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Q&A with Mark Ridsdill-Smith, author of Vertical Veg

Posted by Lucy H on 14th Mar 2022

Q&A with Mark Ridsdill-Smith, author of Vertical Veg

Vertical Veg cover photoThis is a very timely book. What made you decide to write it? Did it evolve naturally from your hugely popular website?

When I started growing I found it hard to find information that addressed the specific challenges (and benefits!) of growing food in a small space in the middle of the city. I wrote this book to try to fill the gap. I’ve been planning it for several years – but wanted to wait until I felt I had enough knowledge and information to write the book I wanted.

Who do you think is your typical reader, if such a person exists? Who would you love to read your book?

I hope it will be of interest to anyone who yearns to grow food but doesn’t have a garden to grow in. My readers are motivated by a variety of different things – some love good food, some want to grow to support nature, some are keen to cut food miles and waste, others to save money. But they are united by the simple joy of being able to grow plants and beauty in the middle of the city.

Pollution and environmental issues are at the front of people’s minds nowadays. What do you think we could do to improve air quality, and increase greenery, especially in urban areas?

Growing plants in pots is great way to bring greenery to concrete spaces – it can really transform whole streets. On another note, one of the joys of lockdown was less cars on the road – I’d love it if more of us started to walk and cycle so that we could live with less traffic noise and pollution.

There was a spate of “lockdown learnings” – chalked information about urban plants and trees on pavements in towns and cities. Do you think people know enough about plants, and how do you think we could learn more?

Knowledge about growing plants varies hugely. Some people are lucky enough to have been bought up in a family with an allotment or at a school with a veg garden. But there are huge numbers of people, particularly in urban areas, who’ve never had the chance to sow seeds or learn anything about growing. In my experience, most people are excited to give it a go if they get the chance.

People are starting to realise how critical bees and other insects are to our own survival. Do you recommend any particular planting strategies for us to help them more?

Mix in some flowers! There are lots of edible flowers that bees also love including chives, pot marigold, borage and roses. Important pollinating insects like hoverflies prefer umbelliferous (flat) flowers like those on dill, fennel and coriander. Try to grow something for them, too. Oh, yes, and learn to love wasps – they do lots of pollinating and hunt down lots of bugs in your garden!

The COVID-19 situation has affected us all in different ways. How did you cope during the lockdowns?

Homeschooling was the biggest challenge J. But the community that sprang up locally on the Vertical Veg North East Facebook page, sharing plants and pots, was lovely to see – people were giving away plants nearly every day.

Assuming we are able to hold them this summer, who would be on your fantasy garden party list and why? What would you feed them?

Yottam Ottolenghi. I love his recipes and he would be a wonderful advocate for growing in the city – not least because many of his favourite ingredients, like sorrel, are easy to grow in containers. I’d feel pretty intimidated by the idea of feeding him, but I’d try to find something unusual in my garden he might not have tried, perhaps some Scot’s lovage flowers.

Who taught you to grow things? Do you prefer growing, or eating, your plants? What’s your favourite thing to grow? And why?

I mostly taught myself, but I did also attend a great course with Organic Lea in London.

I enjoy both growing and eating equally, they are part of the same thing for me. I have so many things I love to grow it’s almost impossible to choose one. But if I had to, it might be chillies. Homegrown have so much more flavour than shop bought, if you choose a good variety (my favourite is Alberto Locoto at the moment). And they freeze and dry so well it’s possible to eat homegrown all year round. We eat chillies with nearly every meal, except breakfast – so we make good use of our chilli harvest!

Do you enjoy gardening TV shows, and would you ever want to take part in one?

I rarely watch gardening shows. Partly because most gardening shows are hard to relate to for those of us who grow on a small patch of concrete. And partly because, as much as I love gardening, in the evenings I prefer to do something else, like see friends, listen to music or watch independent films.

Where would you most like to go, and which gardens would you like to visit?

I’ve always been intrigued by Japan, but at the moment I’d most like to go to America and visit urban gardens there to exchange learning and experience.

Is there a style of gardening you have always wanted to try (other than vertical!)?

I’d like to learn how to train fruit trees in different ways.

Have you found a difference in climate or growing capabilities since moving out of London?

Yes! London feels almost tropical when I return, things are certainly easier to grow there. The season is shorter here, in Newcastle. But we do benefit from longer days in summer – so if you can get plants established by early June they can benefit from all the extra light.

Access to outdoor space is so important for people’s mental health, and lockdown brought that home to so many of us. What do you think about guerrilla gardening and community projects? Have you ever been involved in anything like that?

I’m a big fan of all forms of urban gardening. I haven’t done much guerrilla gardening but I’ve been involved in several community projects. In London I helped out at a container garden on a supermarket roof top. And here, in Newcastle, I regularly run container growing workshops on the streets so that anyone can join in.

If you were teaching children to grow things, what would you start with?

Pea shoots (quick), potatoes (fun to harvest), mint (easy to grow and good for drinks and potions) and sorrel (they love it!).

What would your perfect day look like?

Walking in the mountains and sleeping in a tent.

What are you reading at the moment?

39 Ways to Save the Planet by Tom Heap. It’s an inspiring read and I love how, alongside the technical ideas, the book includes solutions like indigenous wisdom and educating more girls. We need more broad thinking like that.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Nothing stands out – but I’m hugely enjoying the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness that I stole recently from my son!

Thank you very much for speaking to us, we wish you every success with the book.

Order your copy of Vertical Veg HERE