If you've got little ones to entertain at home then learn alongside them. Photos / Getty Transforming even the smallest outside space has never been more important, says Alice Vincent

Having green things around the home can help to connect us with the outside world.

As a fairly needy extrovert, the notion of self-isolation is not one that thrills me. The prospect of spending up to four months in the sole company of my live-in partner is mildly concerning, and my lumbar spine is already fed up with my new "office chair" (a 50s bentwood number). But I am enormously grateful for one thing: the opportunity to gaze at my balcony garden all day.

My one-bedroom flat may prove claustrophobic over the coming weeks, but I'm fortunate to be a London-dweller with access to a balcony garden. In normal circumstances, this little plot where life grows in pots and through cracks keeps me level-headed. In such unprecedented times as these, I think it might save me from insanity.


That may sound hyperbolic, but as an urban gardener I know it to be true. Growing things — from herbs to hellebores — has helped me through some of the toughest times in my life. The perseverance of nature, to push through the soil even when it snows, was the one thing that helped me realise, several years ago, that I could keep going when I was left heartbroken and without a home. I've clung to the magic powers of gardening ever since.

I'm not alone: while tending to the borders may seem a frippery in such frantic times, people have long turned to gardening in extreme circumstances. There's a reason English soldiers made the most of the dank mess at the bottom of the trenches in World War I by growing celery. Scientific studies have shown that engaging with the ground, and the meditative effects gardening can induce, can encourage greater concentration, lower anxiety and improve our mood. It's good from a physical perspective, too: all that bending and digging can stretch muscles we might not use at other times. Even working on my tiny balcony can prove a workout when I'm carrying 60 litres of compost up three flights of stairs.

Often, the only thing that stops me from gardening as much as I'd like in March and April is a lack of time — but with every social event scrubbed from my diary in the wake of government advice, I've suddenly got plenty of it on my hands.

Having spoken to hundreds of beginner gardeners over the years, it's become clear that a lack of knowledge or inexperience can get in the way of getting outdoors. But in many ways the midst of a pandemic is the perfect time to dig in, and realise that much of the learning is in the doing. I'm an untrained gardener — and still have plenty to learn — but that hasn't stopped me from realising the benefits of greening up even a small, inner-city space. Here are a few tips to get you, the self-isolated worker, started.

First, stock up on essentialsForget loo roll, this is your number one priority now: if the nation's garden centres are in danger of being commanded by the Prime Minister to go on unofficial lockdown, that's a good enough excuse for me to head to my local nursery.

Some of the more cunning among my gardening friends are treating the prospect of horticultural self-isolation with military precision, buying essentials like they're loo rolls; I've already got about 90 litres of peat-free, organic compost clogging up the bike shed, which will easily suit my needs for the next few months. But a self-isolator with access to outdoor space will need just a few good basics.

Before you even think about what to plant, you will need some decent-sized pots, around 20-30cm at least — in which to plant seedlings, grown on your windowsills in (preferably, compostable) seed trays. Once your seeds have sprouted, you can simply plant out the complete pot.

As for potting compost, I look for peat-free and hope for the best, although the one I use has coir and wood fibre into the mix. Or douse whatever you've got with an all-purpose fertiliser.


Spruce up your outside space

Think of your outdoor plot like an unloved guest bedroom: it will look infinitely better for removing the detritus that's gathered in the corners over time and after a good sweep, too. A lick of paint can also dramatically improve things, whether it's applied to walls and fences or tatty old pots. If you're short of planters, think about improvising some.

Old baths, enamel sinks and zinc tubs can make chic plant homes, if you have the space — but so do those empty tin cans that once contained food stockpiled for the outbreak. These can be strung through with wire and hung on an empty wall or fence to good effect. Just make sure you drill holes in the bottom for drainage.

Having green things around the home can help to connect us with the outside world.
Having green things around the home can help to connect us with the outside world.

Get sowing

The supermarkets may be out of pasta, but those seed racks remain pleasingly full.

I generally advise to grow what you like to eat — no point in producing masses of rainbow chard if you don't like the stuff.

But if you're a complete beginner with well-lit, outdoor space, herbs offer satisfaction and flavour to stockpiled tins: parsley and mint are easy and plentiful.

Get the children involved

If you've got little ones to entertain at home then learn alongside them. Nasturtiums are a brilliant variety to grow with children as the seeds are big enough for small hands to handle and they germinate quickly enough to satisfy short attention spans. Other easy ornamentals to grow from seed include cornflowers (also edible), Ammi majus (a dainty annual with creamy-white branched umbels, like a cow parsley) and blue lace flowers.

Share with your neighbours

These are community-spirited times. If you end up with more seedlings than you can handle, offer them to your neighbours — they may even have some of their own to swap. Beyond the growing things, don't be afraid to see if you can borrow tools or even offer your time to those who might find getting around the garden more of a struggle.

Create an indoor jungleIt's still possible to pick up house plants and having green things around the home can help to connect us with the outside world when we're not able to see much of it.

— Rootbound, Rewilding A Life by Alice Vincent ($33).