Imagine growing up in a tropical climate like that of Bangladesh. Your family has a strong history of food growing and you have enough land to supply all your fruit and vegetables. Seeds are bursting to sprout and grow at almost anytime of year.
Then imagine moving to a small flat in London with no outdoor space except a small concrete balcony. What’s more this space is exposed to the cold and all the elements of our fine British weather. Seeds need to be coaxed and nurtured into life.
This is the situation that Helal Ahmed and his family found themselves in when they moved into their flat in Somers Town, Camden. Because growing food had formed such a big part of Helal’s childhood (he’d learnt from his dad), he wanted to find a way to continue in his new home. He wanted to share his joy of growing with his daughter, Maisha. He also wanted to save money by growing Asian vegetables, which are expensive in the UK shops and seldom fresh. And he wanted to bring greenery and add colour to the family’s grey, concrete balcony.
I first met Helal in autumn 2010. He’d made a start at growing on his balcony, with mixed success. He was growing in pots and the English climate for the first time. We chatted and tried to decide what was holding his crops back. We worked out that he needed to source a better quality growing medium, and maintain the fertility. He also wanted to learn more about the right time to sow different crops (very different from in Bangladesh!).
With support from Camden Council and funding from the Department for Health’s Communities 4 Health programme, I visited Helal several times in 2011 to support his growing. With the aid of improved compost, including some free municipal waste compost (‘much better than cheap compost from the local store’ said Helal), some fertiliser (chicken manure, seaweed and liquid tomato feed), Helal and Maisha made big strides with their growing. The tomato plant produced over five kilos of fruit. The lalshak (a red leaf, a little similar to spinach), sour leaf (a variety of sorrel), and mustard greens all grew very productively.
Not everything was 100% successful. The pumpkin, misti lau, produced mostly leaves rather than fruit. Luckily, pumpkin leaves are a popular vegetable in Bengali cuisine, so the growing effort did not got unrewarded in the kitchen!
Helal was also delighted with the taste of his home grown food. Freshly picked coriander was infinitely superior to any you could buy, he said. And he was happy at how his home growing was reducing waste – “we only pick it as and when we need it, and don’t have to throw any away in the bin”.
Helal and his family are by no means alone in their situation. Thousands of people arrive in the UK from homes in Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, leaving behind land and a strong tradition of home food growing. But people like Helal are also showing that it is possible to maintain that tradition, even on a small balcony. He may not be able to grow food in the same quantity he could in Bangladesh, but by learning how to grow in this climate in containers, he and his daughter were able to pick something for the table on most days over the summer. And to share the joy of growing food together.
For more information and fact sheets on how to grow Asian and Caribbean crops in the UK, see the excellent Sowing New Seeds website. And, if you live in London and want to grow Asian Food, check out Spitalfields City Farm for inspiration. As well as being a showcase for some of the Asian foods that can be grown in the UK (their snake gourds are amazing!) they also run growing courses for women and regular gardening sessions for anyone.