container growing

There are many advantages to growing your fruit and veg. in containers rather than by traditional gardening methods but like everything else in life there are also disadvantages. As long as you understand the basics though, you can look forward to generous crops of healthy food for you and your family with no air miles and a negligible carbon footprint. And the great thing is you don’t actually need a garden. A patio, yard or decking area, even a window sill will allow you to produce something.

Try going for small or dwarf varieties where these are available. Little Gem and Tom Thumb are great tasting lettuces and take up less space than many other varieties. bear in mind also that much food gets wasted because it has lost its freshness. How many people buy a large iceberg lettuce, make one salad then leave the rest in the fridge to go limp and tasteless. Much better to pick one fresh plant, use it for the one meal and throw nothing away.

I would say there is very little in the veg. world that can’t be container grown, although large plants like broccoli will obviously require large containers. Fruit is also a possibility although with tree fruits you will need a very dwarfing rootstock and a large tub. Below is a list of things I’ve successfully grown in containers.

beans (broad)
beans (dwarf french)
beans (runner)
celery (needs plenty of water)
onion (salad)
onion (maincrop)
peas (dwarf)
pepper (sweet and chili)

That’s just the stuff I’ve grown. You can experiment and see what works for you and your particular situation. Oh, I forgot the herbs. Most herbs will grow happily in containers and can even be brought indoors during winter to give fresh supplies.

Any type of container will do as long as you put sufficient drainage holes in the bottom to stop waterlogging of the soil/compost. Ideally they should be 12 inches (30cm) deep and the same diameter/width but you can get away with much smaller. You can see from the pics that I use a variety of old pots, tubs and boxes. Most of them have cost me nothing and if you use your imagination you'll be surprised at what can be utilized. When we had a new bathroom suite fitted I was going to use the old lavatory bowl but my wife said it would lower the tone of the neighbourhood!

This shows an assortment of crops that were started off early in the greenhouse then put outside when the weather warmed up. The idea is to extend the growing season.

Some of the same plants thriving in the outside air.

healthy crops of onions, carrots, spring onions, lettuce and chives
Spacing of your plants can be much closer than with conventional gardening. I got hold of some old supermarket produce trays and planted 22 onion sets in one. They gave me 21 good onions with a combined weight of 8 lbs before drying. Not a bad yield from less than two and a half square feet.

These beetroot were grown in a twelve-inch square pot. I sowed the seed about one inch apart and thinned them to leave around twenty good roots in the pot.

If you are limited for space it's a good idea to try and get two crops from each container each year. Try following a 'hungry' crop like potatoes with something less demanding like a salad crop such as lettuce or radishes.

Here's an old wheelbarrow which gave me a nice crop of early potatoes and when they were finished I just mixed some blood, fish and bone fertilizer into the compost and put in nine celery plants. The potato/celery combination is an exception to my rule about hungry and less demanding crops but the barrow had a good depth of very rich compost and it worked well. Bear in mind that commercial composts do not have sufficient nutrients for more than one crop so you will need to supplement with a liquid feed or similar.

Three strawberry plants in an old tyre. I have four such tyres plus a couple of hanging baskets and a few flower buckets for my strawbs. They are an easy and delicious crop to grow and you definitely don't need a garden to get good results.

One thing you must remember is that container crops need regular watering. Even outdoors in high summer this may mean twice a day and can be very time-consuming. I collect rainwater from the house roof (re-cycling again) but even with three water butts I can soon run dry in hot weather. You may also need to add extra feed/fertilizer during the season, especially if using commercial compost which often has only enough nutrients for as little as 6 weeks. Liquid feeds are the easiest to apply but you can get slow release pellets which are mixed with the compost before planting. Both of these options can be organic or not, depending on your preference.

At the peak of the growing season in 2011 I had 124 assorted containers in production. Now you can see what I mean about time-consuming!

Also bear in mind that if you fill your containers with commercial compost it can get very expensive. That's why I try to be self-sufficient in home-made compost but more about that later.