Winter greens and cuttings: September tips for balcony and urban gardeners

Alice Vincent

I know it might sound ridiculous, but it was the Harvest Moon and – bear with me – a gong bath that made me do it. I was acknowledging the former in the midst of the latter (a process of lying on a yoga mat while listening to a stranger banging a gong; it’s meditative) when I realised that I’d not sown much this year to reap. 

I’ve been writing a book, which has rather taken me away from tending the balcony. And between that and a summer of festivals and weddings, it has been left to look after itself. But no more: I came out of the gong bath and decided it was time to start gardening again. 

Being surrounded by trees, the balcony suffers from arguably lower light levels in the summer than at the rest of the year. I manage a few edibles out there – this summer has offered up nasturtiums, a second sowing of which in August should see cropping until November; redwood sorrel (a delicious herb enjoyed more widely in Scandinavia, which flowers prettily) and parsley – but the focus is more on creating a foliage-rich escape from the city. 

Still, as I learned from Sarah Raven while visiting her gardens at Perch Hill last week, salad crops can be raised in guttering – which means their shallow root systems can thrive in the plastic troughs that I’ve been storing in the bike shed. Dusted down and filled with peat-free soil (I’m using Sylvagrow currently, which is a sustainable mix of bark, green matter and wood fibre, and will need additional feeding after three weeks, but I like New Horizons, too), I sowed winter spinach in the larger and rocket in the smaller. Both are sitting on the balcony table, and I’m curious to see how they’ll germinate in this last blast of late-summer heat. 

Not fancying my chances much, I also placed an order with Organic Plants, otherwise known as Delfland Nurseries, who will deliver a modest tranche of winter salad plugs in a few weeks’ time. They organise their stock and deliveries by month, making them a great option for hesitant and beginner gardeners. I opted for the small winter salad collection, which includes Winter Purslane (delicious, hardy, impossible to find in supermarkets); Lamb’s Lettuce, Land Cress and Rocket. There’s a couple of lettuces in there, too (Winter Density and Arctic King) which may struggle with the balcony’s container confines. 

Winter green seeds in troughs line up on the balcony Credit: Alice Vincent

After a variously hot and soggy summer, it’s been interesting to see what’s survived my neglect out there. There was a spate of pigeon nesting in August, which saw the annihilation of several plants that should have filled out dingy corners for months yet. Alas, they were sat on, and now I have bare patches. 

Thanks, then, to happily propagating plants. I’ve been very impressed with Swedish Ivy (Plectranthus ciliatus 'Nico'), which I planted in a trough in one of the balcony’s tougher spots (on the floor, behind a ledge, with very little light) about a year ago and it has thrived ever since – to such an extent, in fact, that in attempting to coerce it out of the way I managed to snap off a great branch. No matter: it happily made half a dozen swift-rooting cuttings and is now scattered around the place. I’m yet to encourage it to flower but the tough green-and-purple foliage is elegant by itself and, so far, beguiling slug-proof. 

Credit: Alice Vincent

Elsewhere, I’ve been filling gaps with rooted cuttings of a couple of different types of Persicaria, one runcinata ‘Purple Fantasy’ and the other microcephala ‘Red Dragon’, both generous offerings from The Telegraph’s allotment columnist Jack Wallington. They sit as happily alongside the geometric, purple foliage of oxalis triangularis as they do the arching green of the Boston ferns, adding pops of colour, height and interest in bald corners. 

Over the next few weeks the leaves from the oaks just beyond the balcony will start to smother everything – a near-endless clean-up job that I have, in the past, attempted to mulch, but space rather challenges that. Until then, I’ll be pouring over bulb catalogues, which will be going in before we know it.

For more urban gardening follow Alice on Instagram.com/noughticulture.