I kill plants. No really, I verily do. I don’t take any pride in it, but accept that it’s just not my forte and indulge my efforts in other areas that do indeed result in fruition. Firstly, plants don’t vocally complain when I forget to water them and they certainly don’t write out a will as a final last cry for attention. Secondly, I’m a very busy person who forgets everybody’s birthday (myself excluded, of course), so why should I have the time to flare my nostrils in the evening sun as I grub down with planting, nurturing, weeding, pruning, stemming and harvesting? Thirdly, I have a slightly pitiful, north-westerly-facing excuse of a garden whose presence is acknowledged by the sun with momentary glances. And yet, I am a nester. I am constantly reorganizing my den, positioning a jungle’s-worth of low maintenance flowers from Columbia Road and spend hours cooking to unwind from the chaos of my day. I’m also conscientious about buying good fresh produce, with the least amount of air miles involved and always try and use recycled bags. So maybe, isn’t it just time I grew up a little and tried to grow my own?
I’ve watched my good friend Tom over the years with a suspicious eye. Dinner ‘chez-Moggach’ has always been a culinary adventure, from dipping toasted poilane in wine-baked vacherin cheese to Malaysian beef rendang. Through the years I noticed his cookery books starting to engulf the kitchen space, and suddenly there were chickens in the back of the garden, allotment plots to tend to, illuminating jars of honey from the bees he kept, beautiful arrangements of winter squash amongst chilli plants on the window ledge resembling a classic Dutch still life painting, stacks of empty egg cartons for gifts for friends and family, and disused bathtubs on the roof full of lettuce, coriander and chervil. He then started teaching at the local Primary school and set up his company Cityleaf in 2009 offering up advice and skills in urban horticulture. With his new book ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener’, Tom shows the town dweller how best to employ every inch of available space, the vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers that are the easiest to grow in a pot, how to nurture them, the many different ways to eat them and how to keep the seeds for the following year. Apart from the usual suspects he offers up arcane ingredients such as mouse melons, shiso, shungiku, mustards and nasturtiums. He also enthuses his wisdom concernng pests, green issues, taking cuttings, making chutneys and preserves from left-overs and compost from the scraps. So in aiding my desperate lack of garden cultivation skills, I thought it probably best I spend an afternoon in Tom’s garden with notebook firmly in hand.
– I know when you where little your mum (the novelist Deborah Moggach) used to take you down to the allotments all the time, what memories do you have of this and when did you start to join in? I grew up in London, and was far more interested in cooking than gardening when I grew up. I was always fascinated by food when I travelled, and ended up working in a few restaurants as a washer-upper and general dogsbody cook. I always enjoyed being in the garden, or on the allotment with my mother, but only started to take growing seriously some years ago – I got a qualification and set up my company City Leaf, training people how to grow and cook with their own food.
– Would you say gardening came naturally to you and can anyone do it? Without doubt, anyone can do it. Growing plants is not complicated. And there is no such thing as having green fingers. If you haven’t tried, I suggest giving it a go. It’s really quite an instinctive and intuitive process. You soon tune in to what plants need.
– What are the easiest and the most difficult plants to maintain? Easy are salad leaves, herbs, carrots, radishes, mouse melons and many others. Tricky – well, many of the perennials take a long time to harvest. Asparagus is not straight forwards. If you buy fancy trained fruit (like apple trees, plum bushes or grape vines), then you will need to research how to train, prune and maintain it.
– How hard is it to keep chickens and bees? Chickens are much easier than bees, providing you have the space. They are not fussy. Bees are complicated – there are so many variables and things to learn.
– Do you have any ingenious tricks on making the most of space that you can give away to us? Use a ladder, fixes at an angle against a wall, to create instant shelves for pots and containers.
– How does a normal day in the life of Tom look like? I get up far too early – much earlier than my eight-month-old baby girl Lyra, and generally zoom about all day without much time to sit down. I have a very interesting time though. I look after a patchwork of plots in my neighbourhood – my rooftop, shady back garden, a school garden, community garden and my mums allotment. Last night I rounded it off with an hour on the plot as the sun went down – it was a stunning evening, full of bird song – very special.
– What have been your greatest difficulties, and is there anything that you have had to abandon growing? Tomatoes can be miserable outdoors in a poor summer. I have had to start my asparagus bed on my mums allotment a few times because I did not prepare the ground sufficiently thoroughly.
– For someone with a minute garden/open space what are the top veg/fruit you would suggest to grow? Herbs – whichever you like most, including shiso, sorrel, salads, nasturtiums,
– Is there anything one can grow inside the house? Yes, houseplants can be edible – chillies are fantastic on a sunny windowsill.
– Is gardening/cooking work for you or is it a total joy that happens to be work too? Mostly a total joy, although at times there is an element of ‘outdoor housework’ if you are not on top on a plot and have a lot of weeding and tidying to do,
– What vegetables/fruit are you not able to grow and how do you shop for these? I very rarely shop in supermarkets – I use my local Asian shops, markets etc. So I don’t grow the exotics or the veg that is very cheap to buy such as onions.
– How hard was it in writing your book? It was a lot of hard work, but worth it in the end. Writing down exact recipes was a challenge, because I am an instinctive cook – my wife noticed a phase when my cooking went a bit wonky, because the need to be very systematic was cramping my style a bit.
– Plans for the future? I have ideas for another book and some work-related travels. My main aim right now is to enjoy the growing season and kick back a bit more with my wife and girl – my idea of heaven is hanging out on the plot with them.
Tom reiterates that growing produce in the city has many blessings – you can focus better with a small space and the temperature is a few degrees warmer than the countryside offering a microclimate and protection against severe weather. You successfully connect with the earth and the seasons amid the rush of city life, which ultimately teaches you “how to live with a lighter touch, wasting less and enjoying more”. His quiet confidence and enthusiasm comes from a humble place and proves deeply infectious. Tom’s last encouragement asks me to put just one pot on the windowsill. I trump him with some basil, dill, oregano and mint. Straight away I’m creating all the different possibilities inside my head. In short, my life feels more enriched already.
Tom’s fantastic new book: The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City is now available from Amazon
More from Tom: ‘London Beekeeping’