.
There’s more to The Little Veggie Patch Co gardening book than just step-by-step set-up instructions. There are tips on everything from watering to scarecrows (something my daughter has expressed the most interest in) and an extensive list of food plants best suited to spaces like my balcony.
I understand that self-sufficiency with a space like mine is a ludicrous notion, but the huge leap in production on my balcony is enormously satisfying. I’m already eyeing off the other planters available and trying to work out what new plants I can fit. I’m thinking garlic, perhaps some broad beans and radishes, maybe an espaliered dwarf pear tree…
The Little Veggie Patch Co by Fabian Capomolla and Mat Pember is published by Plum/Pan Macmillan Australia ($45, pbk).
PHOTOGRAPHY JOHN LAURIE
This article is from the November 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.