Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gardening Q&A: Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell in her London Garden. Photo: Paul Debois

British garden writer and urban gardener Alex Mitchell's new book The Edible Balcony-about small spaces and what you can grow in them-will be released by Rodale later this year in the United States. (Full disclosure: this blogger's Brooklyn terrace appears in it.) In the meantime you can get to know Alex at her website, The Edible Gardener.

1. Why do you garden?

I garden for some space from my little kids (though they usually follow me outside within minutes and start shooting each other with water pistols) from London and from work pressures. Mainly though-and it's so hard to express this without sounding pretentious so I'm not even going to try not to-it's for self-expression, to create my own little world that's beautiful to me.

2. Who or what inspired you to garden?

My nursery school was a hut at the end of a long woodland garden in the Kent countryside run by a very eccentric old lady.On the way to the hut you walked down a stepping stone path past perfect little clearings of lawn surrounded by foxgloves and honesty, like magical woodland glades. I thought fairies lived in there. We weren't allowed to step off the path and go into them-she probably wanted to protect her lawns. Maybe that's what made gardening so appealing to me-I can finally walk on the grass.

3. What was the first plant you grew?

A miniature yellow patio rose I planted in the front garden at my shared house in Bristol when I was at university. Looking back, it was quite hideous, but I loved it because it survived a street party that got rather out of hand. The morning after it looked like a dead twig trampled into the mud by the trainered feet of a few hundred students, but a week later it had recovered and was putting out green shoots. How can you not respect something that plucky?

4. How often do you garden?

Whenever I have a spare moment. But also whenever I have a work deadline and that cosmia just suddenly needs deadheading.

5. What is your gardening climate zone?

I was born in Kent which I think is equivalent to your USDA Zone 8. This is only 25 miles away from London where I live now, which is equivalent to your Zone 9, due to the urban heat island effect. Winter temperatures rarely dip below minus 5 Celsius/41' F and summer temperatures often reach 30 Celsius/ 86' F.

6. What size is your garden?

About 50 foot long and 15 foot wide

7. What plant has most disappointed you?

My cocktail kiwi planted with great excitement and expectation of bunches of grape-sized sweet kiwi fruit hardy enough to survive our winter. Apparently. For two years I've watched it put out
fresh green shoots full of promise. And for two years I've watched helplessly as they are munched right back to the base – probably by snails. Never seen a bud, let alone a kiwi.

8. What plant has made you happiest?

There's something about nasturtiums that makes me deliriously happy. They're so uncomplicatedly cheerful. And they cover awkward bare spaces and clamber up ugly fences. Of course, you can also eat them so they're a win-win plant really. Californian poppies come a close second – I must have a thing about orange.

9. What do you love about your garden right now?

Watching the bees buzzing like crazy over the lavender and the thornless blackberry, eating apricots and peaches straight from the tree with the kids, snipping off globe artichokes and throwing them straight into boiling water to be eating with plenty of mayonnaise, and rooting strawberry runners from the plants which had the tastiest fruit. I like making new plants without having to go and buy them.

10. What do you feed your garden?

Garden compost and worm compost as a soil conditioner, diluted liquid seaweed feed and worm tea for growing plants.

11. What would you like to grow, that you can't?

Pomegranates – heaven in a fruit.

12. Food, flowers, native or ornamental?
Ornamental food.

13. Most inspiring garden writer, thinker, blogger, personality?

I love reading anything by Anna Pavord and Monty Don – they make gardening sound vital, exciting, essential, like it's about more than just plants. Which, of course, it is. As a designer, I love everything Andy Sturgeon does.

14. What plants do you dislike?

I don't think there's really ever any excuse for spotted laurel.

15. Would you like more sun or more shade?

I live in London. Of course I want more sun!

16. Where is your favorite public garden?

Sissinghurst in Kent. A cliché I know, but I've never seen such glorious, jumbly, colourful planting as here last summer. A perfect mix of formality and exuberant wildness. And it's fun climbing up the tower and pretending you're Vita for a moment – tweed jacket optional.

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