Is it possible to grow food if you don't have a proper veg garden? Yes, of course it is and for many people this will not only be the best, but the sole option. You could even argue that there are advantages to this approach. Rather than being daunted as a new gardener on a new allotment, facing a large piece of ground which is daring you to be its master, you can inch your way into the growing calendar, adding more items to the grow-your-own list as space and time allow.
Space will be the first thing to consider. What are you offering? A windowsill indoors? A balcony? A windowbox? A few spare patches in a flower border? The top of a wall, where can balance some boxes of earth? Tubs on a deck? A galvanised trough lined up against a passage wall? All these have possibilities, but not necessarily the same ones. The more limited the space, the more carefully you need to think how you are going to use it.
In Vegetables for Small Gardens (Hamlyn £8.99), Joy Larkcom, queen of the veg patch, invented what she called a VSR, a Value for Space Rating for vegetables. Only bean sprouts, mustard and cress, oriental saladini, winter purslane and rocket got four stars, her top award. The ratings were based, not only on the amount of space vegetables needed, but the length of time they occupied the space. Brussels sprouts, which take from 30-36 weeks to mature, get only one star. So does spring cabbage (30-32 weeks from seed to harvest). If you buy young plants rather than grow your own from seed, you can cut those times, but perhaps not enough to put either sprouts or cabbage firmly in the sights of a gardener with too little garden.
I'd put cut-and-come-again salad crops way at the top of any list of crops to grow in a small space. By adding corn salad, komatsuna, mizuna, pak choi, texsel greens and various leafy chicories and lettuce to the Larkcom four star list, you have endless possibilities for salads over a long season. The bigger the container, the better the results and the easier it will be to keep the salads growing smoothly.
Use pots at least 30cm across, if you can. If you don't have pots, collect wooden wine boxes, polystyrene fish boxes or wooden crates from the greengrocer. Wine boxes and fish boxes must have holes punched in the bottom for drainage. Slatted greengrocer crates need to be lined with newspaper. The containers themselves can be lined up anywhere that is convenient, along the top of a low wall, on a deck, on a balcony (if there is enough light – they are often overhung).
The biggest chore will be carrying compost to fill the containers; for a smooth succession of salad leaves you need to sow a new potful every two weeks. When you have three or four containers on the go, you can chuck the contents of the first pot, refill it and put it back into the production line. Multipurpose compost is lighter than the loam-based kind, but nutrients in a multipurpose compost will either have leached out or been used up by the plants within six weeks. After that, the crop will need feeding as well as watering. With leaf crops such as salads, you need a feed with plenty of nitrogen. Maxicrop, based on seaweed, gives good results.
If you are growing relatively small amounts of cut-and-come-again, it's easiest to buy packets of seeds ready-mixed. You can get oriental mixtures (Suffolk Herbs £1.45), spicy mixtures (Suffolk Herbs £1.45), continental mixtures (Thompson & Morgan £1.89), crunchy mixtures (Thompson and Morgan £1.89), stir fry mixtures (Thompson & Morgan £1.89), mesclun with rocket and chervil (DT Brown £1.19) or an Italian misticanza (Seeds of Italy £1.69).
The seedmerchant DT Brown includes the mesclun and another mixture of salad leaves (rocket, coriander, mizuna, mustard and sorrel) in their Ultimate Patio Collection (£34.99), 22 different vegetables – their choice – which bought separately would cost £53.78. That's a saving worth having. The collection includes rocket, which even if it's included in a salad mix, is good to have as a separate crop. It is ready to pick within 20-30 days of sowing. The variety in the Brown collection is 'Apollo' with biggish, rounded leaves, not jaggedly cut like the wild rocket.
Like all collections put together by someone else, this includes some veg I wouldn't bother with – cauliflower (notoriously difficult to grow well even in ideal conditions) and the cabbage 'Pixie'. In itself, this is a good cabbage, but on a patio? No. It ties up too much space for too long.
But the rest of the collection, which includes courgettes, carrots, beetroots, radish as well as potatoes and strawberries, would not be difficult to grow in containers, provided you could keep up with the watering. I'm going to experiment with a new way of growing a few early potatoes in our new greenhouse. For this you just need an old fertiliser bag, turned inside out. Roll the sides of the bag down so it is about half its original height, punch a few holes in the bottom and start filling it with compost. I'll use our own, dug straight from the heap.
When the bag is filled to about 30cm, push the potatoes down into the compost. Two tubers to a bag is plenty. Don't worry about chitting them first. Cover the potatoes with another 15cm of compost, water the bag and leave it in the greenhouse (or some other sheltered place) until the haulms are about 15cm tall. Then unroll the bag to the same height as the growth and carefully top up with more compost. This is the equivalent of the "earthing up" you'd do if you were growing the potatoes in a more conventional way. Continue to unroll and top up until the plants start to flower. That's the sign to start harvesting. Tip the bag out and retrieve the treasure. If you are growing on a balcony with nowhere to tip, cut a corner off the bottom of the bag and scrabble around for the crop. If earliness is your goal, use first early potatoes such as 'Lady Christl' or 'Epicure'.
Suffolk Herbs, Monks Farm, Coggeshall Rd, Kelvedon, Essex CO5 9PG, 01376 572456, suffolkherbs.com; Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 0844 5731818, thompson-morgan.com; DT Brown, Bury Rd, Newmarket, Suffolk CB8 7PQ, 0845 3710532, dtbrownseeds.co.uk; Seeds of Italy, Unit C3 Phoenix Ind Est, Rosslyn Cres, Harrow HA1 SP, 020-8427 5020, seedsofitaly.comReuse content