If you’ve only got a balcony or courtyard, don’t feel left out of the vegie gardening fraternity. As long as your outdoor space has some hours of sunshine, you can grow herbs and vegies.
Pots of flavour
Herbs, of course, will flourish in pots. They are so easy to grow and are so important in cooking that they are probably the best things to cultivate if you’re just starting out as a gardener — especially if you love to cook. In fact, if you grow a good variety of herbs, it’s possible to put something homegrown and organic in everything you cook, even scrambled eggs.
For Italian/French/Middle Eastern flavours, plant oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, parsley (curly, flat-leaf or both) and sage. If you have enough room, also consider tarragon, savory and dill. For Asian flavours, plant lemongrass, coriander and Vietnamese and holy basil.
For me, other essentials are a chilli bush, a curry plant and a kaffir lime, as well as a small bay tree and, if possible, a dwarf variety of lemon. I have had the same potted kaffir lime, bay tree and curry plant for years. I cut them back every now and then and they stay the same size but reward me with their unique flavours in my cooking. When your chilli bush fruits all at once, you can pick them and put them in the freezer for use all year round.
Raised beds and planters
If you don’t want individual pots spread around the place and would prefer a streamlined balcony or courtyard version of the vegie patch, there are several types of raised beds that can be placed over pavers or tiles, filled with organic soil and planted out with whatever you like — excluding those rampant growers like pumpkins that need a lot of room to move, and very tall plants such as corn.
Your choice of container will no doubt be based on space and aesthetics. Tank beds are becoming very popular as they look at home in almost any setting: smart-looking and streamlined enough for a contemporary-style setting, but referencing the Australian bush vernacular with their bent corrugated iron sides.
There are several styles of raised planters on legs or a framework that have a streamlined look and, as with the tank beds, can eliminate the need for bending. These often have a built-in “dam” at the bottom to allow drainage, but at the same time capture the water and hold it for the soil to reabsorb when it needs it, thus providing a little insurance against your plants drying out and becoming stressed.
Spinach, rhubarb, snowpeas, beans, broadbeans, Asian greens and broccoli are just a few of the vegetables that are perfect for growing this way. In fact, any vegie that’s reasonably compact in size and that can be harvested as they grow is perfect.
The beauty of this kind of gardening is there’s no digging or bending, no water wastage, and you can be absolutely sure the organic soil you use is pristine without any taint of old chemicals or toxins, which is more than those with backyards can say.
Relatively new and stylish in gardening is the vertical or wall garden. That doesn’t refer to plants growing from the ground and trained up a wall, but structures in which the plants have their roots all the way up, forming a green “wall”.
Often wall gardens are planted with decorative flowering varieties or sculptural foliage plants, such as succulents, to create a mosaic of nature like the gorgeous Atlantis Gro-Wall (previous page), but vertical gardens are eminently suited to growing edibles such as herbs and salad leaves as well as fruits and vegies with a hanging or trailing habit — strawberries, for example.
Popular among the wall gardens you can buy are the modular systems with interlocking snap-on clips so you can simply stack them to the height and width you want. The modules are usually cube-shaped and can look very attractive when the plants are grown in chequered patterns. A collage of succulents or different types of lettuces, for example, can look stunning.
The plants grow out horizontally so that their foliage masses into a green wall. With these systems, the plants are often started off with the modules lying horizontally, then tilted, until the plants are well-established enough to be placed in the framework structure.
Some systems use hydroponics combined with a non-organic growth medium such as pebbles or foam, while others use small amounts of soil or other organic mediums such as sphagnum moss, and the plants are drip-fed water, again avoiding water wastage.
Other types of vertical garden use a framework of shelving, with pots sitting upright so the plants are growing vertically in the conventional way, but their sheer numbers make it into a wall of foliage.
Plant different lettuces and salad leaves along with cherry tomatoes and some fragrant herbs and edible flowers such as violets, borage flowers and nasturtiums, and you will have a wall of salad.
Spuds in small spaces
You can easily grow potatoes in a container and still produce enough to satisfy your needs.
- Use a wide, deep container such as half a wine barrel or even a wide bag. Some people grow potatoes in old car tyres, simply adding another tyre as the plant grows until it’s a stack. Make sure your container has good drainage and is deep enough to keep adding soil as the plants grow.
- Use high-quality organic potting soil mixed with compost.
- You can either plant seed potatoes bought from a nursery or start your own with pieces of organic potato, making sure your pieces have a couple of eyes to sprout from. Plant them as they are or let them sprout first.
- As the plants grow, add more soil to keep the stems covered and to produce more layers of potatoes.
- Potatoes like full sun and well-manured soil. Too much nitrogen will cause them to put energy into lush green leaves rather than the tuber.
- The new potatoes will develop between the planted tuber and the leaves at the top. As the plant grows, continue to mound soil and mulch around it. If the developing tubers are too close to the surface and the light, they will turn green. Green potatoes are poisonous, as are the stems and leaves of the plant.
- When your potatoes flower, they are ready to harvest.