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Contain yourself

The rough guide to container growing

The Ecologist, March 2007

Walking to my allotment a couple of weeks ago, I passed a house in which some serious DIY was going on. The front garden was strewn with the remains of a bathroom – smashed tiles, pipework, dusty old cupboards, the bath itself.

On top of these skeletal remains perched two toilet bowls; not broken, not smashed, not even chipped. In perfect condition, in fact. I pondered. Could I carry them? They looked heavy. But they obviously weren’t wanted. And they could definitely come in handy.

In the end I didn’t salvage them, and I still sort of regret it. Not because my house has any shortage of bathroom facilities, but because they would have a made a hell of a feature on my allotment. I could picture them in the middle of my plot, full of soil, with onion stalks or potato leaves poking from the top of the bowl. Laugh if you like, but if I’d done it in the Tate Gallery I’d probably have the Turner prize on my mantelpiece by now.

Last month’s column explored how to grow your own food if you’re flat-bound and landless. This month I’m moving up the scale a bit – though not a lot – to look at how you can feed yourself if you have little more than a tiny yard, or a small patch of concrete. In other words, if you don’t actually have any soil.

I’m sort of in this position myself. Our house has a small, urban back garden and though it has a couple of small borders, in which we grow herbs and wildflowers, there’s nothing like enough space to grow any worthwhile amount of food. This is why I have an allotment. But if you can’t get one, can’t manage one or simply don’t want one, there’s no need to despair. Container gardening is here to save you from the hideous netherworld of shrink-wrapped lettuces and Kenyan mangetout.

Grow your own food in containers and you can let your imagination run riot. All you need is something in which to store enough soil, in which to grow enough food – a pot, a bucket, a tub, even an old bath. Beyond that, space and the patience of whoever you share the garden with are about the only limiting factors.

As an illustration, here are a few examples of the types of food you can grow in a container garden – and the types of containers you can grow them in. Every example here has been put into practice either by me or by someone I know – and they’ve all worked.

Salad pots. Get down to the garden centre or your local hardware shop and source yourself a variety of different pots and tubs. Think about what you want to grow in them before you do. Get yourself a deep pot and you can grow carrots, beetroot or even parsnips. Shallower soil but more surface area will let you grow lettuces, spring onions, or any herb you’d care to mention. A decent variety of containers and you’ve got yourself an entire salad.

Potato tyres. Not the most attractive of options, but if appetite rather than aesthetics is your focus, it will serve you well. Pile up three or four old car tyres, fill them with soil, and plant some seed potatoes in the top. Make sure the stacks get some sunlight, and keep them watered. The black tyres will absorb a lot of the sun’s heat, and you should get a great yield of potatoes from very little space. There’s no reason why this method should not also work for other root crops like carrots, parsnips or beetroot.

Trees in a tub. A friend of mine found a large tin bucket in a skip, took it home and planted a young apple tree in it. According to latest reports, it’s doing well. Planting fruit trees in a container is never going to be as effective as planting them in the ground, where they can spread their roots and breathe, but it can work if you have a big enough tub and a small enough variety of tree. Crab apples are ideal, as are compact dwarf apple or pear trees, which you can buy from most nurseries

Strawberry Fields. Strawberries are a brilliant crop to grow in containers. They’re dead easy to grow, need little expertise or effort, and don’t require that much soil either. They’ll grow in most containers, and you can buy specially-designed strawberry planters in all kinds of different designs, which will give you a picturesque cascade of luscious red berries on your patio come June.

Climbers and hangers. There’s no reason your crops have to be at ground level. A crop of French or runner beans, planted in tubs, can climb up a trellis on a fence or wall and fetch you a great crop. Or you could build a pyramid of garden canes above the container and wind them up that – with the added benefit that it creates a beautiful garden feature when the flowers come out in early summer. And there are always hanging baskets: what’s to stop you growing food in them? The sky (ahem) is the limit.

Any of this can be grown in anything from stylish, shop-bought terracotta pots to old bathtubs salvaged from the dump. You can choose the look of your little garden as you choose what you want to eat from it. Think laterally. You’ll enjoy it.

Useful resources

  • The Organic Gardening Catalogue is a great resource – and it’s free. Order seeds, tubs and tools from it as you plan for spring. Sign up at www.organiccatalog.com, or phone 0845 130 1304, and they’ll send you a copy.
  • Trees Direct can sell you miniature apple, crab apple, cherry and even peach trees for container growing. www.treesdirect.co.uk. Telephone 01588 680 280
  • The Edible Container Garden : Fresh Food from Tiny Spaces, by Carol Klein, is published by Gaia Books, and has received good reviews.
  • If you don’t fancy scavenging your containers, Crocus can sell you almost every variety under the sun. www.crocus.co.uk