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Opinion: Want to grow your own food, but don't have outside space?

Here’s how to get creative and grow your own, without a garden.

Fiann Ó Nualláin

GARDENING WITHOUT A garden? No, it doesn’t involve robbing the orchard or digging up a bit a burdock root from a ditch (but, hey, wild food is cool and even genuinely tasty, so knock your socks off!). Gardening without a garden can be attained with a couple of plant pots and a mix of some upcycled containers – anything from the one festival welly you made it home with, to a few nifty slits in a milk carton.

It is so easy to transform the smallest balcony or cramped patio into an outdoor larder. Seeds are simply programmed to germinate; add a little soil with a little water and they’re off.

Space is not the barrier – well, if you want home-grown potatoes you will need a barrel or enough room to stack a few grow bags upright, but peas which naturally climb and entwine can be grown to clothe a wall, over a railings, or even colonise an existing hedge. Yes, ingenuity is the answer: tomatoes and strawberries can trail from a container or hanging basket, and a wall mounted pallet can be painted, decorated and planted as a ‘living wall’ or indeed a ‘living spice rack’.

Leafy greens and many soft fruits are ideal for containers. If you are really crammed for space or the bike fills all of the balcony or yard, then try sprouting some seeds on a windowsill and enjoying the health benefits that sprouted and raw foods bring. Or chance some ginger, lemon grass, turmeric, basil, tomatoes or chilies as harvestable houseplants. There is so much possibility.

Getting started

Most edibles like at least six hours of direct sun daily – that’s a sunny window or, better still, a space outside where air circulation and the natural catchment of rain can boost yield and lessen your chores. Some crops like lettuce turn bitter in too much heat and may need the shade of a taller plant nearby. But remember to only grow what you will eat; it’s not just that space is a premium, why waste your time growing food you don’t really want?

A bucket will catch rain for watering just as well as any expensive catchment systems and a few DIY funnels can get the water to the roots as well as any drip irrigation system. The containers will need to meet the root capacity of a plant, though (there’s no point in putting an aubergine in a yoghurt carton). Carrots like a deep root run but radishes,. on the other hand, will stay neat only if a small container is available.

The secret to success is soil. Standard compost is not the best for edibles, so mix it with some real soil or sand to improve its structure, drainage and water holding capacity. Don’t forget drainage holes and to check for root space.

Best crops for pots

Almost all culinary herbs will thrive in pots, as they mainly come from regions with poor soil and low rainfall. So lavender, rosemary and sage will love a terracotta pot while thyme, oregano, marjoram, chives, garlic chives will love a window box, cramped together in free draining soil, pointed toward the sun.

Basil is best thought of as an annual herb or as an indoor kitchen-sill plant for homemade pesto; coriander can be grown inside or outside but needs at least 25cms of root depth. Dill, which so easily reseeds itself, is treated like an annual and also likes a deep enough pot. Mint will fill out any sized pot but is a bit invasive, so keep your mojito additive separated from other plants!

In an upcycled wine box try planting Bull’s Blood Beets, which are great to build stamina and are very tasty either sliced or as micro salad toppings. Spinach, the super food even cartoon characters know, boasts young foliage that works brilliantly in energy juices, while the mature ones are great in ravioli. Any brassica (pak choi, winter cabbage, cauliflower) can thrive in a deep pot or trug – as will all the root crops you might need for some winter roasting, autumn parsnip chips, or summer burdock and dandelion beer.

Thin creatively: hanging baskets can add edible flowers to the mix, including peppery nasturtiums and the saffron substitute calendula petals.

If you have some height on offer, try planting some sunflower seeds. And, if you haven’t already, try a dwarf variety of the plant – whatever its height at maturity, that one seed will give you a bounty of vitamin E rich seeds and one of the best fat-soluble antioxidants to keep cholesterol down, energy up and brain cells on. Gardening without a garden, it’s a no brainier! And such fun too.

Fiann Ó Nualláin is an advocate of gardening for health with a background in horticulture, nutrition, naturopathy and ethnobotany. His new book, The Holistic Gardener, published by Mercier Press, is available to buy now. 

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Fiann Ó Nualláin

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