People of Feb: the writer, gardener and designer Alex Mitchell
We caught up with Alex Mitchell writer of the Edible Balcony, Gardening on a shoestring and The Girls Guide to Growing Your Own on her green story and getting her new garden finished…
Thanks so much for finding the time to speak to us Alex, we are big fans of the books!
Firstly how would you describe yourself?
A writer obsessed by gardening, a garden designer and mum.
How did you get into gardening and writing about it...
I grew up on a fruit farm so I think the gardening thing was an antidote to moving to a flat in London after university and being surrounded by grey. I grew orange marigolds on my windowsill and nurtured a sickly houseplant constantly under siege from cigarette butts and spilt Jacob’s Creek.
Later, when I worked at a hectic tabloid newspaper I had a tiny garden in Oval that I adored with a passion – my oasis of calm where everything slowed down. I’d water my tomatoes before work and take a little tour in the evening to check on things. I only started writing about gardening a few years later when I enrolled on a vegetable growing course that cost more than I thought – it was a good impetus to pitch a gardening column!
What inspires you when it comes to gardening?
When a garden successfully creates a mood of adventure and escape. I think gardening is essentially very playful. Trying to work out how to achieve that effect with the plants and design you choose is the challenge!
What is it about the natural world in particular that resonates with you?
I like the fact you can’t rush nature, it has its own pace. Also, it’s much bigger than you. I find that very therapeutic since I’m a classic worrier. Also, I don’t like dark winters and knowing that nature has its cycle and soon start up again is very reassuring. I have a theory that most obsessive gardeners have some level of SAD.
What does a normal day look like for you?
It’s a classic mum of young kids routine really – school drop off followed by coffee, wasting time on the internet and then bits of work and gardening before I pick them up again. If I’m designing a garden I could be in London, other days could be purely at my desk. Most days I’m in the garden at some point, either tinkering around or standing there trying to plan what to plant next. If my friend Trish comes round to help me in the garden I have no excuse but to drag myself out there. She’s 79 but has more energy than me!
What advice would you give a busy, urban balcony owner trying to make a start at growing their own plants/edibles?
Use large containers – they dry out more slowly. Grow salad, herbs and tomatoes
What would you do if you had a dreaded but loved north-facing balcony with very little sun?
Embrace the shade! Don’t fight it! Grow only things that like the conditions or you will be constantly frustrated. You can make such a gorgeous space with shade lovers – they have amazing foliage and you can create a really lush, jungle feeling.
What are the key/go to products you couldn't live without on your balcony (now garden)
Good secateurs and a handheld razor hoe. They get into little corners and are all you need to weed and cultivate small areas of soil. You can even use them for planting too.
Can you tell us about how you are 'green' in your day-to-day life? (this could be food, plants, products etc.)
I’m an avid recycler and am forever carting packaging and bottles to the recycling centre (down in the sticks they don’t collect them, it’s a travesty!). We have five hens so all the eggs we can ever eat. Our house is heated by wood pellets – which is fantastic except when we forget to clean it out and it breaks down on a cold January night. And we have a rainwater harvesting system so the garden tap, loos and washing machine are rainwater.
Do you have a favourite garden/green space, could you tell us a little bit about it?
Le Jardin Agapanthe in Normandy is a magical place. One very talented man who has created the most extraordinary mood of escapism with an artful palette of plants and white paths that make you feel like you’re walking on the moon create it.
Everywhere you walk, there are hidden arbours, tableaus of garden art and furniture and buildings that look like they’ve just been uncovered from the vegetation. The whole place is an art installation really. It’s not particularly famous and I have no idea why. Go if you can.
Amazing, I've put it on my list! What does the future look like for you, what would you like to be doing in the coming years?
To finally get my garden finished (if a garden can ever be finished!). It’s a work in progress – a former concrete farmyard with aspirations to be a Beth Chatto-inspired gravel garden. It’s in Kent, but I keep buying Chilean plants because I’m so nostalgic about my grandparents’ garden in a coastal village in Chile where we would go as children. When my cousins came last year they took one look at it and said, ‘It’s like Cachagua’, which wasn’t what I was consciously trying to recreate at all. But gardening is a funny thing, its very subconscious and tied up with memory.
I’d like to write more books and articles, too, keep teaching my online course and I’m toying with the idea of starting a very informal local gardening club here where we basically sit round and drink coffee. I find all the social media stuff incredibly addictive but it can also keep us all at arm’s reach of each other – I like the idea of developing more local connections that are about shared enthusiasm and probably cake.
Finally-any thoughts on the current growth in 'green' culture, does it feel like a photo opportunity or something deeper?
I think living in cities is stressful and we crave a connection to nature when we don’t have it – if this is growing vegetables, going to the park, or growing air plants in an old coat hanger, that’s great. I love this renewed interest in houseplants. I remember laughing at a macramé plant holder my aunt made in the 1970s. Now they seem to be the apotheosis of cool. Things come around.
They do indeed! Macramé is popping up everywhere.
Thanks again Alex!
You can find more out about Alex, her writing, gardening and designing at http://alex-mitchell.co.uk/