SO JUST how much food can you grow in a space measuring six feet by three feet? Well, Vertical Veg grower Mark Ridsdill-Smith is about to find out.

The man who named his business after the joke a friend made about the fact he was forever moving upwards to plant his crops – on window ledges, tiny balconies, the top of front door porches, you name it – will reveal all to the members of Transition Tynedale (and anyone else who happens along) during a talk at Hexham’s Trinity Methodist Church next month.

After growing £900 of food in a year on the balcony of his former London flat, and another £548 worth in six months in his subsequent Newcastle terrace backyard, he says he can’t wait to find out himself.

“I’ve built two growing ladders which enable me to have three or four times the number of containers in the same space,” he said.

“It’s about making the most of a small space, at the end of the day – I get people to think of their backyards or patios as a cube rather than just flat.”

Mark’s starting point was that a lot of people in the UK didn’t have traditional gardens.

So his mission is to teach people how easy it is to grow your own food, quite literally on your doorstep. It was a track he was pretty much forced down, he says.

“I lived in London, in a flat in Kentish Town, for about 20 years and didn’t have a garden, but as a kid my family had always had an allotment, so I put my name down for one in Camden.

“I’d been on the list for five or six years, at which point I discovered it was likely to be another 20 or 30 years before I got one.

“So I thought there was no harm in trying to grow a little bit of food at home to see how I got on. That changed my life in London, and in lots of different ways in general.”

First off, he finally got to know the neighbours he had been passing like ships in the night for the previous decade-and-a-half. They suddenly had a reason to stop and say hello, and ask the odd question, while he was watering his burgeoning crops.

That, in turn, laid the foundations for the work he does today, using horticulture and gardening as the basis of community projects designed to build social cohesion, while teaching people how they can eat both cheaply and well.

One such project, in the Arthur’s Hill and Wingrove areas of Newcastle, is gradually turning suburban streets into a splash of green.

Much as in Kentish Town, neighbours now talk to each other as they potter around their pots, weeding, watering and happily harvesting.

He generally starts people off with the easy-growers – the salad and herb crops that quickly produce dividends, not least because they are otherwise expensive to buy in shops.

“In London, I had a balcony that was six feet by nine feet and some window sills, and before long, besides salad and herbs, I was also growing lots of tomatoes, courgettes, runner beans, French beans, chillies, a few aubergines, peas and the odd bag of potatoes. Oh, and blueberries and strawberries too.”

Mark and his wife, Helen, a lecturer in English, moved north five years ago when Helen got a job at Newcastle University. Mark was pretty pleased with the concrete backyard he got.

It was here he, well, started up the ladder. The knack to growing in a Tyneside backyard, he discovered, was to layer plants according to how much sun they needed.

“A lot of small, urban spaces are often shaded by other things, but you need at least three or four hours of sun a day to grow food, so the first thing I say to people is ‘check you have that’.

“If you haven’t got it on the ground, though, you might have it higher up.”

And that was where the shelved, ‘growing ladders’ came into their own.

Leafy crops, for example woodland fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, Alpine strawberries and rhubarb, need the least amount of sun, so they can go on the bottom most shelves.

Root crops, such as potatoes, carrots, peas and beans, require four or five hours of sun a day, so they go on the middle tiers.

And then the fruiting vegetables –the tomatoes, courgettes and squashes that mostly hail from South America – go at the top, because they need more than six hours a day.

“If you don’t get at least six hours of sun in your space, it’s a bit marginal whether it’s worth growing these ones at all,” he said.

“People start off optimistic, but they can rapidly become disappointed when they don’t produce much, but the reason can be as basic as sunlight.”

The hour-long talk Mark Ridsdill-Smith will be giving at the Trinity Methodist Church, Beaumont Street, on May 17 begins at 7pm, is open to all and free of charge, although donations to Transition Tynedale will be welcome.

For ‘how to’ advice and to read Mark’s blog, check out his website at