Achievable edibles

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Vegetable garden, Lost Garden of Heligan, Cornwall, England

Having grown up in a family where many of our fruit and vegetables were grown in our home garden, I always thought that I would follow suit and become self-sufficient. However, an obsession with ornamental plants has made me unwilling yet to devote much space to edibles. This may all change one day, but at the moment, my compromise is to shoehorn a few crops into small spaces here and there through the garden: in pots and troughs, and in occasional seasonal spaces that occur when shrubby perennials are cut back. However, I continue to feel rather guilty about not producing more food.

New book on growing edibles in containers

A newly published book from CSIRO/David Bateman Publishing called How to Grow Edibles in Containers: Good produce from small spaces by Fionna Hill has made me feel better about my approach, reassuring us that it isn't necessary to have a kitchen garden like something from a grand English estate like Heligan (pictured at the start of the blog) in order to enjoy the satisfaction of growing food to eat. With apartment living becoming more and more common everywhere, guidance on how to grow food in small spaces so that people can still participate in gardening and have a connection to plants, is very welcome. Eating something you have actually grown yourself is incredibly rewarding, and freshly picked crops that have not been sprayed with ghastly chemicals during their growth are so much more nutritious than those bought from a shop. Salad leaves, for example, are probably several days old by the time we purchase them, and don't last long - in comparison, a mixed selection of just-picked leaves from the garden is a delight that is achievable even where space is at a premium.

Seedlings of crops that can be continually harvested

Rather than trying to encompass a huge range of edibles in the book, Fionna particularly advocates growing crops that are hard to buy in shops, and those that will continue to grow even as they are harvested, such as baby spinach and compact lettuce varieties. She gives her verdict on which plants are easy and are most likely to succeed, and be less prone to pests and diseases. Her friendly, down-to-earth style, and her provision of many great practical tips and suggestions, combine to make the whole enterprise seem achievable for even the novice gardener. She includes a chapter on how to involve children in vegetable growing, so that the next generation will learn these simple skills and gain an understanding of where food actually comes from.

Potted edibles in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Some of the unusual salad crops covered in the book include ones that can be grown through the cooler months, such as miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), mizuna (Brassica juncea) and corn salad (also known as lamb's lettuce Valerianella locusta). Interesting root crops are mentioned, such as ginger and turmeric, which I wouldn't have previously thought of trying. Fionna gives tips on choosing cultivars of root crops such as carrots and turnips that grow in a ball shape so that they won't be hampered by being grown in a container - and suggests compact varieties of other edibles (such as eggplants) that suit life in a pot. She explains how to use smart-looking supports for climbing crops such as cucumbers. She also mentions some useful perennial crops for pots, and some edible flowers are also covered.

Basil grown as a microgreen crop on the kitchen bench

The author is a great fan of microgreens: seedlings that are grown en masse in shallow containers then harvested when they are still tiny - after about two weeks growth. These trendy little leaves have great nutritional value despite their diminutive size and make a wonderfully tasty addition to salads as well as being useful for decorative garnishes. They can be grown indoors on a kitchen windowsill or outside, and some crops suitable include basil, fenugreek, radish, coriander, beetroot and mustard. I've been interested in microgreens for a while, and this book's explanation of how to grow them is the best I have read. One suggestion I particularly liked was the idea of using recycled bonsai pots or bamboo kitchen steaming baskets for these crops, so that they can look decorative as they grow.

Decorative rainbow silver beet, Lavandula Garden, Victoria

Indeed, throughout the book, Fionna gives ideas for how to make potted edible plants look attractive on balconies or elsewhere: choosing decorative varieties, such as gorgeous blood vein sorrel (Rumex sanguineus and Okinawan spinach (Gynura bicolor), and planting them in good-looking containers. She suggests a variety of possible objects to use as containers, many of which are recycled objects such as baskets and wooden boxes, emphasising the point that vegetable growing doesn't have to be an expensive exercise involving buying specialist kits and so on.

Nasturtiums are one of the edible crops covered in the book

Organic methods of fertilising and pest control are recommended through the book. A few recipes are included at the end of the book. One point to be noted is that because the author gardens in New Zealand, some of the particular cultivars mentioned may not be available in Australia; however, similar types are sure to be available via seed mail order companies in Australia. Overall, I felt inspired by this well-illustrated and easy-to-readbook to expand my vegie growing with some different crops, and get back to microgreens!

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 01 June 2015

    It sounds an interesting book, and if it inspires, that is a good thing. I have always grown vegetable/fruit, but have just about given up growing vegies, because of the constant invasion of rats, birds and possums, and sometimes, rabbits, devouring all before them, even if the produce is not yet ripe. Any solutions, gratefully received! It is very frustrating re pests. I think cages over the top of pots can help . Also maybe microgeens are the way forward as they can be done on the kitchen bench! Deirdre

  • By Ambra 2010 Monday, 01 June 2015

    I"m a huge fan of a type of radicchio I was brought up with but is impossible to find at greengrocers, maybe because it"s quite delicate. It"s called "zuccherina di Trieste" and I buy the seeds online. More info on my blog: http://ambradambra.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/the-secret-radicchio-society/ That sounds a good one to grow; thanks, Ambra. Deirdre

  • By Helen 7256 Monday, 01 June 2015

    Sounds very inspiring. I always feel very virtuous harvesting edibles from the garden. Herbs have always been a great standby for me - I"ve always had quite a selection even when I"ve had no vegies in the garden at all. Herbs have been my best success overall. They really do make such a difference to dishes, and bunches from the greengrocer do not last very long and are relatively expensive! Deirdre

  • By Christine 2429 Monday, 01 June 2015

    Having just moved from our farm to a house closer to town on 2 acres,with not all the land avail. for gardening - the vege. garden we build will be much smaller and veges./herbs chosen for smaller spaces - starting with a salad box of pick again greens near the back door - easily accessible for a quick salad. Miss my established country garden but keen to start again -brought lots of cuttings and divisions in pots. Good luck with your new garden, Christine. I find it very rewarding to be able to have enough greens growing to make a salad. Deirdre

  • By lillian 3951 Monday, 01 June 2015

    Great Deirdre - I"m going to get our librarian to order this for our garden club. Many of our members, like Christine above, are moving to units or small homes in town, as they have to give up farming. And the new developments around our towns often have no garden space at all. I grow quite a few salad veg and herbs in pots, but don"t always get timing right- though I did hear a recommendation to grow coriander in winter as it does not bolt. I"d have thought too cold in southern Vic.?? My experience in Sydney is that coriander does best in the cooler months. Deirdre

  • By DAVID 2068 Monday, 01 June 2015

    Hi Lillian, I"ve been growing coriander (in the ground)for years in Perth and nowadays in Sydney, and at least in these climates it"s very easy to grow delicious coriander during the cooler 6 months of the year. In the warmer 6 months I"ve tried a few times and it"s always failed - bolts at a very early stage. It"s not successful in shade either. I buy a bag of coriander seeds from a Middle Eastern or Greek foods shop - about $4 for 250 gram and just scatter the seeds. Cover with ~1cm topsoil. Thanks for your feedback, David. Great idea to buy the seeds from a food shop in bulk. I never seem to connect spice seeds as being the same thing we can grow a plant from!! Deirdre

  • By Helen 2154 Monday, 01 June 2015

    This is enough to make me think that I too could grow vegies. The book sounds as if it is just what I need to get me started. Thanks Deirdre. Watch this space. It has certainly inspired me, Helen - I hope you will enjoy growing some edibles. Deirdre

  • By Beth 2257 Monday, 01 June 2015

    Margaret, we have to contend with the dreaded Brush Turkey as well as possums and bandicoots, so, after years trying to fight them I have constructed an enclosure using star pickets and plastic coated 1/2 inch mesh (comes in rolls and is quite firm). It is working a treat. It is basic but mk 2 is working well. Bush rock holds the sides down. I have squeezed lettuce, rocket, peas, spinach and climbing purple beans into quite a tiny space. There is even a pineapple head to see if it grows.

  • By margaret 2122 Tuesday, 02 June 2015

    Thank you, Beth, for your advice. It sounds as if you have found the solution to the pest problem. I did have a wire enclosure, but now think the diameter of the wire was too big, as I know rats, especially, can access tiny spaces. Thank you, too, Deirdre, I will try pots, covered with mesh.

  • By Alain 4370 Wednesday, 03 June 2015

    Good discussion on the vegies, To the first comment about giving up due to pest,(Margaret). I have a dedicated plot fully enclosed with bird netting as used in commercial orchard and it has made my vegy patch a success story. I live in the bush and have all the animals mentioned and who dearly love to help me harvesting, I am hand feeding a rock wallaby parsley! I can be contacted if tips required. Great blog Deidre, keep it coming. Thanks for your tip on the enclosure. It sounds like a great idea. I will be writing more on this topic soon. Deirdre

  • By Alain 4370 Wednesday, 03 June 2015

    I could send you photos of my vegy patch as it might aspire other, I have wicking garden beds raised for easy work and the enclosure is 6 metres x 6 metres. Thanks. I am interested in the wicking beds and hope to write about these in the future. Deirdre

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