Wellbeing and Nature: changing the city with containers

Cornflower and Bee by Clare Bowes

At first glance, growing food in containers at home might seem like just a fun hobby with the bonus of a few freshly grown veg. However, in my experience working with hundreds of other container growers over the last eight years, it can also support change at much deeper levels. It has potential to support real change in our lives and cities.

My 6' x 8' balcony in central London - rarely used the first ten years I lived there.
My 6′ x 8′ balcony in central London – rarely used the first ten years I lived there.

I first discovered this when I lived in a flat in London. For years, I’d had a 6 x 8 foot balcony (pictured above), that I never used much. But then I started growing on it. I was amazed at how a grey slab of concrete became a green and beautiful space, teaming with life. I spent a few relaxing, rejuvenating minutes on it every day before and after work. I watched the ladybirds, bees and hoverflies that visited, the blackbirds that scavenged for worms in my containers.  Even the tussle with the pigeons and squirrels who tried to eat my plants was entertaining on some level.

Growing food on the balcony helped me feel closer to nature and the seasons in central London.
Growing food on the balcony helped me feel closer to nature and the seasons in central London.

In the middle of bustling, bristling London, I felt closer to the seasons. I sowed seeds in spring, harvested salads and peas on balmy June evenings, gathered in tomatoes before the first frosts, and picked kale and salads on cold days in winter. I learnt for the first time how the winds change through the year: cold and persistent North Easterlies in spring, warmer South Westerlies in summer.

Instead of getting salads and blueberries in plastic packaging, I picked them on my doorstep. For most of human history, people have picked and eaten some of their food direct from the plants. Yet in the 21st century, many people never have this opportunity, particularly in cities. Arguably, this is a fundamental part of who we are, and there is emerging evidence that this disconnection with our food supply is one of the root causes of our unhealthy eating epidemic.

In the middle of the city, I was beginning to feel reconnected to nature, the seasons and my foraging ancestors – and all because of a few plant pots on my balcony. A small sign of the shift was that my wife and I started, unconsciously, referring to the small concrete balcony as ‘the garden’.

Connecting with the neighbourhood

Meanwhile, the front of the flat (below), which previously served only as an unglamorous entry and exit – and place to put the rubbish bin – became a connection to the local neighbourhood.

The front of the flat devoid of containers (actually this was taken just as were moving out - so some evidence of growing remains!).
The front of the flat devoid of containers (actually this was taken just as were moving out – so some evidence of growing remains!).

I started striking up conversations with passers-by for the first time as I gardened on the pavement. The plants brought colour to the street and the unusual edible crops brought intrigue. Some people even made diversions or special visits to see the latest veg developments. Builders inspected my squash plants every day, fascinated by how fast they grew.

With edible plants growing at the front, it became a space to meet and talk to neighbours and passersby. A rare opportunity to strike up conversation in central London!
With edible plants growing at the front, it became a space to meet and talk to neighbours and passersby. A rare opportunity to strike up conversation in central London


Lifeless concrete backyard

When I moved to Newcastle, we rented a home with a concrete backyard (below). Situated in a swathe of concrete, it was lifeless, eerily devoid of bird song or insect noise.

Concrete backyard shortly after moving in - a soulless place with little life.
Concrete backyard in our rented home, shortly after moving in – a soulless place with little life.

When I filled it with plants (below), it became alive again. One day, filming in the garden, the sound of the bees was so loud I would have told them to quieten down if I could.

With plants comes life, and the concrete is transformed.
With plants comes life, and the concrete is transformed.

Sparrows visited the runner beans to catch aphids to feed their young. A blackbird took all the labels off my tomato plants for its nest, a nuisance, but it made me smile nonetheless.


Plant labels removed and rearranged by the blackbird!
Plant labels removed and rearranged by the blackbird!

Suburban and urban front yards

Three years ago we moved to another house, this time with an unprepossessing concrete front yard (below). Thousands of these, grey, lifeless spaces line our cities and suburban streets, often gloomy and depressing.

Our new home. Complete with typical, uninspiring concrete front yard.
Our new home. Complete with typical, uninspiring concrete front yard.

But, as you can see in the picture below, with a few edible crops in containers the feel is transformed, adding colour and interest for passers-by. Imagine how the feel of cities will change if more people do this?! If every urban street had one or two edible gardens.

Edible plants and flowers change the feel of the concrete.
Edible plants and flowers lift the feel of the concrete frontyard.

So while food growing is a fun hobby that gives you delicious food, it can offer more than that. One of these (there are others I’ll write about another time) is to bring you closer to nature, the seasons and your community.  This in turn can improve your wellbeing and how you feel about where you live. It brings greenery and life to the concrete, improving the look and feel of the street, and can provide a focal point of interest for the local community.

I love living in the city but I also love nature. Food growing in pots enables me to have both.

Your turn

If you grow food in the city, I’d love to hear if it has changed how you feel about where you live in the comments.

17 thoughts on “Wellbeing and Nature: changing the city with containers”

  1. I once grew papaya, passion fruit, ladies fingers, green beans, chillies, limes and all sorts of vegetables and herbs in containers on my balconies. Then I had to go away for half a year (to England in fact) and so I gave up my garden. Now I am home again and trying to start growing in containers once more.
    So far, I have a papaya tree, rosemary, basil and chillies. I’ll start some vegetables soon. I also want to try growing a banana tree.
    I used to get birds coming to nest in the bamboo plant and trellis when my balcony was really lush. I want to lure them back!

    1. Hello Fen, you are making me envious, what a wonderful selection of crops you are able to grow on your balconies! And very special to have birds nesting there, too. Would love to see a picture of your growing if you fancy sharing one. (mark@verticalveg.org.uk).

  2. Your blog is so inspiring! I live in the countryside but have a very small garden and I’m slowly organising it so that I can have some space for container gardening. I have a lot to learn though as my initial attempts so far have been off to a bit of a rocky start with my nasturtiums being eaten by caterpillars and my pea plants being eaten by the dog!! I do have some container fruit trees that are making a bit of progress though so I do have hope! 🙂

  3. Lorna Avelino M.D.

    Dear Mark,
    Yes changes in lifestyle and nutritional improvement is the result of container gaurdening in the city. Greening of the empty spaces and a change of scenery improves well being. Congrats!

  4. I have realized in my mind 60’s…that I have downsized all of my life!

    I grew up in a 73 acre dairy farm in North East Ohio.
    When first married, my city born and raised husband and I purchased a 5 acre property.
    We raised our girls there and then moved to Florida.
    Over the period of nearly 24 years in sunny Florida, we have moved six times! I certainly had not realized that until I started writing this comment!!!😝

    I have learned to grow in Zone 9b and how to grow in containers, through trial and error.

    I am continually amazed at the yield that one can attain!

    God bless!

    1. Hi Theresa, wow you have moved a lot – and wonderful to hear how you’ve discovered containers as a way to keep your love of growing as you’ve moved to smaller places. I agree – it is amazing what can be achieved in a small space. Yours is encouraging and inspiring learning to all those who find themselves moving to a home without a garden. Thanks for sharing. Mark

  5. Hi Mark
    Loved reading this. Your before and after pics amazing. I did my first growing on my balcony it was fun and delicious but l didn’t achieve all that l had hoped. I am certainly not discouraged l will do it again with a smile. Question for you can l start growing now and how, what and where? Thanks joanne

    1. Hi Joanne, so glad you had fun and some delicious food to eat, congratulations. It takes all of us a few seasons to get the hang of growing, even then not everything is successful all the time – so I’m so pleased to hear you haven’t been discouraged. Best of luck for 2018 – and would love to hear how you get on.

  6. Well done Mark. I was really impressed by your colourful, well thought out, and well put together piece.
    I hope it encourages many people to bring a bit of beauty, life and general well-being to our cities. And hopefully good neighborliness too.

  7. Wow! I admire your enthusiasm and commitment! And I love what you’re doing with the places your stay.

    I had a balcony in my last flat and I loved to grow veg on it! It was a constant little war between me (growing more every year) and my husband who insisted on keeping enough free space for two chairs and a little table …


    Sadly our new flat has neither balcony nor garden, but only two tiny window sills. So far they are blank but I think I will give it a try this year…

    Keep on going!

    1. That is a wonderful little paradise you created, Iris – thanks for sharing that picture! Phacelia is so pretty and the bees absolutely adore it, such a good choice to bring life to a small space. Ha, ha, your comment about your husband made me smile – I had exactly the same conversations about the space on the balcony (or rather lack of it) with my wife! Good luck with your window sill project – I’ve had windowsills that are very suitable for growing and others that are much less so, I hope you are able to find a way to grow on them successfully. Would love to hear how it goes.

  8. My latest project is growing veg in some planters outside a hostel for homeless families where I volunteer. Last year we grew, with the help(!) of the children, tomatoes and beans. But Mark’s mystery chillies, of which I produced too many at home and were far too hot for us, were really popular with the families, many from the Middle East and Bangladesh, so I have saved seeds to grow them in our planters this year.

  9. Lovely post! Your old house looked amazing!! Also love what you have done with the new place. I am living in student housing in quite a crummy area – I tried starting up a little garden. The other day someone came along and destroyed it 🙁 I guess that is what happens when you live with a lot of students. Also all the back courtyards are open. I would love to start a project getting local students involved with growing – turning the ugly and dirty concrete spaces behind these houses into a place to grow. Just even one low maintenance box. But I leave soon and I think the task is too big for myself x

    1. I love your idea of transforming the back courtyards with plants. I agree that you need time to do a project like that and it is easier and more fun if you do it with others – and the more people involved, the more others tend to respect it. One thing you might consider for now is planting up a few trays of salads or microgreens. They grow very quickly and taste delicious. And while a few pots won’t transform the whole space they can still deliver a lot of pleasure. At my work I’m hoping to form a salad club – where we grow microgreens and salads and then once a week or month we harvest and have lunch together. That might be an option for you if you can find others who are interested?

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