Top of the pots: You don't need a garden to grow your own vegetables
Tomatoes, potatoes, even courgettes, are perfectly happy in pots says our green-fingered correspondent.
You don't need a garden (or an allotment) to grow decent vegetables. Crops in pots can be grown up steps, on balconies, in driveways – anywhere, in fact, where a pot will fit and where you can water and feed it without putting on crampons and a harness. You need biggish pots though, otherwise they dry out too quickly and roots run out of space. Look for cheap plastic pots (they don't dry out as fast as terracotta), not less than 35cm across.
You can also use tough plastic bin liners, with the tops folded down and a few holes made in the bottom. These are particularly good for growing potatoes. 'Earthing up', in this context, means unrolling a bit more of the folded-down bag and topping up the compost inside it. It works a treat. You won't get such a big haul as you would if you were growing in the ground, but it's still a thrill to pull up your own tatties. For a first early, try the super-speedy 'Rocket' (five tubers for £2.49 from Thompson & Morgan). Planted now, they could be ready to eat by early June. 'Accent' (five tubers for £3.49 from Thompson & Morgan) with yellowish, waxy flesh is another good one. For second earlies try 'Maris Peer' (five tubers for £3.49) – easy to cook as it doesn't fall apart in the pan – or 'Charlotte' (five tubers for £2.49 from Thompson & Morgan), which is one of the best for a potato salad.
If you don't have a garden, you won't have a compost heap either, and that is a major disadvantage for anyone growing crops in pots. My veg pots are three-quarters filled with our own compost, topped off with the bought stuff, which is finer and easier to sow into. If you are buying all your compost, home-grown becomes an expensive option.
Without a garden or greenhouse, it'll bef worth getting hold of tomatoes, aubergines and chilli peppers as young plants, rather than raising them from seed. As always in this country, the gamble is the weather. All three of the vegetables above will crop with no problem in a greenhouse. Grown outside, you need luck with the summer.
But all of them grow well in pots. Plants, ordered by early April, will be delivered in May, by which time it should be safe to set them outside in their homes. Dobies supply the aubergine 'Ophelia' (three super plugs for £6.99) which produces clusters of small dark fruit, rather than a few big ones. Aubergines do not do well in poor light, so in an overcast summer, don't expect a bumper crop.
Chilli peppers look as pretty in a pot as flowers do and breeders have introduced a good range of compact plants suitable for growing in containers. 'Apache' is rated as medium-hot and in a decent season will crop heavily outside. But it's also neat enough to grow on a windowsill indoors, especially if you pinch out the growing tips of the plant to keep it bushy and compact. Dobies can supply three super plugs for £6.99. Order by early April for delivery in May.
Tomatoes in pots can be bush types or cordon, which need to be tied to a cane as they grow. You also have to pinch out the side shoots, but that's an easy job. The kind of tomato you choose to grow will depend on the space available. 'Tumbler' (three super plugs for £6.99 from Dobies) is a vigorous bush variety; 'Sungold' (five young plants for £5.95 from Mr Fothergill) an excellent cordon. I grew 'Sungold' both in the greenhouse and outside in pots last summer. Though the weather was lousy, the outside plants still cropped well. And did not get blight.
I've also grown courgettes successfully in pots, as an experiment, to see whether they cropped over as long a season as those in the ground. They didn't, but if you haven't got any ground, then the pot method is still worth trying. They are easy to raise from seed on a windowsill. Put a single seed in a 7cm/3in pot of compost. Water it, let the pot drain, then wrap it in clingfilm till you see a sprout coming through. When the seedling is well grown, with the first true pair of leaves beginning to show, plant it outside in its home. The pot should be at least 35cm/14in across. The bigger the pot, the better the plant and the more courgettes you'll have. 'Tromboncino d'Albenga' (Chiltern Seeds, £2.30 for 15 seeds) is a trailing or climbing plant, so if possible you should push your pot up against a wall or the railings of a balcony and train the plant up the support. They'll need plenty of water.
If you don't want to bother with seeds, then try bright yellow 'Buckingham' available from Mr Fothergill (five young plants for £5.95). Mr Fothergill also does a patio vegetable collection, one each of the courgette, a compact hot pepper called 'Loco', sweet pepper 'Redskin', aubergine 'Pot Black' and tomato 'Tumbling Tom Red', for £6.95, a good option where space is limited.
There are great advantages in growing vegetables in tubs and pots: no digging or weeding. Crops are also slightly less prone to being eaten by slugs and snails. But you have to water and feed more carefully than you do when growing in the open ground.
Crops that fruit, such as tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, will need a feed high in potash, such as Tomorite. Don't slosh on more feed than the directions suggest. The plants won't do better. They'll get worse, as salts build up in the compost and roots are unable to extract the nutrients they're looking for.
Plenty of other crops are worth trying in pots: radishes, carrots, beetroot, beans, spinach, chard, and salad leaves of all kinds. You can also grow yourself a crop of peas, using a dwarf variety such as 'Bingo' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.09 for 100 seeds). The plants are practically leafless and put all their energy into producing pods, usually in pairs.
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