The numbers of people having a go at producing some of there own fresh produce is on the increase every year. Home vegetable growing has become fashionable with many people with gardens or those lucky enough to have an allotment giving it a try. The latest revolution is the small space urban gardener who takes advantage of every square inch of space in their back yard or apartment balcony to produce some of their own fresh food.
The champion of the U.K. urban growers has to be Mark Ridsdill Smith of the excellent blog Vertical Veg. Mark set himself a challenge back in 2010 to see could he grow as much produce on his balcony and window sills as a London allotment. According to the National Society of Leisure and Allotment Gardeners a 330 square yard allotment produces £1,564 (€1,837) worth of crops a year. As Mark figured the average London allotment is half that size he set his target at half that figure at £782 (€918). After his 12 month trial he estimated he’d grown almost £900.00 (€1,057) worth of produce. Not bad for the first year!
Anyway, I had a very interesting conversation with Mark about his specialised subject where he gave me an insight into some of the the issues a back yard grower might face. We’ve been encouraged to set up a dedicated small space department on the Quickcrop website with all the relevant products as well as free rescources for the budding city gardener. It’s a while since I lived in the city myself but can remember growing chillies, tomatoes and salads on a tiny balcony, it’s a great way to feel connected to the earth when all around is brick and concrete.
I dabbled in city growing where Mark became an expert so with a little help from him and plenty of waffle from me – here we go:
If you want to build a full blown vegetable garden or just start with some small pots of salad or herbs, what’s the best way to get started? Here’s some tips to get you going.
What do you want to grow?
Start small. You’re probably thinking, hey, I’ve only got a balcony, I have to start small! Fair enough, but what I mean is plants take a little bit of looking after so you’re much better off having a big success with a small number of pots or planters than a disaster when you’ve tried to do too much. I always advise beginners to start with herbs and salad as they’re fun and easy to grow. You can include other small container plants like Spring Onions, Radishes or Baby Beets in your salad list so don’t think you’ll only be growing leaves.
Once you find your feet and see how much time you can give your new garden you can move on to a more varied choice. Hanging baskets of delicious home grown tomatoes simply can’t be compared to their bland shop bought cousins but will require a bit more care to get right.
Ideally you want crops which take up little space, can be picked over a long season and produce a large amount of crop. For Summer growing I’d go for tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, peppers (chili and sweet), dwarf peas and french beans. Of course you can also grow your staples like carrots, beetroot, spinach, chard, garlic and onions. I’m not sure it’s worthwhile growing large crops like cabbage and cauliflower because they take up so much room (a cabbage needs a metre square just for one head) and only give you one harvest. Conversely plants like perpetual spinach will give you leaves all through the season from one or two plants so are an excellent choice.
Asses your space
You need to know how much sunlight your garden gets as this will effect the crops you’ll be able to grow. Fruit and vegetables need light to grow, ideally at least six hours a day but some plants will need more light than others. There’s no point in trying to grow tomatoes in a shaded back yard but it may still be perfectly good for herbs and salads. Mark has a really handy little table on his Vertical Veg ‘The Art of Growing in Small Places’ fact sheet:
N.B. you can download Mark’s fact sheet FREE by joining his mailing list on the homepage of the Vertical Veg blog, just fill in the ‘subscribe’ box on the right hand side.
What are you going to grow in?
Vegetables can be grown in a variety of containers with some plants needing more room than others. Your range will be from about 15 cm deep for lettuce etc… up to about 45 cm for Squash, Courgettes or fruit bushes. Remember the biggest issue you’ll have with container growing is keeping everything watered and the bigger the pot the choose the less often you’ll need to water.
There are a number of planters on the market which contain a water reservoir in the bottom or sit in a reservoir tray. As I’ve already mentioned watering will be one of the jobs you’ll be doing a lot of with a planter garden so it’s a good idea to make it easy on yourselves. Plants which are allowed to dry out will suffer stress and may bolt (go to seed) in the case of many salads or become woody and tough in the case of roots like turnip, beets or carrots. What you’re trying to achieve is nice steady, even growth which means you want to keep your watering constant and even also.
Reservoir planters are of differing design but all work in more or less the same way. The base of the planter will either contain a reservoir of water or sit in one and is replenished every couple of days depending on the demands of the plant. You can also mix a liquid feed in with the water (we love liquid seaweed products) to keep your nutrient levels high enough for heavy feeders like tomatoes or courgettes.
While reservoir planters are more expensive than normal planters they’re well worth it for some of the crops that need a little extra care.
Of course you can grow vegetables in almost anything, you’re just looking for something to hold soil in so there’s no need to spend a lot of money on your planters. Make sure you avoid containers which have held toxic substances like paint or motor oil but other than that you can let your imagination run wild. For an old world natural look fruit crates and old galvanised buckets look pretty but if you’re not worried about the look there are plenty of plastic and metal options like fish boxes, cooking oil drums and food tins.
Make sure you pierce drainage holes in the bottom of your tins as if the soil becomes waterlogged plants can ‘suffocate’ as there will be no air spaces in the soil for them to breath. We’d recommend placing a layer of gravel or broken earthenware in the bottom of the pot to improve drainage.
Choose you soil or compost
The most important part of growing anything is the soil or compost it grows in, after all this is where the plant gets it’s food so you need to get the best growing medium you can.
Soil will be more difficult to get and if you want to grow on a roof garden you have to take into account that it’s much heavier than compost. It can also be trickier to get right for the beginner so I’d recommend using a compost mix to begin with. I’ll be going into soil mixes in more detail in a later article.
With regard to compost, we don’t like using peat as it is a finite resource and prefer to use a peat free alternative. Mark points out that New Horizon and Vital Earth came top in a recent Which? survey so are a good place to start.
Remember that the nutrients in compost will only sustain the plant for 5-6 weeks so you’ll need to look at feeding after that. There are many alternatives to chemical fertilizers and we’d suggest going for the natural products over the chemical ones. Interestingly home gardeners are a much bigger culprit than farmers in chemical run-off in our rivers and ground water as home growers tend to apply much more fertilizer than is needed. Farmers of course have huge fertilizer bills for the large amounts they use so it’s in their interest to be as accurate as possible.
We like to use seaweed liquid feeds and seaweed/free range poultry manure pellets as an off the shelf solution but you can also make your own feeds using a wormery, compost heap or plants like nettle and comfrey.
Looking after your garden
Watering is the big one with keeping an eye out for pests being the next on list. As I mentioned at the beginning it’s important to keep the compost in your containers moist. Unless you have a reservoir planter you need to check every day by putting your hand down into the soil. It should be neither dry or sopping wet but a moist crumbly consistency. Watering in the morning is recommended as evening watering means the plant can be sitting in cold, damp soil when the nighttime temperatures fall. It’s a bit like going to bed in wet pyjamas for plants!
There are a variety of pests which may or may not be a problem in your area but well fed, healthy plants are much more able to resist attack than weaker plants. Keep you plants vigorous and strong and your pest patrol will be a whole lot easier. Slugs will be the main offender so check beneath you pots and planters as this is where they tend to hide.
That will do for now!
That’s it to give a general idea on small space gardening. Obviously there is much more detail to go into which we’ll be covering in later articles. Look out for tips, tricks and relevant products on the Quickcrop site but also make sure you visit Mark at Vertical Veg for expert advice. A big thanks to Mark for help and inspiration with this article.
Our aim is to make Quickcrop the place to go for urban grower products and look forward to surprising you with a tried and tested range that solves the city gardeners problems. We’re always on the look out for new ideas so if you’ve come across something that you find good or can’t source elsewhere please drop us a line and let us know. We’ll always be delighted to hear from you on 01 525 0884 or mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org
The photo of Mark on his balcony at the top is by Jennifer Cockrall-King / Foodgirl.ca, thanks Jennifer!