Sorghum might be a good choice if you’re thinking of living off the land from a West End balcony. Or maybe not.

What’s a Gardener to Do?

by Peter William Gribble

“Let them eat cake”’

Queen Marie Antoinette may never have uttered the infamous phrase when the French people rose up to demand bread, but it is a classic illustration of the dangers of not looking after your food sources … or examining your methodologies.

Chinese history is riddled with dynasties and emperors falling after drought and famine when the monsoon rains failed and dried China’s breadbasket. Arab Spring occurred in part due to the North African population exploding during the previous thirty years and stretching resources.

 What’s a gardener to do?

A recent study by the Universities of Minnesota, Oxford and Copenhagen warned that yields of the world’s top ten crops – barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, and wheat – supplying a combined 83 per cent of all calories produced on global croplands - are decreasing due to climate change.

How do you squeeze even one of those top ten plants onto a West End balcony or in a tiny back yard or an allotment … unless you’re growing barley, wheat or soybean sprouts on the kitchen counter?

I tried growing Sorghum bicolor in the back yard one year and it was surprisingly easy. Sorghum is an ancient grain of several varieties that has fed the African continent for millennia. Buying one standard-sized package of seeds, the crop was always going to be small, as was my ambition to grow enough to mortar sufficient flour for a three to four square inch sized piece of flatbread.

It would be: ‘One small step for a gardener; an equally small step for global food security.’

Sorghum seeds are beautiful. They’re like small beads: hard and round in polished colours ranging from ebony to a mahogany reminiscent of the rich, warm brown of chestnuts. All the seeds were viable, sprouting up with enthusiasm. They grew quickly into bright green plants filling a three foot square sunny plot, reaching nearly four feet and developing stiff, feathery plumes. It was going to be a plump harvest, more than enough for a pyrrhic piece of flatbread and provide leftover seed for next year’s planting.

As the seed heads matured, my search for African sorghum flatbread recipes was disheartening. In one book specifically on African cooking, there was no mention of sorghum at all. Then I found one in the delightful book Flatbreads & Flavors, A Baker’s Atlas by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid, but they informed me sorghum was frequently dismissed as poor peoples’ food or grown as animal feed. Their single recipe came from Yemen, but cut the amount of sorghum flour in half with wheat flour, which didn’t seem right since I hoped to be a purist.

 In the end it didn’t matter. Before I got a chance to harvest, I discovered one morning the entire sorghum stand was flattened and the plume heads picked clean. Birds had eaten every seed … proving, I guess, it was animal feed after all. 

Ah, well, gardening is sometimes part experiment. If Nature benefited then it wasn’t a complete loss. If I was part of Big Agro I’d be less sanguine.

 What’s a gardener to do?

I keep learning. The beginnings of my gardening education started when I was a young boy and my parents helped me grow several avocado pits, pineapple tops, apple, orange and lemon trees from seed. One November, helping my mother make Christmas cake, we discovered a date seed in the pitted dates. Under my patient care, it sprouted and in the spring, I planted it outside where it grew 5 inches in a month after which it disappeared when my father inadvertently weeded it. 

A valuable gardening maxim was learnt that year: Label your plants. Clearly.

 I used to envy friends who grew up on farms. Few regretted the experience but all left (most say, ‘escaped’) to garden on their own in smaller spaces. One couple I know maintained their farming heritage by cultivating every square inch of their back yard and preserving all they could every year. By August, it is a jungle with bean, cucumber, zucchini and tomato plants towering over you. Mason jars filled with preserves proliferate in the basement, but every year there’s something. This year their cucumbers aren’t doing so well and put it down to the cool summer we’ve had so far.

Few of us have the space or the time for this dedication. Some have it drummed out of them at an early age. A friend who grew up on a fruit farm (ten acres of grapes and pear trees) along with chickens, pigs and a kitchen garden, warns people who dream of a back yard allotment or – ‘God help them!’ – a hobby farm, that there are no holidays, and chores are daily and arduous. She escaped when she was eighteen and her parents sold the farm a year later. ’You can’t begin to make it pay for itself unless you have 50 acres,’ she said. ‘If you only want to feed yourself, that’s different. You’ll be poor but you’ll be fed.’ She lives happily farm-free with her second floor, west facing balcony content with three pots of yearly bought red geraniums.

Food is harvested from nearby stores on a weekly basis. 

A retired couple I know has impressive harvests from winter vegetables to spring lettuces to a stunning bounty throughout the summer and into the fall. The amount of their surplus and delicious homemade preserves are staggering. Yet neither wife nor husband was farm-raised but entirely self-taught. They read, experimented and observed. The wife worked part-time at a garden centre, learning a lot from her colleagues. Her jam and jelly recipes are gathered from Certa boxes and her pickle and preserve recipes from the internet. Recipes are tweaked each year based on friends’ reports. Husband and wife too remark how every year is different and maintain a gardening journal to keep tabs on the variations. This year the oregano and lavender bloomed in July as they usually do, but the mints had yet to show flower buds.

 So what’s a balcony gardener to do?

And mint might not be much better, except to accent a couple of mint juleps.

On the subject of mint, when I gardened on a balcony I could only grow enough mint to make three or four mint juleps each summer. Haro and Thurlow didn’t have enough sun to grow basil and my fridge freezer was a twentieth the size of my balcony. How could I preserve Nature’s bounty, much less grow it?

The farmer’s market on Robson (alas now gone) had a two week window in July when they carried big bunches of locally grown, lush, leafy, Genovese basil. Each July I bought twelve bunches and spent the afternoon making a year’s supply of basil pesto (substituting macadamia nuts for pine nuts) and froze each batch in 500 gm yogurt containers. My little freezer was crammed. Out of the way, ice cream! This was more important! It was a year’s supply on the proviso that only one container was defrosted each month – a generous portion for a big bowl of pasta with pesto for two. Somehow, winter months seemed to bring out the warm, summer flavour.

So what if somebody else grew it? Somebody else harvested it? I brought it home and preserved it.

It’s these small ‘Power of One’ moments that makes life worth while.