Topic of the Month: Archive

Topic of the Month: 

Growing things in Small Spaces

I find that nothing comes close to growing your own fruit and veg for flavour and sense of achievement. The tiniest space can be surprisingly productive- here are a few tips to get you started….

1.      Water: Plants grown in containers need watering very regularly - in hot weather this may need to be twice daily. Upturned bottles of water with a tiny hole pierced in the top will tide you over for a day or too, but for longer periods you may wish to consider investing in an automatic watering system. A water butt not only reduces your use of tap water but also provides your plants with the rainwater they prefer. Don’t feel that you have to stop at one water butt- rainwater is currently free!

2.      Plant food: Wormeries provide an excellent way to compost in a small space and produce a nutritious liquid feed. They need to go somewhere not too cold like a garage or next to a house wall. In the absence of “worm liquor”, you will need to feed your plants regularly with a commercial formulation. There are seaweed based feeds that fit in with an organic regime and slow release pellets that only need be remembered once. As a rule of thumb, leaf crops need more nitrogen and fruit crops (including tomatoes, cucumbers etc) need more potassium.

3.      Growing media: Please avoid the use of peat- peat bogs are vast carbon sinks which slowly absorb CO2 if left in tact. Once they are drained and cut into they begin to loose CO2 at a terrifying rate. Luckily, there is now a good range of peat free composts available, the most commonly recommended of which is the Arthur Bowers New Horizon range. Having said that, there appears to be some new products available in previously peat based product ranges that I have not seen reviewed yet. Buying grow bags rather than straight compost can be a good idea as the contents come ready enriched with plant food and the bags are smaller- good if you only need a little.

4.      Getting started: Don’t feel that buying small plants rather than seeds is cheating. Growing plants from seed often needs levels of light and warmth that is hard to provide without a heated greenhouse, and can be a lot of effort for the one or two plants you need. If you do decide to grow from seed then start larger seeds in small pots inside, moving them outside once the seedlings start to grow. Make the move outside gradual- at first only during the day, then for the odd night etc. Frost will set back most seedlings and be fatal to tomatoes, beans, basil, courgettes etc. Sow salad and root vegetable seeds directly into the place they will eventually grow.

5.      Selecting crops: It sounds stupid, but only grow things that you really want to eat! Jerusalem artichokes need no attention, are pest free, grow prolifically and are nutritious but as no one in my family will eat them, I’ve replaced them with something else.

Sun or shade: Most crops will grow in a sunny spot, but salad leaves may prefer a shadier spot. If you only have shade don’t bother to consider tomatoes.

Taste: Most crops are tastier when picked fresh, but, in my experience, those that are particularly tasty are strawberries, tomatoes, rocket (if you like it peppery!) and carrots.

Easy of growing: Cut and come again salad leaves give the quickest crop but may also run to seed quickly. Don’t worry, just plant some more! In my experience, aubergines, cucumbers and peppers produce little for all the effort you put in. Brassicas are long term crops most of which I would not recommend for containers. I wouldn’t grow sweet corn as most plants only produce one (admittedly very tasty) cob and most containers would only support one plant- all that effort for one cob! Whilst big plants like runner beans can produce a tasty crop over a long period, they will need support and very attentive watering and feeding. Small root crops like carrots, baby beetroot and small sweet turnips often do very well in a big pot and 3 seed potatoes in a big pot will provide a substantial harvest. If you want to grow fruit, strawberries are easiest with miniature fruit trees an attractive long-term project. Most herbs grow well in pots. Tomatoes do well only if you have a sunny, sheltered spot.

6.      Harvesting: Harvesting baby leaves and roots leaves room for the remaining plants to grow bigger. If you leave beans or courgettes on the plant then further cropping will be deterred, so pick them and give them away if you have no more room in your fridge! Remember to ask your watering neighbour to pick crops whilst you are away.

7.      Trouble shooting: Because you only have a few plants you should be quickly aware of any problems. If you suspect slugs or snails, check under the containers or under the rims of the containers, or take a look at night when they are active. Aphid infestations can be rubbed off with your fingers or washed off with some mild detergent bubbles. A few holes in leaves may not be fatal to the plant and don’t render the leaves inedible. However, should your crop be ruined mid-season don’t be deterred, just start again- I’ve sown salad crops and baby roots as late as October with success. Remember that the symptoms of water logging are similar to those of under-watering, so make sure you know which you are treating! 


Good luck and bon appetite!