Don't have a garden? Get your green fingers working on the balcony, roof or allotment

In just seven years, around 1.5 million of us have lost access to green spaces we can call our own (blame the property market). But fear not, says Emma Townshend – there are more opportunities than ever if you want to get your hands dirty…
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The Independent Online

Inside the house

There’s a certain skill to growing indoors in the deep shade. Richard Reynolds, founder of Guerilla Gardening, spruced up his high-rise flat in London’s Elephant & Castle with the cool 1970s foliage of several Rex begonias, posed on a Danish side-table. Even if you, too, live on the sombre 14th floor, arm yourself with the classic House Plant Expert by Dr Hessayon and imbibe some of that retro chic. In the meantime, why not fill a terracotta pot with a single scented geranium, so you can squeeze its leaves every time you pass.

On the windowsill

First, consult your aspect. If you face south,  go for sun-loving herbs such as basil. Probably best buy these from the garden centre, not the overgrown soft-leaved sissies they sell in the supermarket. Shady, cool and dampish?  This, an orchid might like. No direct sun, but still bright? Force hyacinths in bright glass containers, or just now, colchicums such as “Album” or “Waterlily” for huge open bowl-like flowers to fight off autumn gloom. If it’s going to be right in your eyeline, make sure you have good-looking containers.

On the balcony

Sheer drop outside your window? Is there  any outside space at all? If so, these days  there are containers for nooks and crannies. Crocus.co.uk does balcony-rail troughs for £14.99. You will need to think about trailing and bushy planting to mask the white plastic, probably, though I’ve also seen these in grey, studded with subtle grasses. They can also  just be outflanked by planting with lurid combinations of geraniums, which have the added advantage of being very agreeable  and flowering almost the entire time.

On the roof

Contrary to what you may imagine, it is possible to have a harvest without a garden, though you will require lots of water and plant food. This is not an option for those with a shady balcony, but a towel-sized bit of rooftop creosote should do it. Opt for fruit trees on dwarfing rootstocks, and choose lightweight plastic pots that can be sanded and painted to your choice of colour. Automatic watering simplifies the growing (try Hozelock’s basic 10-pot kit, £43.80, from amazon.co.uk).  Then sit back and await the bees.

In the community

Over the past few years, increasingly passionate community organisations have turned their mind to making the most of urban open spaces. In my area, there’s a community orchard, volunteers helping with church gardens, schemes putting the green-fingered in touch with people unable to cope with their outdoor spaces, as well as opportunities to offer help to our local botanic garden. Chelsea Fringe offers a wonderful once-a-year May invitation to view lots of these projects, and  is increasingly active outside London.

On the doorstep

New-seed potatoes planted now and  grown in a sheltered position, such as on  a balcony, should be ready for Christmas munching. These are one thing you can  safely grow in a pot on your front doorstep; almost no one will consider pinching  a green plastic sack of leaves.

In the local dog-poo patch

If your only bare earth within 100m of the door is one of those trees where everyone lets their dog do a wee, don’t worry: spring bulbs will grow here, though it may be for just a year. Fork over the surface then stick in some sturdy Tete-a-Tete daffodil bulbs: 24 tiny flowers are £4.95 plus postage from unwins.co.uk.

In a rented property

If you are renting, and would love to invest time and money in the garden, suggest a deal with the landlord – perhaps request a small rent reduction in exchange for your hard work. Unlikely as it might sound, I do know people who have managed this. If not, remember that most of what’s in a garden can come with you when you move, ranging from shrubs to bulbs. Do most of your growing in pots, and you’ll be loads more portable. And remember that one good thing about pricey artificial turf is that you can just roll it up and put it in the van.

On an allotment

You will read that allotment waiting lists are long, and they are. But often you’ll be told  four years, which ends up being two once the slackers are weeded out. It can help to ring the council allotment officer on a regular basis.  It can also help to attend the AGM even if you don’t have an allotment, and to hang about the gates, befriend keyholders, and ask to have a look round – inside info may be passed on such as, “James is going travelling and is looking  for someone to look after his patch this year.” It’s not actually yours, but it’s something.

On the drainpipe

Retailers sell special planters that fix  right on to your downpipes, improving the possibilities dramatically for those whose  only outdoor space is deeply functional.  A pretty drainpipe flower pot from crocus.co.uk is £6.99. Though you might fancy bright florals, I think that a shady basement  entryway or bin area can be better cheered  up by lovely ferns and frondy greens. Add  a few spider plants for impact, and smart white geraniums to stud the shade with  dots of brightness.

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