No more growing pains: Emma Townshend finds a tiny garden full of fruit, veg and herbs and discovers the simple secret of its success

Sunday 13 September 2009 00:00
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Alex Mitchell is chopping up tomatoes from her garden, then ladling them on to pieces of toasted ciabatta that she's already rubbed with home-grown garlic. The mixture has the bright orange of cherry tomato "Sun Gold" and the deep red of "Gardener's Delight", and is topped with bright-green freshly picked basil. The result is the best bruschetta I've ever tasted; on a bright sunny day in Greenwich, it's an impressive lunch haul from an urban vegetable patch.

"You can't do better than Sun Gold," she says proudly, picking more straight from the plant. Mitchell's veg all comes from her tiny back garden, which, despite its size, has an amazing amount squished into it. Salvaged French oak edges the raised beds, providing substantial seating, too, while cosmos, courgettes, squashes and hollyhocks happily grow jumbled together, the very picture of cottage productivity.

Growing up the white-painted walls are baby pumpkins, cordon tomatoes, and runner beans; over a pergola the "Brandt" grape vine hangs down bunches of fruit, all ripening slowly in today's warm sunshine. It's elegant, tidy, productive – and best of all, the fruit and veg taste really good.

It also looks really good, a principle that extends to Mitchell's first book, A Girl's Guide to Growing Your Own. As a working journalist trying to grow a few tasty things in her first window box, she found the amount of technical information in many veg-growing guides to be overwhelming. "I garden roughly," she says. "I don't measure anything, I just want to know roughly how to do it, so I can get started."

Her book is packed with information, but it's written in such a charming way that you hardly notice. It makes a few quick digs at gardeners who'll convince you that you need hundreds of pounds' worth of kit, and a shed to keep it all in, before you can get going. Mitchell's philosophy is the exact opposite – just get started. "I want growing your own to seem fun, not really hard!"

The book's "Cheat's Tips", scattered throughout the text, pass on useful basics: how to pick tomatoes without snapping their stems, or what gardeners mean by "horticultural fleece", for example. And, though she wears her experience lightly, Mitchell knows exactly what she's doing – as her perfect bruschetta testifies. Along with the sweet and very girly illustrations, the whole package would be the perfect introduction for anyone having their first try at growing their own produce.

'A Girl's Guide to Growing Your Own' is published on 1 October (New Holland, £12.99)

Turn over a new leaf: Grow a salad at home

"Winter salads are great," says Mitchell, "as they make you feel less guilty about eating all those mince pies. You need to get going fairly quickly, while there's still some warmth in the soil. Choose hardy varieties, which means rocket, mustard leaves, lamb's lettuce and Mizuna. I love Seeds of Italy's French Corn Salad, a lamb's tongue with a particularly gentle flavour (£1.69 for 2,000 seeds, www.seedsofitaly.com). Or go for a mix, such as Jekka's Red Salad Herb mix for a deliciously tangy blend" (£1.50 a packet, www.jekkasherbfarm.co.uk)

Cheat's tip

If you don't fancy messing around with seed, you can buy small plants ready to go in the garden. Sarah Raven's winter-salad seedlings collection comprises 30 small plants (£29.95, www.sarahraven.com)

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