The Balcony of Bangladesh – in London!

Helals balcony


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.

Maisha harvesting cherry tomatoes on the balcony
Maisha harvesting cherry tomatoes on the balcony

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!

Misti lau pumpkin. The leaves - as well as the fruits - are used in cooking
Misti lau pumpkin. The leaves – as well as the fruits – are used in cooking

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”.

Fresh coriander from a pot, far tastier than shop bought
The Ahmed’s found the taste of fresh home grown coriander superior to shop bought

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.

Further resources

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.

7 thoughts on “The Balcony of Bangladesh – in London!”

  1. Hi Helal,
    great balcony – I have plant envy.
    I have been trying to find seeds for the Bangladeshi shatkora or Gondhoraj Lebu fruit (the savoury lime used in curries etc.), but no one seems to sell them, and the fruits don’t contain any seeds – do you have any ideas please?

    1. Hi Tim, Mark here, not sure if Helal will see this but I’m sure he’ll answer if he does. In the meantime, I’d have a look at Garden Organic’s Growing New Seeds project: as this was specifically set up to share and save seeds of crops like this. I think the project is, sadly, officially closed now but if you get in touch with Garden Organic, someone might be able to help. I remember, for example, they used to have a database of seed suppliers of unusual edibles that might still exist in some form. Good luck.

      1. Thanks Mark.
        My research to date has been carried out both online and among the very helpful local Bangla shopkeepers and greengrocers, though many of them have never grown as much as a beard!
        Basically, the consensus seems to be that the seeds in the actual fruit you buy on the market are immature and unsuited to propagation. Most people try to get a grafted cutting from someone who has a bush or a tree, as the plant is rather woody. I’ve been told about someone who has a tree in their front garden near here but haven’t yet been able to identify it and find it. I tried the website you recommended but there was no mention of this plant. I’ll keep trying anyway, and thanks for your interest.

        1. thanks for the update Tim, I hope you are succesful finding a cutting. If you still don’t have any luck, then it might be worth calling Garden Organic and speaking to one of their staff – either Sally or Anton worked on the Sowing New Seeds project and if they don’t know the answer, they will probably know someone who does.

  2. Hello Helal,
    I’ve been reading your blog and found your gardening techniques really fascinating. Given the fact that you have limited resources in your flat, I have to say that you have done extremely well with what you have managed to grow. I have tried my first Bangladeshi vegetables in my garden such as mishti lau, gool lau and for the very first time trying okra. I’m hoping that the climate up north is as good as the south this year. It will be a real challenge, however, It gives me great determination and commitment to show what others have achieved and can also achieve with effort. I’m an amateur gardener and don’t expect to achieve a huge crop but hope to learn from others and plan ahead for the following year. Any advice you can give me would greatly be appreciated and look forward to see how you progress in growing more Bangla Kodus 🙂

  3. Words, thoughts – everything fail me! I just can’t believe the picture of the luxuriant growth of corriander Helal has conjured up.

    My two pots gave me only a few leggy, whispy strands of weeds, which only upon putting in the mouth proved to be corriander!

    I’ll just have to try again. Amen.

    1. Thanks Esther – I’ll pass that on to Helal – I’m sure he’ll be delighted to hear that. Yes, do try coriander again – it’s easiest to grow in the early spring or autumn (it actually will last quite well over winter) than in the summer when it tends to bolt very quickly. It also likes lots of water.

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