Green gardening is a very rewarding activity. It allows gardeners to work with nature rather than against it and can be enjoyed by anyone & everyone. Those lucky enough to have a large garden can really develop their green gardening skills with big compost heaps, crop rotation, water butts & ‘grey water’ irrigation systems. Fortunately, green gardening is also possible for those with small gardens or even no garden. A patio or balcony can easily be turned into a fruit or salad bowl. The answer is to grow green using containers.
The good news is that there are many types of fruit and vegetables which can be grown successfully in containers. These range from salad leaves to miniature fruit trees. Using containers you can even ‘choose’ your soil type by buying compost that is suitable for the plants you wish to grow, rather than putting up with your garden’s natural range. But for beginners, or those who have less time to plan and tend their patios/balconies/window boxes etc, some plants really do take to life in a pot more than others. Here are just a few suggestions to help ensure that you get great big juicy rewards for your efforts!
Before we look at these plants in more detail, there are some basic tasks that are essential for good growth. This is because plants in pots are more reliant on you for food & moisture than those in garden beds. To get good crops you will need to:
o water your containers every day (& possibly twice a day in hot weather)
o use a natural, organic plant food to help your plants keep producing all season
This is vital for producing strong, disease resistant plants.
Watering is best done out of the heat of the day so that less is lost through evaporation & more moisture is available to the plants. Adding a layer of mulch to the surface of your compost can also help it to stay moist. Another good idea for hanging baskets & containers is to add some water retaining crystals to the soil when you plant up, this will help to hold water in the compost. For larger tubs & pots, you could cut the bottom off a small plastic bottle & bury it in the compost with the widest part uppermost & at the surface. This allows water to be directed deeper into the compost & nearer to the roots of the plants. Don’t forget, even if you don’t have room for a water butt, you can still use ‘grey’ water from your washing up bowl or bath to water your plants.
Green gardening generally relies on improving soil condition and structure to add nutrients and encourage strong growth. This is more difficult to achieve with container gardening, so additional nutrients may be required. Organic plant foods are available from a wide variety of online & other garden stores and will come with instructions on how & when to use. Some are liquids which can be watered in giving immediately accessible nutrients. Others are pellets or granules which need to be spread on the soil and release nutrients more slowly.
Now, onto the good bit – which delicious summer fruits and vegetables to choose? My top ten suggestions for a good range of versatile, mouth watering produce are:
1. TOMATOES: not just a key ingredient of salads but an integral part of so many wonderful summer dishes from gazpacho (cold tomato soup) to pizza toppings, pasta sauces & salsa. There is a huge range of tomatoes available from the large ‘beefsteak’ tomatoes which are great sliced & served with a herb vinaigrette or on top of barbequed burgers to tiny cherry tomatoes that are sweet as sugar. For our purposes, the smaller tomatoes that will grow in hanging baskets & strawberry pots, or pot grown cordon tomatoes, are likely to be most successful. Tomatoes do need a minimum temperature (10ºc) to grow well & a good deal of sun to ripen, so a sunny spot is needed for your pots or baskets. However, the trusses can be removed from the plant & ripened indoors, on a window sill, if necessary. Trusses are the long branches on which the tomatoes grow, so if you are planning to ripen your fruits in this way, take off the branches rather than the individual tomatoes for best results.
Tomatoes are definitely high on the list of plants needing frequent watering & regular additional feeding. Liquid feed can be added when watering to keep things simple, but wait until the first fruits have formed before feeding, otherwise you will encourage the plant to produce leaf growth rather than fruit. Many varieties of tomato need to have side shoots removed for the same reason. These are small shoots that appear between the main stem of the plant and an existing truss. Just cast your eye over your plants each week and take out any of these unwanted shoots manually.
The list of tomato varieties is vast and includes orange, yellow & even green striped fruits as well as the more traditional red, so if you are going for a colourful display, branch out & try something new (it’s good for surprising your dinner guests too!). Any good seed catalogue will give you all the information you need to decide whether a tomato is right for you, but varieties such as Tumbling Tom, Gardener’s Delight, Suncherry, Sungold & Sweet Millions should work well in most situations, given the right conditions.
2. SALAD LEAVES: again a huge variety of salad leaves is available these days, from mustard leaves & Mizuna to wild rocket, spinach, lambs lettuce & chard. The great thing about these leaves is that they can grow relatively quickly and you can pick them as you need them. The ultimate ‘cut & come again’ summer vegetable! To make sure you have leaves available all summer, try starting seeds off on a window sill in February or March so that you can put them out early in the season. If you sow a few seeds at a time every other week, the leaves will be ready in succession rather than all at once. Don’t worry too much about spacing them out in the pot – the leaves will happily grow quite densely as long as you are careful not to include proper lettuces which form a ‘head’ or ball.
3. STRAWBERRIES: well what can I say – can you imagine summer without strawberries? For me the smell of ripe strawberries is the essence of summer, reminiscent of hot days, sunshine, picnics & new mown grass. Wonderful! Even more wonderful is the fact that some thoughtful person has designed a container especially to allow lots of strawberries to be grown in a small space! The design of the pot means that it grows the strawberries in vertical layers so even a fairly small diameter pot may be able to take 10 -20 plants. Strawberry pots come in different sizes & materials (mine is terracotta) so they can be decorative as well as functional. But remember, the idea is to grow as many strawberries as possible – any excess makes great jam or dessert sauce (which can be frozen for later in the year). So look for pots that are double skinned to help warm up the compost & get your plants going. It is advisable to cover the pots with netting too otherwise birds & slugs will be enjoying your strawberries rather than you.
4. DWARF BEANS & PEAS: broad, French or runner beans & peas; all will do well in pots if you choose dwarf varieties. If your patio or growing area is in a windy spot you may need to stake your plants to prevent them from being damaged. A good early dwarf pea variety is Feltham First which can be sown the previous autumn, in a protected spot, where space allows.
5. HERBS: some may feel that this is a bit of a cheat, after all herbs are not what we normally think about as fruit or vegetables but they do lend themselves to container gardening and can really add an extra dimension to your home grown dinners. Chives, coriander & basil can give a salad a whole new life; tomatoes & basil are a heavenly combination; thyme and oregano make pizza toppings & pasta sauces something special and lamb with rosemary or mint cannot be beaten. Mint is so successful it needs to be planted in a small pot to stop it taking over the whole container but then it is so versatile it really is worth the risk! How many herbs complement lamb, potatoes, peas & strawberries and can be made into tea too? Mint tea, fresh from your garden is an enjoyable alternative to alcohol or juice on a hot day.
6. COURGETTES (Zucchini): you will need quite a large pot for a courgette as they can spread out quite wide. Like the tomatoes, they will need lots of water and feeding to make sure of a bumper crop and prefer a warm spot on the patio. Pick the fruits while they are still small, that way the plant is stimulated to produce more and you are more likely to get them before the slugs do. The flowers are also considered to be a delicacy and can be stuffed & fried. Worth a try if you are feeling adventurous.
7. BEAUTIFUL BERRIES: strawberries may be summer incarnate but let’s not forget the other mouth watering soft fruits. It is perfectly possible to grow gooseberries, blackcurrants, blueberries & white & redcurrants in pots too. The size of the pot can be important here – there should be enough room for the plant’s root system plus a small amount of room for expansion but more space than that will probably not achieve good results. That is good news for those with limited space or resources! It is better to re-pot soft fruit plants into a slightly larger container every year or two years (depending on size) than use an over large pot to start off with. The other main requirement is plenty of water! Juicy berries need water & sun to develop & ripen, they will also benefit from regular feeding
Anyone wanting to grow blueberries or bilberries will need to use ericaceous compost rather than the usual sort. This is because, like heathers & many conifers, bilberries & blueberries need acidic soil. They need a mulch, to stop water loss from the soil and special feed to keep their soil acidic. Organic gardeners can use pelleted chicken manure but this is alkaline and so may need to be supplemented with some form of potash (mainly non-organic!). There are very few sources of organic potash although wood ash can be effective.
8. SWEET PEPPERS: colourful & tasty, peppers are easy to grow in pots. They germinate easily in small, plastic covered pots, on your window sill, and will grow to around 30cm. At this height the growing tips need to be pinched out to encourage new branches to grow. Keep potting up as the plants grow; they will probably need a 5 litre pot once they are ready to be put outside and a stake for support. If you have a wall to grow plants against, peppers will benefit from the warmth & reflected heat as will tomatoes & aubergines. Pepper Marconi Rosso is a good variety to try.
9. AUBERGINES (Egg plant): like the sweet peppers, aubergines make very colourful & attractive patio plants. They are grown in the same way as peppers and respond equally well to warmth. For an unusual variety, try aubergine Mohican which has white rather than purple fruits & is compact, only growing to around 60cm.
10. LEEKS: lovely, fresh & tangy either served raw & finely chopped in a salad or soft & melting under a coat of béchamel sauce. Leeks are easy to grow & can be densely planted in pots for picking while still young. That way you get lots of tender baby leeks rather than the big, tougher skinned more mature specimens.
So there we have it, just a few of the huge range of fruit and vegetables suitable for container growing. Remember, if it grows in soil it can probably be grown in a pot as long as the climatic conditions are right. So why not try growing some of your favourites in containers and see what happens – you may be pleasantly surprised.