I’m going share three super-simple projects to help you start growing vegetables, no matter how much (or how little!) space you have. Follow the advice below and I reckon you could be up and growing in 60 minutes, or even less. We’ll be planting up containers ideal for any patio or balcony; splitting apart and potting up tasty herbs; and, for those of you with an unused patch of lawn or ground to spare, starting off a new bed of productive veggies and salads.
1. Patio Vegetable Garden
If you have just a patio or balcony on which to grow you might be wondering if you even can grow vegetables, but it’s truly amazing what you can pack into such a small space! There’s a literal abundance of fresh fruits, veggies and herbs that will grow very happily in pots.
For instance strawberries grow really well in containers, and are less likely to get eaten by slugs than if they were planted in the ground. Most herbs can be grown in pots, and many vegetables too. Almost anything that holds potting mix can be used as a plant pot, but make sure it has good drainage holes in the bottom – drill some if it hasn’t. That’s really important, because excess moisture needs to drain away freely so that roots can stay healthy.
The cheapest way to get started is to sow seeds, but if you want to jump a step closer to harvest time you can buy plug plants instead. Plugs give you a bit of a head start and skip the most precarious stage of growing. I’d recommend starting from seeds where possible, but there’s nothing wrong at all with using plug plants for that extra peace of mind.
Exactly when to sow or plant really depends on your location, but mid-spring is an excellent time to begin as daytime temperatures start to warm up to coax our seedlings along.
Salad leaves like lettuce are a great place to start your growing journey. You don’t need a deep container for these because lettuce roots don’t extend down very far. Fill your pots with potting mix (most crops will happily grow in any all-purpose blend) and make a hole big enough for your lettuce plug. Push a lettuce plant out of its plug and firm it into the hole you’ve made. Finish with a good drink of water to settle it in.
Alternatively, you can sow directly into your salad container by scattering the seeds very thinly over the surface. Cover them over with a little more potting mix and then give them a gentle watering.
Is it too strong a statement to say that gardening can change your life? I don’t think so! There’s a purposefulness about gardening: sowing and planting, then picking the rewards that follow. This sort of stuff is deeply satisfying, and when you create the opportunity to grow, you do too – I honestly believe that!
Growing on a patio or balcony is particularly satisfying because it’s so up close and personal, and it’s easy to keep a close eye on how your plants are doing. Keep your pots watered in dry weather – this may mean once or even twice a day in the hottest weeks of summer. Fruiting vegetables like tomatoes and peppers will also need feeding with an organic liquid fertilizer. Start doing this once they come into flower to give plants the resources they need to produce lots of tempting fruits. Remember to resow or add to your patio pots as earlier crops are harvested to keep those pickings coming!
2. More Herbs for Less
Herbs are a must for flavor and a burst of freshness. They’re perfect for growing on the patio or a sunny indoor windowsill, so even if you have no garden space, you can still grow herbs!
You can buy pots of living herbs like parsley, cilantro and basil from the grocery store, but what you’re usually buying isn’t one plant but in fact lots of seedlings, packed in cheek by jowl. That’s fine if you just want to harvest them once or twice, but because they’re very crowded in their pot they will soon go downhill. To dramatically extend their useful life and more than triple the pickings you get, there’s a few simple steps you can take.
You’ll need some all-purpose potting mix, a few extra pots, and (to avoid getting in trouble for making a mess!) a tray to work in. Carefully prise your store-bought herbs apart into up to four or five sections. Just get your fingers and thumbs in there and ease them apart gently into separate clumps, trying not to break the roots or stems. Next, pot on your clumps of herbs. One clump can go back into the original pot, and the others into your spare pots. Give them a drink and they’ll be on their way.
Within a few weeks they’ll start to bush out nicely and you should be able to start picking from them soon after. They’ll last so much longer this way.
3. Pallet Collar Raised Beds
If you have some garden space, then you can grow delicious produce either directly in the ground into soil you’ve enriched with organic matter such as compost, or in raised beds. Because roots can get down into the soil and explore, once they’re set up the only input needed to maintain your garden in tiptop condition is little more than an annual mulch of compost, which you can, of course, make yourself.
You can easily make a raised bed of any size from planks of wood screwed to corner posts. However I like using old pallet collars, which can often be picked up very cheaply, because they’re a plug-and-play way to get growing. Simply open the pallet collar up and position your raised bed so it’s nice and level, either by digging it in or building up the soil beneath as necessary. Cover any weeds or grass with plain cardboard to smother and kill them off. Then fill with soil, compost, very well-rotted manure, or a combination of any of these.
I love getting my hands in the dirt. In fact, there’s some evidence to indicate that time spent close to the soil may actually lift our mood by exposing us to feel-good bacteria within it. For me, growing at least some of the food I eat is important because I know exactly where it’s come from. I know that food from my garden is grown in tune with nature – organically, and in soil that’s shown some love. The result is unrivalled taste and great nutritional content, which is something lacking in much of the food grown commercially on increasingly overworked soils. It also gives me a deeper connection with the natural world. It’s hard to explain, but I just feel happier and more contented seeing some of the food I eat travel all the way from seed to plate.
Growing Vegetables in Shade
Ideally you should choose your sunniest spot for growing vegetables, but if the only space you have experiences some shade, all is not lost! There are some crops that can tolerate a little shade, at least for part of the day. Our Garden Planner can filter the plant selector to show only plants that are suitable for growing in partial shade to make it easy to choose crops that will thrive.
I have a shadier bed in my garden, and in it I’m going to plant salad onions, which I sowed a bit earlier in a plug tray to get a head start. I’m also going to sow radishes, which were sown in clusters in plugs earlier too. They can go out in clumps as they are, but I’m leaving a touch more space between each cluster to compensate for the fact they’re in multiples. The same with beets, which are going about a foot (30cm) apart. That might seem like a lot, especially when they’re so small, but it’s surprising how quickly they put on masses of growth and fill out!
Carrots are another good choice, and these should be sown directly into the soil. Mark out a shallow drill (row) and leave about a foot (30cm) between the rows. Then take small pinches of the tiny seeds at a time and sow as thinly as you can – ideally, no more than a couple of seeds every half inch (1cm) or so. Cover over with a thin layer of soil. Once the seedlings sprout, remove some of them to leave a couple of carrots every inch (1cm).
Finally, spinach will grow well in a less-than-sunbaked spot. Sow three or four seeds every 6in (15cm) in both directions. Once they’re up you’ll need to thin the seedlings to leave the strongest at each position.
Finish with a thorough watering to settle everything in and prime the seeds to sprout. If the weather is still cool or if you have lots of hungry pigeons around, cover the bed with row cover fabric until the plants have found their feet and to keep seedlings snug should it turn cold again.
Getting those first homegrown crops started off is thrilling! These are simple but intense pleasures. If you’ve been bitten by the gardening bug, try out our Garden Planner free for 7 days to help you plan the garden of your dreams.