Ur­ban roots…

Those with min­i­mal out­door space can still en­joy home- grown crops, says Hannah Stephen­son

The Scotsman - - TRAVEL & OUTDOORS - Pub­lished priced

It’s all very well when gar­den­ers boast about the rich har­vests and gluts of fruit and veg they have picked from their al­lot­ment, spa­cious raised beds, or vo­lu­mi­nous veg­etable plots at home. But what if you’re an ur­ban­ite with just a win­dowsill or ledge for grow­ing space, or if all you have to work with is a tiny bal­cony or yard?

This prob­lem is tack­led by garden ex­pert and writer Alex Mitchell, whose new book – Crops In Tight Spots – of­fers tips on how you can get de­li­cious re­sults in even the small­est space.

Choose your con­tain­ers care­fully

“You want con­tain­ers which can re­tain as much water as pos­si­ble. You can get win­dow boxes with in­te­gral reser­voirs with a sec­tion at the bot­tom where water will stay,” she ad­vises.

Add water- re­tain­ing gran­ules to the com­post, as well as sea­weed meal or worm com­post to bulk up and re­tain mois­ture.

“You can have win­dow boxes made, and it may be worth­while if you plan to stay in your prop­erty for some time to have a win­dow box made to fit the ex­act di­men­sions of your sill or ledge,” Mitchell adds.

“That way, you will fit the most in, your plants will be hap­pier, you won’t have to water them so of­ten, and they will look much bet­ter be­cause they will fit the space very well.”

Con­sider plac­ing a tray un­der your win­dow box to re­tain ex­cess water.

Use re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als

“You can use metal, lin­ing tins and cans with old bits of poly­styrene pack­ag­ing to in­su­late them from the heat. I use cater­ing- sized tins, drilling holes in the bot­tom, which are quite easy to get hold of and pro­vide the space to al­low plants to grow,” she says.

Grow herbs and spices

Chillis, herbs, nas­tur­tiums and chives will all grow well in large tins. Com­pact toma­toes such as ‘ Ponchi Re’ and ‘ Ponchi Fa’ are ideal for win­dow boxes too. Make sure the va­ri­ety is ei­ther a bush or tum­bling.

Thyme will with­stand a smaller pot – you could put a row of those along a sill.

Sam­phire is an­other in­gre­di­ent which will grow well in a sunny spot in a con­fined space.

“I grew sam­phire, which was very easy,” Mitchell ad­vises. It grows in coastal salt marshes so it’s used to a lot of ex­po­sure – a windy, sunny site is per­fect for it. Water it with a lit­tle sea salt added to the water, to make it feel at home.

“It’s like a lit­tle suc­cu­lent, which looks lovely. And it doesn’t need too much water. You can eat it raw or steam it.”

Use shal­low- rooted plants in win­dow boxes

Opt for herbs and baby salad leaves in a shal­low win­dow box, and be aware that the shal­lower it is, the quicker it will dry out.

Mediter­ranean herbs like thyme or oregano are ideal, but not pars­ley, which has a tap root.

Ed­i­ble shal­low- rooted flow­ers like vi­o­las are also good mixed in, and chives can cope with drought con­di­tions. Spring onions will do well with­out much water.

A dis­play might in­clude chives, lit­tle chill­ies like ‘ Stumpy’ and ‘ Apache’, with thyme un­der­neath and vi­o­las. Also try per­pet­ual spinach which won’t bolt. Take chill­ies in­side when the weather cools down and they should con­tinue to flour­ish.

Avoid plants which bolt ( run to seed)

“I grew rocket one year and it looked aw­ful in about a minute,” Mitchell re­calls. “If you are grow­ing baby salad leaves, pick them reg­u­larly and sow new seeds ev­ery cou­ple of weeks for a suc­ces­sion of leaves. Keep that con­veyor belt go­ing so that you never have ex­cess space.”

Radishes are also quick- grow­ing, so you can be pick­ing them for your sal­ads and sow­ing more reg­u­larly. But put a tray un­der­neath the pot Clock­wise from main: straw­ber­ries, radishes, herbs and salad leaves are all good choices for small con­tain­ers or win­dow­boxes Crops In Tight Spots by Alex Mitchell is

by Kyle Books,

£ 18.99. to stop them from dry­ing out and har­vest them while they’re young, be­fore they go woody.

Also avoid any­thing that’s go­ing to grow too big ( eg cour­gettes) or needs too much depth ( such as pota­toes).

What if your space is in shade?

“Sor­rel is OK in shade, as long as you eat the leaves when they are quite young.

Mint is also good in shade but give it its own win­dow box or it will in­vade other plants, or place it in its own pot [ within the win­dow box] where it can re­main con­fined.

“Pars­ley and co­rian­der will also be OK in shade – in fact, any­thing that pro­duces a leaf rather than a flower will grow in shade, just not as quickly.”

Which com­post should you use?

If you’re grow­ing herbs in a small con­tainer, Mitchell rec­om­mends John Innes No2, mixed with a third of grit – thyme, oregano and rose­mary pre­fer this mix­ture. For salad leaves and toma­toes, use a mul­ti­pur­pose com­post, and make sure you feed the plants as in­structed on the packet.

“I make and use liq­uid sea­weed feed for a lot of salad plants, and use tomato feed for toma­toes in my win­dow box ev­ery cou­ple of weeks.

“If you want to go or­ganic, use net­tles, which you can steep in a bot­tle of water and then feed your plants with the liq­uid.”

Have a fruit fest

Lit­tle pots of straw­ber­ries lined up are or­na­men­tal as well as de­li­cious, but avoid try­ing to grow rasp­ber­ries in a con­fined space – it just won’t work.

Don’t let the roots dry out

Mitchell once used a nappy to line a hang­ing bas­ket, and there’s noth­ing to stop you do­ing the same in a win­dow box. Peo­ple have also cut up old woollen jumpers to line con­tain­ers. n

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