With the Covid-19 lockdown, growing your own veg is all the rage, but what if you have limited space? Leslie Bliss discovers a whole new world of container crop growing
Months of stay-safestay-home lockdown has made everyone appreciate more than ever how precious it is to have your own outdoor space. With gaps suddenly appearing on supermarket shelves, it isn’t surprising that Britain, as a nation of gardeners, has turned to growing its own veg en masse.
I am one of them, an amateur gardener and lapsed veg grower of 10 years. With garden centres shut and a long wait for online orders, it became a challenge of resourcefulness to start again from scratch. The other issue was where to put the plants. As I wanted to keep the lawn and flower borders intact, every corner of the garden and house was scoured for potential planters. A rusty old cast iron wok had a hole drilled in the bottom to grow cut-and-comeagain salad, while the lid of a broken plastic water butt was also put to use — and it had a hole in the right place. Tomato grow bags were snapped up at Tesco, a set of five large felt bags was bought on eBay and, hey presto, the patio has come alive with greenery that includes runner beans, French beans, various lettuces, curly kale, chard, chilli peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, courgettes, spinach, sprouting broccoli and butternut squash.
It’s been interesting to watch their progress and compare how they’ve fared in different containers and positions. So that begs the question, what are the best containers? After all, the options seem endless: felt, grow bags, plastic, concrete, stone, terracotta, glazed, hanging baskets, Air-Pot containers, guttering, old dustbins, animal feed troughs, wooden crates, barrels, cast iron, hessian sacks and wicker baskets, to name but a few.
THINK SIZE AND DEPTH
Tom Harris, author of the recently published Pots For All Seasons, points out that it’s not about the material: “Size and especially depth are deciding factors in choosing pots for particular veg. Some veg need deep pots with lots of room for roots and water retention, such as courgettes and tomatoes.
Leafy salad crops are better in relatively shallow but wide containers. I use a wooden drawer for a mix of cut-andcome-again leaves. Long-term plants, such as dwarf fruit, need containers that aren’t only in proportion, but also stable and won’t topple in a breeze. Ideally they need to be wider than they are high. It’s best if they are equal in width and height. Root crops need good depth and choose varieties that have rounded roots. Chilli peppers will flounder if they are planted in too big a pot.”
Tom excels at making everything look beautiful.
“I grow in containers because I love the endless possible combinations of pot and plant, and how, when you get it right, one can significantly enhance the other. The pots I use have to be attractive objects in their own right. I also only grow attractive crops — which is most of them.”
Tom lines wooden planters with plastic, which is something also recommended by some for terracotta pots (only the sides, not the base). However, collector of English antique clay pots Richard Holmes argues otherwise. “I don’t recommend lining with plastic as I found that I get ant problems. Ants find between the clay and the plastic a wonderful place to nest. Slugs seem to like it, too.”
Obviously the soil in the container is critical, and Tom Harris recommends: “Buy the best you can afford. I mostly use
SylvaGrow Sustainable Growing Medium. It’s peat-free and endorsed by the RHS.”
Feeding is another consideration, and Tom comments: “Some fast crops and herbs may not need it, but longer-term plants, such as aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers and tree fruit are greedy. Pelleted chicken manure is useful, as are seaweed products, while DIY liquid feeds
made from nettles or comfrey are ideal. I use a solution of the latter every 10-14 days.”
But the biggest daily time commitment is watering, and an expandable 45m hose has transformed my life.
Tom advises: “Most crops need an even supply of water and plenty of it. You can’t rely on rainfall, so don’t overstretch yourself with too many pots, especially small ones as they dry out far more rapidly than larger ones. You can add waterstoring gels at planting time, but they should be used sparingly or the compost may stay too wet. Grouping together pots of varying sizes can help to reduce moisture loss.
“A pot carefully positioned in front of another can help to shade the roots of the plant behind. If you build up a community of planted pots you can achieve a symbiosis. Ideally the majority of veg need shelter and not to be on a scorching hot, south-facing terrace. Sinking a length of pipe or the upturned top half of a plastic soft drink bottle alongside thirsty plants allows you to aim water down to the roots where it’s needed. If you have a large number of bigger pots, a drip-irrigation system is worth considering. They are efficient as there’s no spilled water and slower watering is much more effective than trying to race around quickly with a hose.”
Avid grower and allotment holder Alex Taylor has installed one for his greenhouse.
“The big tomato plants in high summer needed watering daily, but I can now leave them for a week. The timer was £15, I scrounged an old cold-water storage tank; and the dripirrigation system for 10 plants cost £30.”
Apart from the joy of having organic and fresh produce, growing veg has been a welcome distraction. Time consuming yes, but the benefits as regards keeping healthy mentally and physically during one of the most difficult and stressful times for generations are priceless.
Here’s to the Good Life!
ABOVE: If you are short of space, pot growing can be the way forward
RIGHT: Myriad vegetable edibles can be grown in pots