Catch the win­ter sun

Grow­ing veg­eta­bles and herbs in con­tain­ers or go­ing ver­ti­cal are ways to use limited win­ter sun, writes Alice Spenser-higgs

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AS WIN­TER ap­proaches the chang­ing an­gle and po­si­tion of the sun can plunge pre­vi­ously sunny ar­eas into shade. As most win­ter herbs, veg­gies and flow­ers are sun lovers, mak­ing use of the sunspots be­comes one of the chal­lenges of win­ter gar­den­ing.

The first re­sort is con­tain­ers, and pro­vided they are shel­tered from cold draughts and re­ceive plenty of sun, they can be ex­tremely pro­duc­tive.

One can grow broc­coli, baby cab­bage, baby car­rots, rocket, spinach or Swiss chard, loose leaf let­tuce and Asian greens, such as mizuna, pak choi, tat­soi and red gi­ant mus­tard in con­tain­ers.

Peren­nial herbs — thyme, rose­mary, win­ter sa­vory, oregano, pars­ley, chives — can be planted with the veg­eta­bles or on their own and mixed plant­ings can be bright­ened up with ed­i­ble win­ter flow­ers such as cal­en­dula, vi­o­las and nas­tur­tiums.

If you opt for a con­tainer gar­den on a bal­cony, bear in mind the weight of con­tain­ers filled with soil, plus your weight. Ter­ra­cotta pots look great but they do get very heavy! Space is also an is­sue, so choose com­pact, up­right grow­ing veg­gies.

Con­tain­ers must have drainage holes and be wide and deep enough. Car­rots and let­tuce do well in a deep trough-like con­tainer. A large, wide con­tainer planted up with four to six Swiss chard Bright Lights or Red Gi­ant mus­tard or a mix of the two can be a very at­trac­tive fea­ture.

Pak choi, tat­soi and mizuna would prob­a­bly be best planted on their own in con­tain­ers as they can de­velop into quite sub­stan­tial plants. The same ap­plies to the Bras­si­cas, and hav­ing them in in­di­vid­ual con­tain­ers also makes it eas­ier to meet their spe­cific wa­ter and nu­tri­tion needs.

The other im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion is the grow­ing medium. Do not use gar­den soil be­cause it be­comes too com­pact and doesn’t drain well enough.

Com­mer­cial pot­ting soil doesn’t con­tain nu­tri­ents so it should be mixed with su­per­phos­phate and a slow-re­lease or­ganic fer­tiliser like Vita-Veg (6:3:4). Mix­ing in palm peat or ver­mi­culite im­proves wa­ter re­ten­tion.

Check the con­tain­ers daily. The soil should be moist and never dry out. Fo­liar feed with a liq­uid fer­tiliser at half strength once a week. This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for Bras­si­cas — which in­cludes the Asian veg­eta­bles — be­cause they are heavy feed­ers.

Cover the sur­face with a light mulch of leaves or peanut shells. This pro­tects the roots and the soil life. Reg­u­lar wa­ter­ing with a wa­ter­ing can may com­pact the soil and mulch pre­vents this. It’s a good idea to use a soft noz­zle on the wa­ter­ing can or hose.

An­other op­tion is ver­ti­cal gar­den­ing, es­pe­cially if you have sunny north fac­ing walls.

Th­ese can be as sim­ple as stack­able mod­ules, geo­tex­tile planters with deep pock­ets or the Ver­ti­Gar­den, which is an en­closed grow­ing mod­ule with built-in ir­ri­ga­tion. The sys­tem comes from the UK and has been used at both the Chelsea Flower Show and the Hamp­ton Court Flower Show.

Ver­ti­Gar­den mod­ules can be linked to­gether and the ir­ri­ga­tion joined to form a sin­gle sys­tem. Be­ing an en­closed sys­tem with vir­tu­ally no eva­po­ra­tion, wa­ter re­quire­ments are min­i­mal, be­tween five to 10 min­utes a day, de­pend­ing on the tem­per­a­ture and po­si­tion of the Ver­ti­Gar­den.

It is suit­able for shal­low-rooted herbs and salad leaves, as well as straw­ber­ries. Pan­sies, vi­o­las, petu­nias and other win­ter flow­ers work just as well, es­pe­cially if one wants to make a fea­ture of a wall.

One seedling is planted per cav­ity and for the first two or three weeks the mod­ules are kept flat un­til the plants are es­tab­lished. The mod­ules are then mounted on a sunny wall.

The brack­ets sup­port­ing the mod­ule can be screwed di­rectly into the wall but it is more ad­vis­able to mount them onto wooden blocks, es­pe­cially if the bricks are rough.

Hav­ing the brack­ets so firmly in place makes it easy to take down the mod­ules when the plants are over, re­plant and re­place. Es­sen­tially, the Ver­ti­Gar­den be­comes a per­ma­nent fix­ture.

Green abun­dance: salad greens, Asian veg­gies and herbs soak up the sun in this pa­tio gar­den.

A Ver­ti­Gar­den planted up with petu­nias turn a brick wall into a fea­ture.

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