Books on growing your own fruit and vegetables seem to be ten a penny at the moment, as publishers leap onto the latest bandwagon, keen to milk the home farming phenomenon. Often dull and weighty tomes, they add little to the existing excellent literature already available. Celia Brook Brown’s New Urban Farmer makes a refreshing change, steering clear of the temptation to reinvent the wheel and offering instead a well-balanced mix of engaging, personal narrative about her own urban farming awakening, lots of easy-to-digest practical advice and a selection of recipes for the resulting fresh produce.
For me, it’s a joy to read because it echoes what we have found (my husband and I) and much of how we have felt during our own urban farming journey.
We started growing vegetables in our back garden, gosh it must be over ten years ago now. Gradually, year on year, we’d grow more and more different kinds of vegetables and more and more volume until we finally decided to convert the whole of our back garden into what should rightly be called a kitchen garden, but I tend to label a home allotment. A few years back we even invested in a beautiful big greenhouse and new shed; very exciting! This year we’ve finally introduced some fruit with a new apple tree, some raspberry canes, wild strawberries and a rhubarb plant. Whilst we do have a few fruit and vegetable gardening bibles, which are invaluable reference, we’ve learned a great deal by trial and error plus lots of welcome advice from more experienced friends and family.
Both of us have strong memories of helping green-fingered parents. Pete’s dad worked hard on his allotment and produced a good part of the (large) family’s diet, roping the kids in to help with many of the gardening chores. My mum loves gardening and I have vivid recollections of the little plots she assigned to my sister and I, in which we grew whatever flowers and vegetables we wanted, arranged in our own haphazard designs. Her garden today, even in winter, is an oasis of greenery, enlivened by riotous colour and scent during the warmer months. And, to my envy (no question in my mind as to why the colour of envy is green!) she can grow coriander; something I just can’t seem to keep alive!
The beauty of growing your own fruit and vegetables is that you can do as much or little as you wish. Whether it’s growing a few tomato plants and herbs in a window box or in a few pots in the garden or giving over a small patch of an otherwise leisure-focused garden to tomatoes, beans, strawberries and lettuces or going the whole hog and getting an allotment (or converting the entire garden as we have done) – it’s hugely satisfying and addictive to eat what you have sown, nurtured and brought to fruition.
And with her injection of personal experiences – she has clearly learned by trial and error, success and failure – Celia makes it clear that urban farming is not only possible but readily achievable for anyone who wants to give it a go. As she points out in her introduction, roughly half the population of the earth are city-dwellers. Urban farming not only provides us access to the freshest possible produce, it also gives us the chance to reconnect to nature and improve the quality of our lives.
Keen to meet with Celia in person and talk more about her urban farming experiences, I met her at her allotment on a very, very, very hot and sunny day, where I filmed a short interview. As you’ll see, I’m an appalling interviewer and an even less skilled cameraman (so used to shooting stills that I forgot not to turn the little point and shoot I used into portrait orientation) but I hope the videos will still be of interest. Apologies for the strange semi-black-and-white effect in the last video – I managed to switch into some odd mode and couldn’t work out how to switch out of it!
So what about the book – what does it contain?
In the Introduction, Celia tells us how she came to have an allotment before going on to share vegetable plot basics from location to tools to composting to protection to hardening off and more. There are tips on growing in an allotment, a home garden and in containers. And then the book is presented in monthly chapters, running through what needs to be done when, and the many tips Celia has learned along the way.
Even as an experienced vegetable gardener, there were plenty of useful tips for me – from using the spring shoots of winter brassicas to growing only one variety of sweet corn (cross pollination of more than one leads to ill-formed kernels) to using old, tough leeks to make a leek stock to enjoying bolting rocket flowers in salads to keeping supermarket herbs alive longer by gently separating the numerous plants crammed into the tiny container… each page had me scribbling notes to myself.
And there were also many tips which had me shaking my head in agreement – we too use takeaway containers (plus foil catering trays rescued from party events and the plastic punnets in which we buy strawberries and mushrooms) as seed trays; we’ve had huge success sprinkling broken egg shells around plants to create a physical barrier against slugs and snails; we also like to plant marigolds and nasturtiums as companion plants and we also leave a little patch of wild flowering weeds, all of which attract pollinating insects.
Lastly, there are the recipes – Celia is an experienced food writer and cook and shares many of her favourite ways to use her allotment bounty. I’m looking forward to trying pea and feta egg cups, parmesan potato cakes with summer herbs, warm courgette salad with parmesan crackling and apple and thyme tart with boozy toffee, amongst many others!
Although it’s June now, by the time I’m posting this, I would still recommend you pick up a copy of this if you’d like encouragement, inspiration and a final push to join the ranks of urban farmers. There are still fruit and vegetables you can grow this year if you’re quick, and you can certainly start planning and preparing for next year already!
Many thanks to Quadrille for my review copy of New Urban Farmer and to Celia Brooks Brown for welcoming me to her allotment (and for her gift of rocket seeds).