Most people looking at his Camden flat might have seen a cozy brick apartment packed in tightly against its neighbors, the sort of building that fits in well with London’s historic urban architecture. But Mark Ridsdill Smith saw an opportunity for agriculture.
In 2009, Mark started growing food in his city space—on windowsills, in hanging baskets, and in containers on his balcony. It began as a personal experiment, but the project evolved quickly. In 2010 he managed to grow 184 lbs of produce right there at home. He also began documenting his harvests, tips, and observations in an online blog, Vertical Veg. Today, the site hosts a wealth of information about growing your own food (whatever your space!), and it has become a key resource for others interested in urban farming. The success of Mark’s not-so-little experiment has inspired and guided hundreds of fans around the world, from Israel to Sri Lanka, Canada to New Zealand.
Below, Mark discusses the roots of Vertical Veg, the connections between food and community, and his thoughts on sustainability.
Q: What inspired you to start growing your own food and documenting it on Vertical Veg?
A: I was yearning to grow food in London but didn’t have a garden. I applied for an allotment but after five years of waiting discovered it would be forty years (!) before I reached the top of the waiting list. I decided I had nothing to lose by experimenting on my small (6 foot by 8 foot) balcony. Expecting the occasional salad, I was surprised to discover that we were soon growing a substantial proportion of our fresh food.
When I told my friends that I was growing a “lot of fruit and vegetables on the balcony”, they shrugged and asked, ”What’s a lot?” So I started to weigh and calculate the value of all the crops I grew and record them on a blog. Vertical Veg was born.
Vertical Veg is also a response to my passion for the environment. Previously, I was engaged with sustainability initiatives that focused on the psychological barriers to behavior change. These were good initiatives, but I found they drained my energy, and I was heading for burn out. So I was looking for something that I could channel my positive energy and enthusiasm into—and that I could sustain over the long term.
Q: What sort of reactions has your garden gotten from your friends, neighbors, and passersby?
A: I was really surprised by how overwhelmingly positive the comments about the growing at the front of the house were. When I was tending it, I got to know many of my neighbors for the first time who’d stop and ask questions. It became something of a focal point for the community. It was common to see people engaged in conversation about it outside.
Q: What connections have you noticed between your urban garden and your sense of community?
A: I lived in the flat for fifteen years before I started growing. Over all that time, I’d hardly conversed with anyone living on my street. It wasn’t actively unfriendly—just that people didn’t stop and talk. But once I started growing, I slowly began to feel more connected. I got to know many people who lived on the street, and it completely changed our family’s relationship with where we lived. Another connection was when I started to sell surplus salad and herbs in the local deli, and also take away their waste coffee grounds that were going to landfill to recycle in my wormeries.
Q: Any favorite stories from someone who has contacted you about Vertical Veg and your growing?
I love being contacted by people living in cities all over the world—in Africa, South America, Europe—who are excited about growing food in containers at home. It’s hard to chose one story. I’m fascinated by how urban growing in different cities throws up different challenges, not least from different pests and diseases. So I particularly enjoyed an email from a South Africa reader who was struggling with monkeys steeling her crops—it just seemed rather wonderfully exotic in comparison to the slugs and pigeons we have to deal with in the UK!
Q: What tips would you give to someone interested in starting their own urban garden?
Start small and let your garden evolve slowly as you learn. Then the key things to learn are:
- Choosing the right crops for the amount of sun of you have (many urban spaces are rather shady)
- Choosing the right sized pot for your crops
- Keeping them well watered (but not over watered!)
- Not worrying when things don’t work—it happens to even the most experienced gardener and is the best way to learn
- Most importantly of all, learning about compost and fertility. Start with good quality compost (look online for compost surveys). As you get more experience, experiment with different types and brands of compost to learn what does and doesn’t work.
Container gardening does not have to be a lot of work. The secret is little and often, spending a few minutes on it every day, checking for watering and any signs of pest and disease.
Q: Why do you think interest in growing food is increasing?
A: I think the interest stems from the wide range of sustainability, health, and community benefits that can accrue from growing food—not to mention that home grown food just tastes better! I also think that, as humans, many of us have a powerful and intrinsic link to the land. This stems from centuries when a high proportion of us had to grow food to live. We temporarily lost this link in our move to the cities, but now we’re rediscovering our connection to the land and nature through urban food growing.
Q: How can communities promote growing food locally?
A: Find a space, however small, that is visible to the local public to start. Food growing is contagious and will soon spread when people see it being done successfully. Find a theme or a story to capture local imagination—like in ‘Incredible Edible’ Todmorden, for example.
Q: What role does urban gardening play in the larger sustainability movement?
A: In my view, urban gardening has a vital role in catalyzing wider interest in sustainability. Sustainability messages are complex, and hard for many people to relate to. Food growing is a simpler, more compelling message that can also deliver wide-ranging benefits for individuals and communities. By growing food, people in cities can become more connected to the seasons, to nature, and to their food supply. This can help create a vital shift in perceptions and connections to our planet. Food growing is also a common language shared by young and old and people of all cultures. It has potential to act as bridge, bringing people from different backgrounds to work, share, and learn together. By helping to bring people together, food growing can also help to build the kind of closer-knit communities that are vital for future collective action and resilience.
Of course, true sustainability requires a much wider and broader shift of attitudes and actions than food growing alone. Nevertheless, I would see it as one of the best places to focus energy to begin to catalyze the change. In order to win the battle against obsessive growth, the sustainability movement needs positive campaigns, like food growing, to focus its limited resources on.
Q: What is your vision for your city fifty years from now?
- Edible plants growing in nearly every home and public space
- All new homes and public spaces designed with food growing front of mind
- A shift in diet so that people use the herbs and fresh food they grow to eat better and more seasonally—and that this will be a catalyst to help people purchase less processed foods, meat, and imported produce
- Strong local communities, with knowledgeable, expert urban growers, who participate in local seed swaps, plant sales, and skills exchanges
- Communities, founded on food growing, are now working together to help solve other urban sustainability problems by running local food co-ops, equipment share schemes, home insulation projects, repair shops, etc.