Great container veg
The following are very rewarding crops, but don't limit yourself - experiment. Very early sowings are best made in a greenhouse, conservatory, shed or garage and then the containers moved outside when it's warmer. Crops can be protected from cold and frost by covering with fleece.
Salads and leaf crops
Leafy salads make quick and easy container crops almost all year round. They are undemanding, and will grow in small pots or window boxes or fill gaps when large containers are planted up with other crops. Lettuce can be grown throughout the summer, with rocket and Oriental greens in the cooler months, and crops such as hardy chicories and landcress in winter.
The quickest harvests and best yields are obtained by growing salads as ‘baby leaf’ crops. Sow seed evenly and thinly over the surface of the container, cover with a sprinkling of multi-purpose compost and water well. Aim for plants about 2.5cm (1in) apart each way, and start picking leaves when they are 10cm (4in) high. Seed mixtures such as an ‘Oriental mix’ or ‘lettuce mix’ give a range of cultivars from one packet and are ideal for small spaces. Alternatively, for hearted lettuces, use small-headed cultivars such as ‘Little Gem’ (mini-cos) or ‘Mini-green’ (iceberg).
Regular sowings will be needed for a continuous supply. Start the earliest in March in pots a light warm spot, but move to semi-shade for midsummer sowings. Keep plants continually moist. If growth is poor, feed regularly with a general purpose liquid once the harvest has begun.
For autumn and early spring leaves, kales such as ‘Red Russian’ or ‘Black Tuscany’ or curly ‘Redbor’ make handsome and useful crops. Raise plants in modules from May or June sowings and plant 15-20cm apart (6-8in). Although kales grow tall on a vegetable plot, close spacing in a container will keep them dwarf.
Tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, cucumber and courgettes
These tender fruiting crops appreciate the warmth created by walls and paving, making them good candidates for growing in large containers or grow-bags in a sunny spot. Peppers, chillies and aubergines can also be successful in warmer areas of the UK. Looked after well, they should fruit for several months during summer and early autumn.
Cultivars described as ‘patio’ selections are usually compact plants, often with smaller fruit. Other cultivars will still grow well, but may need staking or pinching out to keep them neat, and large-fruited cultivars may only produce relatively small numbers of fruits.
Plants can either be raised from seed in a greenhouse early in the year, or bought from garden centres or catalogues in May or early June, for planting once the threat of frost is past. Cover young plants with fleece on cold nights.
The mature plants can be demanding – they will need daily or twice-daily watering in hot weather, and feeding regularly with tomato liquid feed once the flowers and fruit form. Mulching the surface of the container with bark or gravel can help to conserve moisture.
Peas and beans
Peas and beans give relatively low yields in containers, but added value comes from their attractive flowers and pods. Use at least a 10 litre pot, and keep plants well watered or the flowers will not set.
Dwarf sugar (mangetout) peas such as ‘Norli’ do well early in the year, giving young shoots and tendrils for salads as well as a harvest of pods. Sow seeds in March to May about 5cm (2in) apart, equally distributed over surface of the container. Provide wigwam of canes and string or twiggy sticks for them to climb.
Dwarf French beans can also give a worthwhile harvest and cultivars with coloured pods such as ‘Purple Teepee’ and ‘Golden Teepee’ are particularly decorative. Make two sowings direct into containers in May and June for a July to September harvest. Space plants about 10cm (4in) apart each way. Runner beans are more demanding plants and flower set is less reliable, although they give a wonderful show of flowers. Dwarf cultivars, which have short pods, are the most suitable.