Food Security: Can small space growing feed us in the future?

Tomatoes growing on a window sill.

Can growing food in small urban places make any meaningful contribution to a sustainable food supply in the future?

I’m inspired to write this post by BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme, Can Britain Feed Itself, (listen on BBC Iplayer) – in which Vertical Veg had a small cameo.

Let’s start by acknowledging that small space growing can probably never meet all – or even a major part – of our food needs. Most of our high calorie, cereal crops like wheat, for example, require acres of space.  They will probably always need to be grown outside the city.

The value of crops from small urban spaces

However, many small urban spaces are highly suitable for growing salad leaves, herbs and soft fruit. The good news is that these crops are both high in value and nutritional content. By growing these at home, there is potential for large numbers of people to supplement their diets with super fresh, affordable, nutritious food.  These crops are also highly perishable – so growing them at home can impact on food waste and the need for temperature controlled transport and storage.

Soft fruit grows well and productively in small spaces - it is highly nutritious and perishable, so ideal for growing at home.
Soft fruit grows well and productively in small spaces – it is highly nutritious and perishable, so ideal for growing at home.

How much can actually be grown at home in the city?

To give you some examples of what can be achieved in small spaces. On my balcony and window sills in London, I grew nearly £900 of food in a year. This included the equivalent of 242 packs of salad and stir fry leaves (24.2 kg), 165 packs of herbs (3.3kg), and 113 cartons tomatoes (28.4kg). In my Newcastle concrete backyard I grew over £500 of food in six months. This included 110 packs of salad and microgreens (11.3kg), 82 punnets of cherry tomatoes (20.5kg), and 70 packs of herbs (1.4kg).

What % of the annual food bill is this?

What proportion of my family’s (two adults, two small children) food do these harvests represent? As a rough back of the envelope calculation, my family spends about £100 a week on food, or £5,200 in a year. So, in financial terms, the £900 balcony harvests equates to 17% of our annual food budget. No doubt it represents significantly less than 17% of our calories, but perhaps a higher proportion of other essential nutrients.

It is probably worth pointing out that my family might never have bought all the £900 of food we grew if we had to pay for it – particularly the 165 packs of herbs. But having herbs on your doorstep has other knock on affects. Home grown herbs enable you to cook tasty meals with cheaper ingredients. For example a simple bowl of brown rice or lentils can be transformed with a few handfuls of fresh herbs. 

What is the potential of small space growing?

Of course not everyone has the time or inclination to grow food at home. And not all homes have a balcony, patio, yard, roof terrace or other space that is suitable for much growing. But if, for example (in my dreams!), 20% of people grew 10% of their food, that could equate to 2% of a cities food supply. And then if other small, disused spaces in the city (like industrial rooftops and old council greenhouse like OrganicLea) were converted to organic food growing, this figure could be increased further, without any need for high-tech vertical farms. While these figures are small, they are not insignificant. Imagine if we needed 5 – 10% less land outside the city to grow all our food – or if we needed to import 5 – 10 % less…

The opportunity to reshape our food system

These figures are conjecture, of course. But whatever the precise figures, small space urban growing offers us an exciting opportunity to help reshape our food system, to grow more food closer to where we eat it, and to reconnect more people in cities to their food. There is evidence to suggest that part of our current food health crisis is due to our disconnection from our food – touching, smelling, picking the plant is important it turns out. Processed and plastic packaged food in supermarkets simply do not stimulate the senses in the same way.  One consequence is that people who grow food are more likely to eat the recommended number of vegetables, for example.

As well as the health benefits, edible plants green our concrete streets, support pollinators and bring people from diverse communities together. 

Food growing in the city - potato growing competition weigh in!
Food growing in the city – potato growing competition weigh in!

We can all be farmers

The brilliant thing about small space growing is that most homes have a window sill or a balcony or even a bit of space inside where a little food can be grown. Even just a few herbs or microgreens can give a lot of pleasure, supplement a supermarket diet, and reconnect more of us with the experience of eating fresh, homegrown food. And even make a small contribution to a sustainable food supply.

10 thoughts on “Food Security: Can small space growing feed us in the future?”

  1. Lizzie Butterworth

    Of course many of the crops you talk about – leafy greens, berries etc- are some of the more high carbon and over packaged ones at the supermarket. Until an attack of thrips we were avoiding expensive packaged, often imported lettuce for our guinea pigs, and I hope we get back there over winter.

  2. I agree and have introduced many people to the idea of square foot gardening. I converted my back yard lawn to 10 raised beds for about 400 square feet of grow space. Even at $10 per square foot that represents at least $4000 worth of healthy organic food. I am healthier and happier growing my own and it’s hard to beat the taste of a vine ripe tomato warm from the sun.

    1. Thanks for sharing Robert, I’m in full agreement with your views! Very interesting to read your experience. $4000 is a magnificent sum from a backyard – is that an estimate or have you had the chance to meausure it?

      1. I live in Southern CA and can grow year round. I have limited space so tend to grow the more expensive foods in the summer like tomatoes and cucumbers a lot. I usually grow 12 tomato plants in cages for a trellis and harvest and average of 25 lbs per plant. The current price for organic tomatoes is $5 so that alone is $1500. Greens return $6 per square foot because I get 3 plantings a year. The rest is from multiple plantings of winter crops with a few year round crops mixed in with the summer trellised crops.
        On an urban tomato farm using more advanced methods I planted over 600 plant of 36 heirloom varieties at 1 per square foot and averaged 28 pounds with a few large varieties averaging over 50 pounds. I was able to sell 1000 pounds per week at farmers market for $1 per pound for over 4 months. That equates to $16 per square foot.

  3. Susan Wheeler-Kiley

    Do so agree with you Mark (and Mark Bevis). Even just having a continuous supply of salad leaves and herbs can make a big difference. I think all schools should be involved. They are after all being encouraged to join XR

  4. If this appears twice, I apologise, but nothing seemed to happen when I pressed ‘submit’.

    During the war we had a very small garden, but in it we had a small enclosure for four hens and a hutch containing a huge Belgian hare called Mary. Marty went off at intervals to visit the buck and the produced up to 12 offspring in due course. Some went back to the owner of the buck, and we ate the rest ourselves as a family. Dad also managed to find space for tomatoes, peas, beans and more. Potatoes in buckets and tomatoes in front of a bedroom window (inside). We weren’t self-sufficient, but we certainly ate well from a very small space!

  5. Thank you, you’re inspirational. Hope lots of people are inspired to grow even a little. I find it’s addictive, now I’ve got my tomatoes growing I’ve got apple cucumber with their first real leaves, ready to put in bigger pots. I’m sowing basil later. At last I’ve sunny windows and I’m going to make them work for me. I’ve no outside growing space – yet.

  6. Good stuff. The potential for urban food growing is massive, not just vertical veg, but also tearing up pointless lawns, filling garage and extension rooftops, alleyways, green spaces, parks, and ultimately, as we are now officially in a climate emergency, ripping up 90% of the fossil fuel infrastructure (ie roads for example) and replacing them with wildlife corridors and food growing spaces.
    The British public are going to have to get used to a different diet, one with far more veggies, weeds, fruits and nuts in, but that is a price worth paying for continued existence in a post-capitalist world (one that is inevitable, like it or not).
    Had a humming bird hawk moth in my valarian last year, that I have growing out of tubs in my front yard. 10′ from the main road, 100 yards from a railway and a motorway. The potatoes in milk cartons didn’t do as well though. I do have a bucket of mint, which is more spearmint flavour, that provides about a year’s worth. Hollyhocks in milk cartons are coming on well this year too.
    And the feeling you get when you eat food you’ve grown yourself – priceless!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe for my monthly container growing tips
and newsletter

Join our 6,000+ Subscribers List Today!

Scroll to Top