If you want to grow vegetables but live in an apartment or condominium where your gardening area is restricted to a balcony or a patio, you will want to get a copy of “The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022) .
I read a fair share of gardening books and, while most of them contain useful information, they are not page-turners. This one is. The writing style is personal and each word bears the stamp of someone whose expertise and credibility are never in doubt. In truth, there is lots of material in this book that will benefit gardeners of all kinds, whether you grow in containers or in the ground, whether you have been gardening for years or only recently picked up a trowel for the first time. One caveat: The author is English, so some words may be foreign to American readers.
In a chapter entitled “The Best Herbs, Fruit and Veg for Containers,” author Mark Ridsdill Smith weighs decisions on what to plant based on the duration of harvest and the edibility of more than one part of a plant. That is, he is forever concerned with the quantity of crops he can extract from every square foot of growing space. For example, he urges us to keep in mind that “carrots, beetroots (beets) and other root veg can only be picked once (so take a lot of space and effort relative to the size of the harvest).” On the other hand, “tomatoes and chilies can be picked over several months, chard and kale over a year or more (if the outer leaves are picked), and herbs like thyme, sage, and rosemary all year round.”
“Some crops have the added benefit of several edible parts,” he continues. “Beetroot and turnips have edible leaves as well as roots; nasturtiums have edible leaves, flowers, and seeds; Radishes and coriander (cilantro) have edible leaves, flowers, seeds, and roots.”
His argument for growing herbs is difficult to refute. “Herbs are ideally suited for growing in containers and small spaces, and they have more potential to change the food you eat than anything else that is easily grown in a small space. Just a few pots can provide fresh herbs every day, bring flavor to each meal, smell wonderful, look pretty and support beneficial insects. There are also some excellent culinary herbs that are easy to grow but almost impossible to buy, including lovage, chervil, and savory.”
Furthermore, “Most herbs can also be grown from cuttings. If you have a friend or community garden nearby with a herb garden, do ask. Most gardeners enjoy sharing (my mint, oregano and society garlic plants have been distributed all over Newcastle Upon Tyne).” Rosemary, scented geraniums, sage, lemon verbena, thyme, savory and lavender are cited as herbs easily propagated from cuttings. Note that society garlic and chives are easily propagated and shared by division (cutting through their clumps) and that mint and oregano are propagated both from cuttings and by division. Once herbs that can be divided fill a pot, they should ideally be divided in the spring. With our year-round growing conditions, you could do this almost any time but would want to pay close attention to watering needs in hot weather. Mint, a rampant grower, demands repotting once a year.
As for keeping potted herbs healthy, Smith offers three tips: Feed with liquid seaweed once every week or two; pick regularly, just pinching shoot tips where leaves meet stems; repot every one to three years depending on the herb’s rate of growth. Detailed growing instructions for 22 different herbs are included. Among these is myrtle (Myrtus communis), a highly drought tolerant plant, whose leaves can be used in seasoning as a substitute for bay leaves.
Smith’s suggestions for fruits to grow in containers include apple, blackberry, blueberry, cranberry, fig, kiwi, raspberry and strawberry. In our climate, I would add a few citrus fruits to this list: kumquat, limequat, and calamondin.
When it comes to vegetables, those easiest for container growing, in Smith’s opinion, include runner and climbing beans, Chinese cabbage, baby or finger carrots, Swiss chard, courgettes (zucchini), garlic, kale, leeks, spring onions, sugar snap peas , potatoes, radishes, tomatoes, and turnips.
Crops that can make do with 2-3 hours of sun include blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, sorrel, kale, mint, parsley, cilantro, and wasabi.
When it comes to watering, employ a bottle waterer as a kind of primitive drip system. “A bottle waterer is simply a (plastic) bottle with two small holes drilled in the screwtop lid and placed upside down in the soil so that it slowly drips water. Cut the base off the bottle so that it can be refilled easily.”
Smith recommends certain ingredients that will make your soil mix more water retentive. Vermiculite, perlite, biochar (finely ground charcoal), or worm compost, constituting up to 30% of a soil mixture, can have a significant impact on watering frequency.
The easiest way to cut down on watering frequency is by selecting large pots for your container garden. The bigger the pot, the longer you can wait between one soaking and the next.
If you have had success growing vegetables in containers, you are invited to share your experience with readers of this column by sending details of your practices and techniques to the email address below.
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