How to grow vegetables in containers

Grow your own is a big theme of BBC Gardeners’ World Live and ahead of the show I talked to Matt Biggs about how lack of space needn’t be problem.

It’s easy to assume that to grow vegetables you need space – an allotment or a back garden turned over to spuds and carrots. That’s difficult with gardens getting ever smaller and waiting lists for allotments while those living in flats may have only a balcony. The answer, believes Matt Biggs, is growing vegetables in containers.

“We’re trying to encourage everyone to grow vegetables and this can be done irrespective of the amount of space you’ve got,” he says.

“Just because you have a small back garden you’re not excluded. Come on in and join the fun.”

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Matt will be demonstrating how to plant up herbs and vegetables in containers

Matt, one of the regulars on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, will be exploring how to do it and what to grow in daily talks on the VegTrug Grow Your Own Stage at BBC Gardeners’ World Live.

It’s important not to think you can become self-sufficient in veg, he tells me, but to choose things that are family favourites, are difficult to find in the shops, or that simply taste better when they are freshly picked.

“Grow your favourite vegetables rather than the things you think you ought to grow,” he advises.

Fast maturing or what he calls “high value” crops are better than things that are cheap to buy or that will occupy the container for months – main crop potatoes and parsnips are just two examples of crops to avoid.

Keeping a note of what you’ve grown and what worked will enable you to build up your own list of what works well in your garden.

Among his top tips are carrots, beetroot – “pick them when they are the size of golf balls” – and lettuce, particularly ‘cut-and-come-again’. Sweetcorn would be another ideal crop as it begins to lose sweetness as soon as it’s picked.

vegetables in containers
Peas and mangetout are ideal for growing in containers

Other suggestions for vegetables in containers include mangetout, peas, runner beans, endive and chard, while Matt says strawberries are ideal for hanging baskets where they are out of reach of slugs.

It also makes sense to choose mini veg varieties or those that have been bred for small spaces, such as broad bean ‘The Sutton’. Look out also for those with disease resistance.

If you can’t get mini veg seed, just pick before the crops reach full maturity and sow again.

“If you harvest when they’re small, you get better quality, they’re more tender and tasty.”

The key to success when it comes to vegetables in containers is not to sow the whole packet at once but to keep repeating every few weeks.

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Chard is a colourful crop for a container

“People do forget to succession sow and to sow a little and often,” says Matt.

When it comes to containers, anything goes as long as it has good drainage and is as big as space will allow. Try recycling old wooden boxes – line them first with polythene to prevent water loss – or hunt out some of the many colourful plastic containers on sale.

“I would avoid metal because it will heat up in the sunshine and will scorch fibrous roots and dry out the compost but apart from that you can just use your imagination and make it fun.”

vegetables in containers
Try putting strawberries in a hanging basket

Matt advised filling your containers with compost designed for vegetables, or making your own by mixing organic matter, such as homemade compost, with a John Innes soil-based compost to give it more substance.

Once planted, choose a sunny spot and check plants daily for pests, diseases and water – an irrigation system saves time and water. Then, just keep harvesting and sowing.

“Don’t be frightened to do it,” he says. “The lovely thing about gardening is it’s not failure it’s gaining experience. Always be prepared to have a go, learn from what happens and enjoy it.”

BBC Gardeners’ World Live 2017 is at the NEC Birmingham from June 15-18. There will be talks, growing advice, nursery exhibits and free entry to the neighbouring BBC Good Food Show. For more details, see the website.

Ticket giveaway

I have six pairs of tickets to BBC Gardeners’ World Live to give away, valid for any day except Saturday June 17. See my Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram feeds for more details and to enter. (Click on the links at the top of the site.)

Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

urban flowers

Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

urban flowers

There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

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Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

Read more book reviews here.

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Tips for small gardens

small gardens

Small gardens may be easier to maintain than rolling acres but they are far more challenging to design. Hidden away in the heart of Cheltenham is a walled garden packed with interest and some great ideas for dealing with a small space.

Faced with a town centre garden that is little more than a courtyard, few of us would start by planting trees.

Yet, that’s just what Ro Swait did when she took on her Cheltenham garden.

Rather than planting in scale with a plot that is just 40ft at its widest point, she went big with Cornus ‘Norman Hadden’ and a katsura tree.

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The garden has lots of pots to give height

“You need to think big,” she explains. “and not be afraid to. The most important thing is structure, which you can then build on.”

It was all very different when Ro moved in 11 years ago. Then, the L-shaped, south west-facing plot was wall-to-wall paving, burning hot in summer and devoid of anything green.

“I nearly wept,” admits Ro, who works as a gardener with her daughter, Tam.

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Salvias add late season colour

One of her most successful alterations was extending out from the house using metal girders and glass to create a covered area.

“It keeps everything sheltered and means I can have really tender plants and keep them outdoors. It makes them tougher too.”

They include aeoniums, aloe and echeveria that are displayed on shelving against the house wall and in pots clustered on tables. Other containers have sempervivums, grasses and small shrubs.

Kalanchoe, more commonly seen as a houseplant, is thriving in its outdoor setting.

“I have some indoors as well but the one outside is doing much better.”

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The trees are pruned to keep them small

Further into the garden, the cornus and katsura now give all-important shade. They are cut back each winter to stop them getting too big and are gradually being trained to arch over the garden. Likewise, a Judas tree and Morello cherry are also kept small.

And they are not the only large scale plants as Ro has also planted holly, pittosporum, yew, eucalyptus and even a Magnolia grandiflora.

These provide winter interest and form a backdrop to seasonal colour that ranges from Martagon lilies, sedum and actaea to jasmine, campsis and echinacea.

Much of the planting is in raised beds and ground-level borders, created by lifting most of the original paving. The rest is in pots that frequently contain more than one plant.

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The elegant blooms of Actea simplex stand out against painted walls

“Things have to double up,” Ro says with a smile.

She also makes the most of the borders, keeping the ‘skirts’ of shrubs high to create space to plant underneath, while the walls, which have been painted to give them more interest, are used for climbers.

The high walls and closely planted borders mean that Ro is rarely troubled by weeds but the restricted space does mean she thinks carefully before buying something new.

“You have to really want the plant,” she says.

7 ideas for small gardens

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Make storage space double up as a plant display area. These shelves hold bamboo poles and labels as well as plants.

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Even small gardens can have fruit and veg. Here a tomato is grown in a pot.

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Plant in layers and lift the skirts of shrubs to give space for bulbs and low-growing things.

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Play with levels either with raised beds or by putting pots on tables or plinths.

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Add a seat – small gardens are better suited to sitting in than walking around.

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• Use containers to change the display, either with seasonal bedding or bulbs, or by simply moving them around to create a new look.

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• Think big: fewer but bigger plants will be more effective than lots of small things.

Read my review of New Small Garden by Noel Kingsbury here

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