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(MCT)—Alex Mitchell does not believe in boring urban gardens, no matter how tiny. Not on a balcony. Not on a roof terrace. Not in the wee urban plot nuzzling her Greenwich home in South London.

Mitchell, author of “The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Produce in Small Spaces” (Rodale), considers each “a theater set waiting to be dressed.”

Her how-to book and its vibrant images are testament to that: Bright enamel pots, sitting on the steps of an old wooden ladder, sprout herbs and strawberries. An old dresser drawer, its front painted a soft Wedgwood blue, boasts lush yellow summer squash. Galvanized buckets, bicycle tires, teakettles and the occasional terra cotta pot get her whimsical approach.

“I spend my whole life walking around thinking — ‘Can this be a plant container?’ — while ignoring all the regular pots,” says Mitchell. “It’s sort of addictive.”

And her enthusiasm for transforming outdoor urban spaces into imaginative environments that produce edibles as well as flowers is inspiring.

“If you choose the right crops and follow a few simple growing tips, your edible balcony can flourish without making any demands,” she says. Her list of the best easy crops for balcony gardening includes radishes, lettuce, strawberries, herbs, chilies and blueberries.

Mitchell cautions urban gardeners to address location (increased sun and wind can affect plants the higher up a garden is located), safety (railings should be well-secured, platforms safely positioned, especially where children are concerned) and weight loads (soil and water are heavy). This is why she preaches, “go with for the lightest stuff” when choosing containers. (The same holds true for potting soil, with lighter varieties available.)

“As long as you can punch or drill drainage holes in the bottom, any old container will work to grow plants in,” she notes.

Mitchell’s father was a fruit farmer, but she didn’t start gardening until she was “living in a flat that had a windowsill and buses screeching by. It was a natural urge to bring some greenery into my life and I started with window boxes.

“Because you can create an environment with very few external markers for where you are — you could be in Kuala Lumpur if you like — theme your plants and furniture and painting and lighting accordingly,” says Mitchell, the former gardening columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. “Think beyond the terra cotta pot. Let your imagination run wild. Express yourself that way. You need not be stuck in the old conventions of the garden.”

Veggies Love Flowers

• Mix edibles and ornamentals, says Alex Mitchell, “in a way that they both function properly.” A few of her suggestions:
• Marigolds + tomatoes: “The marigolds help control whiteflies,” she says.
• Nasturtiums + bare-stemmed vegetables: “With black Tuscan kale, there’s nothing at the bottom, so hide the base with a froth of color.” Chard is another option.
• Peas or beans + sweet peas: Choose a climbing edible to pair with the flowers. Provide support, such as a small trellis, to help both climb.
• Cosmos + green vegetables: Cosmos give “fantastic displays of color and they’re easy to grow. Mix with chards or beans.”

©2012 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services