You don’t need a lot of space to create a playground for bees, butterflies and other pretty pollinators; you just need some pots, starter plants, basic equipment and your imagination. We asked gardener Caro Shrives for some advice. Gardening gloves at the ready…
Let’s start with pots. There’s a huge choice of beautiful ones available. If choosing metal, line the planter so that the roots are protected from heat in the summer. Ceramic or terracotta are great for an outside step or patio – they look stylish and a heavy pot is less likely to be moved. Plastic or fibreglass pots are best for balconies as they are lighter. Also plastic pots are better for retaining moisture in hot weather, whereas terracotta pots dry out more quickly.
Don’t limit yourself just to pots though. Window boxes, wooden or ceramic, look lovely filled with culinary herbs or edible flowers. These need to be fixed securely to the window ledge, especially for windows above the ground floor. Window boxes can be one planter or several pots, but the smaller the container, the more watering it will need, especially in warm or windy weather. Wind can dry out a plant just as much as heat. Hanging baskets need to be lined with moss or a special liner. Water retaining gel mixed in with the soil is also helpful. Try planting them with edible flowers, herbs, tiny tomatoes, strawberries or ‘cut and come again’ salad leaves.
Not so stylish, but incredibly useful, are tomato grow bags. Three plants will give a good crop of tomatoes and the bag can be hidden inside a bespoke woven willow planter. Apple crates lined with thick plastic to protect the wood are a great rustic alternative too. The lining should have holes punched through for drainage.
Next it’s time to think about your soil. For containers buy fresh from a reputable garden centre – do not use soil from the garden. Multi-purpose compost (preferably peat free) will do the job; after the first six weeks, feed the plants by adding a liquid feed to the watering – go easy on the dosage as too much feed will harm the plants’ root system.
Let’s talk about watering: Overwatering can be as damaging as under-watering. Test the soil by pushing a finger in up to the first knuckle. If the soil feels damp, the plant doesn’t need watering; if dry, then water. Plants in pots can need watering once a day in high summer, but less frequently in the spring. Good drainage is essential to prevent root rot. Raise the pot on pot feet for drainage if placing on a patio or front step. It’s no longer considered essential to put broken crocks in the bottom of the pot but very large pots benefit from a layer of broken polystyrene pieces to reduce the weight – soil is heavy!
So what should you plant? Sow a wildflower seed mix onto soil for a pretty moveable ‘meadow’ in summer, this will attract bees and butterflies into your garden to pollinate your other plants. Many edibles are now available as plug plants from garden centres and online suppliers or plants can be grown from seed. Tomatoes and lettuce should be started off when the weather is a bit warmer. Broad beans can be started now in the garden or pots. Plants grown from seed will need to be thinned out after the seeds have germinated so that the individual plants have enough soil nutrition and air circulation to grow.
In a small space you need to think about planting design. There should be some height as well as shape to the plants. For example, in a herb pot, plant tall frondy fennel or dill next to round shaped parsley and purple basil or purple sage, spreading thyme or trailing nasturtiums will grow over the sides of the pot. You could tuck some violas or wild strawberries between the herbs too. A densely planted pot will need a monthly liquid feed throughout the life of the plants. Other edibles to consider are salad leaves, spinach, sorrel, spring onions, small chillies, salad chillies, lunchbox sweet (bell) peppers. Herbs such as dill, coriander, basil, parsley, rosemary, peppermint, thyme, lemon verbena, fennel, chives, bergamot (Monarda), sage and tarragon.
A deep wide pot will have room for a wigwam or obelisk to support climbing beans, Malabar spinach (a climbing variety) or aubergines. Smaller sunflowers (3ft tall) have edible petals and will give height to a pot or border.
Group plants together that like similar growing conditions. Mediterranean herbs (sage, rosemary, thyme, lemon verbena and lavender) like good drainage and sun. Parsley, mint and lemon balm prefer moist soil and a little shade during the hottest part of the day.
Pots can be brightened up with edible flowers that look lovely in a salad or on a cake. Most edible flowers have a mild flavour but add colour to a plate. Not all flowers are edible (potato flowers are poisonous!) so it’s important to identify them correctly. It’s always best to garden organically, and important not to eat flowers that have been sprayed with pesticides. Flowers from a variety of home grown vegetables can be eaten, such as broad beans (crimson or white flowers) and courgettes. Other flowers to consider are borage (great in Pimm’s and frozen into ice cubes), chamomile, calendula and tagetes (both members of the marigold family), dianthus (aka pinks),chicory, chive, cornflowers and nasturtiums. Vegetables that thrive in small containers include carrots, salad potatoes (e.g. Charlotte), beetroot, radish, chard, kale, compact courgette plants (e.g. ‘All Green Bush’).
And finally, the ‘get out clause’ at the end of the season. Most ‘grow your own’ plants are annuals, once harvested they’re done, so they just need to be pulled out and composted when they’ve gone to seed; the compost can be topped up or re-used for overwintering plants and replaced in the spring. Bay is an evergreen and will keep growing (plant bulbs of snowdrops or mini daffodils around the base in winter).
Caro Shrives is a garden writer, garden designer and experienced grow your own gardener. She writes The Urban Veg Patch blog about growing food and flowers in her garden spaces and allotment near Highgate in London.
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