Container Gardening

About the Author

As an avid gardener myself I was frustrated by the fact that when I returned to live in my home island of Guernsey the only place I could afford to rent did not have a garden. In fact the small cottage opened out on to a pretty graveled communal car park. What made matters worse was that the cottage was surrounded by open fields, yet not one piece of land accompanied the property. In the past I had lived in the UK and grown flowers and vegetables extensively. At one point I had run my own little business selling vegetables and bedding plants that I had grown on half an acre of land, (as well as in a 54 foot poly-tunnel) that accompanied the property we rented. Ultimately when my first Husband died unexpectedly I had been forced to give up the property, and so also had to give up my growing due to a lack of land.

When eventually I decided to return to Guernsey to live I had not had an opportunity to grow anything for several years. I desperately missed the taste of fresh home grown vegetables that had only been harvested minutes before they were cooked and therefore tasted far superior to anything a supermarket has to offer. The relaxation of gardening had played a large part in my life, and the satisfaction of feeling I had grown the food on my plate myself was now missing. I started to plan how I could achieve this again in spite of not having a proper garden to grow in.

Working Out a Plan

As the weather improved in early spring I began to look at ways I could still grow vegetables without any garden. Looking at the front of our cottage I realised there was potential to grow plants immediately in front of our house along the outside wall. I started to plan what kind of vegetables I could safely grow in pots or tubs. The resulting list was as follows:

Runner Beans

After Six Weeks

French Beans

Potatoes

Carrots

Lettuce

Spring Onions

Radishes

Outdoor Cucumbers

Tomatoes

I then went on to look at what kind of containers would work for each kind of plant.

The potatoes I realised could easily be grown in a dustbin, or any similar container, and I promptly went on the hunt for old dustbins. I quickly secured one dustbin, an old water tank and a large plastic box used by local fishermen for storing their nets in. I also went to a local garden centre and bought a large muck bucket.

The various beans could successfully be planted in 15 litre planters, and I could comfortably fit 3 to 4 beans to tub.

The radishes, spring onions and mixed leaf lettuce needed less depth, so I purchased some plastic window box style planters.

The carrots I had chosen were medium length, so I also decided to plant these in 15 litre pots, as well as in a larger muck bucket I had also purchased from a garden centre.

The tomatoes and cucumbers also needed the 15 litre pots due to the level of water they require throughout the Summer.

Having purchased several one hundred litre bags of compost and some 3″ pots I began to put my plans into action.

Choosing Varieties

Choosing the most suitable varieties of each vegetable to plant is very important if you only have limited space available. I based my choices on the vegetables I would be most likely to eat, ones which would mature quickly wherever possible and varieties that would not require a lot of space to grow successfully. In the end I chose the following:

Carrots, Primo F1, mainly because this had a medium length root and was bolt resistant. It was helpful that I managed to also buy coated seeds which made them easy to sow without needing to thin them out later which would risk attracting the dreaded carrot fly.

Tomatoes, Gardeners Delight, an excellent, heavy cropping cherry tomato that copes well indoors or outdoors, as well as having superb flavour.

Cucumber, Burpless Tasty Green, a good variety for indoors or outdoors that produces genuine “burp free” cucumbers. Best grown up trellis or a lattice of bamboo canes to ensure straight cucumbers with no slug damage.

French Beans, Blue Lake, a stringless climbing variety that has great flavour.

Runner Beans, Scarlet Emperor, a delicious, largely stringless, heavy cropping variety with good flavour.

Spring Onions, Ramrod and Ishikura, excellent salad onions, quick to grow and good flavour.

Radishes, French Breakfast and Prinz Rotin, fast growing and both varieties have good flavour without being too hot to eat.

Lettuce, I opted for a mixture of salad leaves which could be harvested a few leaves at a time rather than cutting the whole plant.

Potatoes, I selected a first early variety Arran Pilot, a second early/maincrop variety Maris Piper and a second early Charlotte to ensure a good cropping season.

Ideal Containers

Planting Your Seeds

I chose to layout my containers in such a way that I could have several in front of each other without risking the plants at the rear not getting sufficient light. The way I achieved this was to put the taller growing vegetables such as the beans to the rear, whilst putting the smaller vegetables e.g. Spring Onions to the front. This way both types of vegetable are easy to harvest and should thrive successfully.

Potatoes

To maximise my crop of potatoes I followed a tried and tested method of planting them in containers. Firstly I drilled 10 to 15 holes in the bottom of each container. I then covered the bottom of the container with about 10cm of gravel, followed by about 10-15cm of compost. In the dustbin I planted 5 seed potatoes, the water tank I used 8, the smaller green muck bucket took 2 and the former fisherman’s net box took a further 6. I made sure the shoots were pointing upwards, and then just covered them with more compost before watering in well. The idea is that as the potatoes grow you should continue to cover them over with further compost until the plants reach the top of the container. I prefer to allow the leaves to get 4 or 5 inches above the compost before covering them again as this gives them a chance to take in the sunlight. Don’t be concerned if you do cover leaves whilst the potatoes are growing as they will soon push through the compost again. Keep the compost moist without over-watering (to avoid them going black in the centres). Once your potatoes reach the top of the container wait for them to flower, and when they begin dying off they are ready to harvest.

Cucumbers and Tomatoes

The cucumbers and tomatoes needed to be started off in small pots, so I used the 3″ pots and the same compost I had used for the outside containers. In the case of the cucumber seeds I first put them in a sealed plastic tub on a double sheet of damp kitchen roll. After several days they had germinated and I could transfer them into the pots. The tomatoes were fine to be planted straight into the compost and are just beginning to appear above the soil now, (ten days since sowing). Both of these seedlings are now happily growing on my windowsill. Once they show signs of roots appearing through the bottom of the pots they will be ready to plant on into outside containers after a few days of hardening off, (placing them outside during the day and bringing them back indoors at night). Always ensure you set up your canes or trellis before you transplant them into the large pots to avoid damaging the roots. A tomato should be fine with just one cane, so long as you remember to loosely tie the plant to the cane every six inches or so as it grows. Don’t forget to remove any side-shoots that appear where the leaves meet the main stem to maximise your crop and remove the growing tip once the plant reaches the top of the cane. The variety of cucumber I am growing is an F1 hybrid, which means it will not produce the male flowers that would normally need regular removing to avoid bitter fruits. Cucumbers grow best on a trellis or lattice of canes as their crop is very heavy and one cane is unlikely to be sufficient. It can also help if you tie their stems loosely to the trellis to assist them with taking the weight of the mature fruits. It is important to remember that tomatoes require regular feeding as soon as the first flowers appear on the plant. There are many brands of tomato food available on the market but I have had equal success using normal plant foods that have dispensers you can attach to your hosepipe or can be diluted for use in watering cans.

Lettuce

The lettuce are best grown in succession, so rather than planting the seeds all at once, try to plant them every other week to ensure a long cropping season with little wastage. Plant the seeds a quarter of an inch deep in a pre-watered drill within the container, then gently pull a little compost over them and make sure the surface of the compost doesn’t dry out before they have emerged. Keep well watered to ensure best flavour.

 

French and Runner Beans

Both the French and Runner beans should be planted around an inch or so deep. I usually plant two seeds by each cane removing the weaker seeding after they have started growing. Beans are quite thirsty and hungry plants, so feed fortnightly with a good liquid feed and keep compost moist the rest of the time. Five to six feet bamboo canes can be easily made into a wigwam using a simple cable tie to attach the canes together at the top. The beans will do the rest of the climbing themselves and all you will need to do is remove the growing tips when they reach the top of the canes. Keep picking regularly once cropping to ensure further beans are produced.

Carrots

Carrots should ideally be grown in compost that has already been used for an earlier crop. This compost is known as “spent compost”, and is therefore low in nutrient. The reason for using old compost is that it will avoid the carrot roots from forking and will help to ensure you get a straight single root. You may get away with using new compost that is already low in nutrient value, but make sure you do not feed your carrots further. As carrots are fairly slow growing you will get away with planting radishes between the carrot seeds. As the radishes mature quickly they will mark the rows where your carrots are planted and will be harvested long before the carrot seedlings need the space. Ensure the container you use for your carrots is deep enough to allow for the length of the roots once mature. Plant the seeds quarter of an inch deep in pre-watered drills and then gently cover with compost. Keep the surface damp until the leaves emerge.

Spring Onions and Radishes

These are easy to grow and fast to mature. I have chosen to grow them in the window-box style of planter and have alternated rows of radishes with rows of spring onions. Again, sow the seeds thinly a quarter of an inch deep in pre-watered compost and gently cover over. You should be able to see the radish seedlings within a matter of days and will be harvesting them within a matter of weeks. To ensure a long cropping season it is also best to stagger your plantings to a week or two apart.

The Layout of my Vegetable Containers

Six Weeks Later

Six Weeks Later

Six Weeks Later

Six Weeks Later

Alternative Container Plants

Mint

Obviously I have only listed the plants I am growing in containers, and there is no reason why you cannot expand on these ideas and grow various other vegetables and herbs. It is possible to buy trailing tomatoes to grow in hanging baskets, or various kitchen herbs to grow in pots. Why not try other vegetables that you like such as broad beans, peppers or spinach. There really are loads of ideas you can try in a limited space. I always keep a pot of mint growing by my front door so that I can add a sprig to my new potatoes or my peas whilst cooking, but why not also try parsley, rosemary or oregano.

And Finally

Now the only thing I need to do to maintain my crop is to ensure that it is kept watered, and that most of the vegetables are fed fortnightly during the growing season. Most compost will have no further nutrient left within six weeks of being planted into, so it is best to commence feeding at this point in time. I will also need to keep adding compost to my potatoes until they reach the surface of the containers, and it is worth making sure the tops of any carrots roots that become exposed are covered over with more compost to avoid the top of the root going green. Other than these minor tasks I simply have to look forward to harvesting my first crops and enjoying the unbeatable taste and satisfaction that the results of my efforts have produced.

It just goes to show that no matter how little garden you have you can always grow something to eat, even if you only have a window box in a flat,  herbs, radishes and spring onions will be perfectly happy.