Small Garden Ideas
Vegetable growing should be available to anyone even if you have have a very small urban garden or worse, no garden at all! Small urban gardens can be just as productive as larger suburban spaces but the method of growing is very different. If you don’t have a patch of ground to dig up and plant your crops will need to use something else to grow in and this is where we enter the wonderful world of container gardens.
Kitchen garden container growing
You can grow delicious fresh fruit and vegetables in almost any container providing it has holes for drainage and can hold enough soil or compost to feed the plant you want to grow. Growing vegetables in containers is also a fantastic way for beginners to give vegetable growing a go before tackling a larger space. Pots and planters can be used to create dramatic and interesting effects with the endless variations of size and colour of both the planters and the plants they contain.
The range of vegetable planter options is vast ranging from old tin cans which can be used for compact salad crops, to metal or plastic buckets right up to more substantial timber raised beds or planters like those in the photo opposite. It is the variation in container growing which makes it so great, I have seen wonderful gardens created from all sorts of kooky items like old chimney pots, wooden wine boxes and fruit crates and even a salad garden growing in an old suitcase!
Where to place an urban container garden
As with any vegetable growing urban container gardens need to be placed in the sunniest spot you have available. Smaller planters are handy as they can be moved around to find the spot with the best growing conditions.
Remember that large pots filled with compost are very heavy and awkward to carry so work on where you want your bigger pots to be before you fill and plant. If you do need to move large and heavy pots there are clever inventions out there like our ‘Potlifter’ which makes shifting them much safer and easier.
Ideally you are looking for sunlight for a minimum of 6 hours per day but some crops like salads and other leafy greens can cope with less. If you have a shady site you may need to tailor the cops you want to grow.
Soil and compost for container vegetable growing
Container grown plants are restrained by the size of their pot or planter; their roots have a relatively small area to draw their nutrients from so you need to make sure the soil or compost you use is well fed. Garden soil is not suitable for container growing as it can’t hold sufficient moisture, is very heavy and will dry out in a pot to a concrete like lump.
Soilless composts are generally better for container growing because they hold moisture better and have a easy, open structure where plant roots can quickly get established. Remember most multipurpose composts only hold nutrients for about 4-6 weeks so you need to either mix in a slow release fertilizer or feed with a liquid feed.
We find ‘Living Green’ wormcast compost excellent for container gardens as it is full of natural slow release nutrients which won’t burn sensitive young roots. We also stock a range of natural feeds and soil improvers allowing you to build and maintain the right soil for the crops you want to grow.
What vegetables to grow in a container kitchen garden
Nearly all vegetables will grow in a container providing you have the room but some are more suitable than others with regard to what you get out of it. For example a relatively small 4ft x 4ft vegetable planter box will grow salad to keep you going all season but will only produce enough potatoes for one or two meals.
Everything is possible but look first at the space you’ll have available and the number of planters you can fit and work back from there. In general large field crops like potatoes, cabbages, sprouts and broccoli take up a lot of room so will only be suitable for larger raised bed vegetable gardens.
Colourful lettuces, beetroot, Swiss chard and Oriental vegetable are all ideal while peas an beans with their delicate flowers have the added advantage of looking great too. I’ve assembled my list of my favourite container grown vegetables below which will all do well in pots or other small to medium vegetable planters.
Salad leaf crops
Salad crops can be grow in relatively little soil so are a great place to start and are ideally suited to window boxes or shallow trays. You can grow in as little as 4cm of good compost so weight will be kept to a minimum making shallow salad planters a good choice for rooftop gardens where weight may be an issue.
Try old tin cans or shallow fruit boxes for a bohemian look or use old wooden wine boxes which are becoming increasingly popular.
Use ‘cut and come again’ varieties of salad for the most productive planters where you harvest leaves over a number of weeks rather than taking the full head. Oriental salad varieties are also very well suited to this method of growing with plants like spicy rocket, mild mizuna and tasty mustard red and green frills being absolutely ideal.
Other salad type crops ideal for urban planters include radish and spring onion, they are both shallow rooted and easy to grow so can be placed in a variety of containers.
Peas and Beans
Runner beans, climbing French beans and peas are great if space is limited as they grow up rather than out. Large pots, bins or commercial vegetable oil tins make excellent urban planters where runner and French beans can be sown around a wigwam of bamboo poles. Peas are unable to climb smooth vertical poles so use twiggy branches as a support or help them up bamboo by weaving a web of gardening twine around the poles.
Pea and bean planters should be at least 30cm deep to ensure your compost holds enough water for them when they are in flower. Peas are also likely to rot in wet compost so make sure there are plenty of holes in the bottom of the container and the planter is raised off the ground on bricks or blocks.
Courgettes, squash and pumpkins
Courgettes, if properly fed, produce an enormous amount of crop from a single plant so a great choice for the urban garden. Compact bush types are well suited as they won’t grow too far past the confines of the pot while trailing varieties can be run up and along a fences or trellis from a single planter.
Be aware that courgettes need a lot of feed to produce the amount of fruit they are famous for so add plenty of well rotted farmyard manure or pelleted seaweed and poultry manure to the compost when planting. Courgettes also need lots of water so a planter of minimum 9 litres will be required to prevent them drying out.
Seeds are best started off indoors in March or April for planting out at the end of May. The same advice above applies to squash and pumpkins.
If you have a warm garden (usually South facing) that gets over 6 hrs of sunlight a day you can grow tomatoes and other warm climate crops outside. Our Summers will be too short to start your plants from seed outside so they need to be started indoors in mid Feb to early March.
Make sure you pick the right tomato for your planter; there are traditional cordon types which grow tall and need staking to support, compact bush types for large post and tumbling varieties suitable for growing in hanging baskets.
You would assume that root vegetables would not be suited to container gardens as they need deep soil but crops like carrots and beetroot can be grown successfully. In fact container gardening lends itself to some root crops as the lighter compost used allows them to form uniform roots without obstruction.
Growing carrots in containers
Carrots will like a container at least 40cm deep to grow good straight roots, if you are using a more shallow planter choose shorter stump rooted varieties. Carrots do not transplant well as the roots will fork so need to be sown directly in their pots or planters. Scatter seeds thinly in a good multipurpose compost and thin to 5cm spacings.
Growing carrots in containers looks great with their ferny leaves and gives a good yield per square foot due to their close spacings.
Growing beetroot in containers
As we’ve said beetroot will like the finer compost in a container and reward you with nice even roots. Pretty purple veined beet leaves can also be eaten in salads making them dual purpose crops that can look spectacular in an urban garden setting. We grew some beautiful specimens for a show last year in wooden planter boxes made from old apple crates which looked incredible as part of a rooftop garden display.
Sow beet seeds directly into outdoor containers from March till July. Beet seeds are large and easy to sow and are actually clusters of smaller seeds which you may need to thin out to approx 10cm apart.
Growing potatoes in containers
I did say potatoes aren’t really suitable for small urban gardens because of the space they take up relative to the yield but they are still a fun and rewarding plant to grow. Early varieties are best as they occupy their planters for less time which means you can follow on with a different crop.
Use a pot, bag or purpose made potato planter at least 30cm deep and add a layer of multipurpose compost about 15 cm deep. For optimum harvests mix approx 50% ‘Envirogrind’ soil improver with 50% compost to create a turbo powered potato planter. Place 3 chitted (sprouted) seed potatoes on top of the compost and cover with another 10cm of your planter compost mix.
Once the plants have produced about 15cm of leaf growth fill the container with another 10cm of compost partially burying the new stems and leaves. Keep repeating this process until the compost is 5cm from the top of the potato planter. If you have used an ordinary multipurpose compost you will need to feed your potatoes with a high phosphorous feed after about 6 weeks of growing.
Cabbage family greens
Again, I did say cabbages take up too much room for a container garden but there are some exceptions to the rule. Planter size and spacing has a direct effect on the size of container grown brassicas so unless grown in a very large pot heads will be on the small side. There are brassicas available specially bred for containers like cabbage ‘minicole’ which will produce tight and compact heads well suited to container planting.
Cabbages are best grown as seedlings before being planted out about 4 weeks later in pots at least 30 cm deep. In the garden cabbage spacing can be up to 60cm between plants so unless your pots is very large plant only 1 seedling per pot. Firm down the soil very well around your seedling as cabbage plants like to have a firm roots.
Calabrese (the large green heads known as broccoli in the shops) is also a worthwhile container garden plant which produces heads about 80-90 days after sowing. Broccoli calabrese will produce a large head initially but once this cut the plant will also produce a number of smaller side shoots with mini broccoli heads. For large primary heads plant a single plant in one large container, for medium heads plant 30cm apart.
Kale is also suitable for container growing and is sown from May to July, it looks amazing with many decorative varieties like ‘Cavalo Nero’, ‘Red Russian’ and ‘Redbor’. Kale is also very hardy and will survive the coldest of winters to give you healthy and tasty leaves when there is little else available.