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Seven top tips for sustainable living in urban gardens

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James and Dick Strawbridge. Picture: DK Images/PA
James and Dick Strawbridge. Picture: DK Images/PA

If you want to live 'The Good Life' in your urban garden – keeping chickens, growing crops, making your own compost and using rainwater and solar energy – expert James Strawbridge has some tips.

The sustainable living expert and co-author of Practical Self Sufficiency, written with his father Dick who appeared in the BBC2 show It's Not Easy Being Green, says with some easy adaptations, you can make your suburban plot much more eco-friendly.

"In urban environments, you have to combine a practical approach to growing your own food with encouraging biodiversity. If you can strike a balance where you are getting a productive but also a pretty, wildlife-friendly plot, that's a great way of approaching it," says Strawbridge.

Here, he offers seven tips towards a more sustainable lifestyle...

1. Consider the weather and the season

"Think about growing stuff indoors if you have a greenhouse, conservatory or an undercover south-facing area. This will give you the ability to be growing at any time of year. In January, I can have fresh herbs undercover that I can just go and pick.

"Growing under glass is an amazing way of being more productive, even if you just have a small cold frame. Re-use materials to further this. If you replace windows, you are instantly giving yourself a glass panel to build around.

"If you have a big sheet of plastic which has been used in the delivery of furniture or another product, you can use it over a wooden frame to create a cloche or a cold frame that will last a year or two."

Use the flowers of nasturtiums in salads. Picture: Peter Anderson/DK Images/PA
Use the flowers of nasturtiums in salads. Picture: Peter Anderson/DK Images/PA

2. Forage in the area

Look out for hedgerow berries along canal banks, footpaths and in parks, Strawbridge suggests.

Nettles, which can be cooked (cooking destroys the sting) or made into tea, are common on wasteland, or track down burdock, a tall thistle-like plant with round, purple flowers. The root can be peeled, cut and added to stews, or fried in oil to serve like chips. Edible flowers such as nasturtiums are also great in salads.

Make better use of your vegetable peelings. Picture: iStock/PA
Make better use of your vegetable peelings. Picture: iStock/PA

3. Eat your peel

"Question what you are going to put in the compost bin before you do it," he advises. "Consider if your peelings are good enough to cook and eat. Take the peelings of root vegetables, such as parsnips, drizzle them with oil, roast them in the oven, season with sea salt and suddenly you have a waste snack. Broccoli stalks are fantastic if you chop them up and pickle them.

"In urban gardens, most of your waste is going to be from food. Start looking at that more ambitious zero-waste approach. If you start being more creative with skins, peelings, stems and roots before they are relegated to the compost bin, you can bring a fresh angle to cookery."

Chickens can be kept in relatively small gardens. Picture: iStock/PA
Chickens can be kept in relatively small gardens. Picture: iStock/PA

4. Keep chickens

Urban gardeners can keep chickens, Strawbridge insists, for a constant supply of fresh eggs.

"Give them as much space as you can dedicate, so they can have a nice little dust bath, a bit of cover from rain. If you compare with caged bird environments, you can give them a much better home than that. You can buy off-the-shelf coops.

"They are the perfect animals for young couples who want to learn more about living off the land in an urban environment. You give them good feed and water, clean them out regularly, and then you have chickens who have character and are quite sweet animals.

"I would highly recommend fox-proofing your garden, which you can do with a run or simply locking the chickens in a coop at night."

5. Create a wormery

Composting prevents waste going to landfill and produces a great soil improver for raised beds and containers. In a small garden, the most compact option is a wormery, which will produce great compost.

"Wormeries are like turbo-charged composting," says Strawbridge. Buy them in stackable units that come with a tub of worms. As you fill each unit with waste, you simply add another on top.

The worms also produce a liquid nutrient that filters down through the wormery, known as worm tea, which is high in nitrogen and phosphates, a rocket fuel for growing plants, he enthuses. If you can fit a larger compost bin into your garden, contact your local authority, which may supply you with one free of charge.

Growing under a cold frame and up a wall can give you an added advantage. Picture: DK Images/PA
Growing under a cold frame and up a wall can give you an added advantage. Picture: DK Images/PA

6. Grow vertically

Think about your footprint in terms of not just the space you have on the patio or in your back garden, but any walls suitable for wall-mounted growing, window boxes and interplanting on a small patch of land, Strawbridge advises.

"For example, you could have squashes and pumpkins at the base, sweetcorn growing up in the middle and beans climbing the sweetcorn as a trellis. You are creating a cityscape of different crops in one small area."

7. Use solar energy to pump water

You can buy solar powered water pump kits to provide the energy needed to pump water from a water butt, and even heat your greenhouse with small solar PV panels. Solar dryers can also use the sun's energy to preserve foods, such as tomatoes and apple slices, by drying out all the moisture.

  • Practical Self-Sufficiency by Dick and James Strawbridge is published by DK, priced £25. Available now.

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