A dim corner: lemon balm, mint
What is sunshine?: potato, horseradish, ginger, Jerusalem artichoke, turmeric
Bright space, limited direct light: leafy vegetables, alliums, root vegetables, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts
Couple of hours of direct light each day: broad beans, beans, peas, deciduous fruit trees, coriander
Good light, few hours a day: zucchini, cucumber, squash, melon, strawberry, perennial herbs & vegetables
Great light, basking in it: chilli, capsicum, eggplant, citrus, tomato, basil, corn
Our advice is to start with plants that are known to be less needy, and then when you succeed, graduate. We’ve seen bananas and avocados grow in the temperate south of Australia, so why can’t a tomato grow between two buildings?
Growing in Pots
A good use of pots is a very adaptable and effective way to garden. We have grown everything from mint to fruit trees in pots, which can vary in size from the classic terracotta vessel to a wine barrel to a 50-gallon drum. For many city gardeners and renters, this may be the most obvious growing method, if not the only starting point.
Like many things, however, growing in pots comes with its own set of complications and responsibilities. Pots have relatively small volume and excellent drainage, which means that they are prone to drying out, making it very important to water them each morning. Different materials only exacerbate this propensity. As a result, pots generally require the most care and attention of all the growing infrastructures – a level of care that is inversely correlated to the size of the pot. That means, the smaller the pot, the more care that is required.
We don’t like to grow in anything smaller than 30 cm in diameter. After all, a small pot is like the relationship that is destined to fail. It seems like a great match, but there is ultimately no room for growth and it turns out to be a lot of hard work with very little reward. A large pot, on the other hand, is a keeper. Sure, it’s an investment and you will need to make changes in your life to accommodate it, but this is something that will help you grow things that last.
Types of Pots
Terracotta: Made from moulded, baked clay. Terracotta is porous and prone to drying out. Glazed pots are watertight, but will cost more.
Timber: Timber boxes make beautiful planters, but be sure they are not made from treated wood that could contaminate your food. To avoid this, consider nesting a plastic or polystyrene box within to carry water and soil.
Plastic: Cheapest to buy, but costly to the environment. Be sure that pots are UV stabilised and made from recyclable PE plastic.
Recycled polystyrene: So ugly, but so good for growing plants. Well- insulated and durable, you’ll get about 10,000 years out of one of these. Nest inside a timber box for a combination of function and fashion.
Growing in pots means using potting mix, however, not all potting mixes are created equal. This is one of those cases where you generally get what you pay for. Cheap mixes use chemical fertilisers (or no fertilisers at all) and have poor quality matter. Spending a little extra on a premium organic mix will ensure that your veggie patch has the best possible start in your first season and many more seasons to come.
Another thing to remember is that potting mixes are often heat-treated to kill any weeds or pathogens, making them sterile. It’s like a beautiful house with no one living in it. Fortunately, all we have to do is show them the way to the front door. So we always add worm castings and rock minerals to help jump-start soil life. If you foster a healthy ecosystem, you will create lasting soil (even in a pot); something that remains fertile and active long into the future.
We like to say that there is no such thing as a bad gardener, only bad waterers. When we water can make all the difference, because plants need to have access to water when they really need it the most – during the day. Photosynthesis is how plants make their food, and it requires sunlight plus water. This means that plants can only ‘eat’ during the daytime. Therefore, the best practice is to water all your plants first thing in the morning.
How much we water is also an important consideration. In comparison to most decorative plants, our favourite edible crops require a lot of water. In the case of well-drained soil and potting mix, we can safely water our veggies once a day without the risk of becoming waterlogged.
The greatest challenge of small-space gardening is hydration. The smaller the pot, the more susceptible it is to drying out. Compounding that challenge is our lifestyle, which is often poorly suited to any task requiring a routine. Getting your watering wrong at the wrong time of year not only spells trouble for that generation of plants, but for the future of the soil.
Without moisture the soil can bake dry under the harsh sun, making it impervious to water. At this point it becomes hydrophobic. Try as you might, any amount of water thrown on the veggie patch is not absorbed in the soil, but rather finds the path of least resistance and drains straight through.
To insure against future hydrophobic soil, you have a few options. The first is a simple irrigation system that relies on a timer rather than yourself, the second is mulching, and the third relates to the style of growing. Wicking, hydroponic and aquaponic gardening are all self-watering systems. While they seem more complicated at first, they take care of the most critical element of vegetable gardening and the place where most people fall over – water.
Whether you plant seeds or seedlings hinges on a couple of things – the time and effort at your disposal, and the varieties you’re choosing to explore. Seedlings are by far the easiest to start with – bypassing the sometimes tedious and demanding infancy stage, and jumping straight to a level of maturity that is more tolerant. As a parent it’s like skipping the first year of nappies and milk, and being given a toddler who can walk and sit still while watching a game of premier league football with you.
However, planting from seed gives you a wider choice, as there’s a complete gene pool you can access via seed that won’t be found in seedling form. If we’re going to loop back into the parent analogy, it’s like choosing your child and the qualities you had always hoped for. Now, we don’t doubt that you love your children the way they are, but wouldn’t that be incredible?
Explore our heirloom seed babies
Photo courtesy of John Laurie