Take heart, a big garden is not essential

Growing a few plants without a garden is always possible if a little innovative thought is brought to bear.

By Tom Pattinson
Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 11:04 am
Updated Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 11:16 am
Freshly picked from a container. Picture by Tom Pattinson
Freshly picked from a container. Picture by Tom Pattinson

So, take heart if you live in a flat or only have a small backyard or paved area. The sense of achievement that comes with successful cultivation can be yours too.

My journey in gardening began with, and still includes a small collection of indoor pot plants displayed in a living room window. This developed into tomato and pepper plants bearing fruit in the same situation.

They demanded a regular shot of water via hand spray to prevent dust clogging up their leaf-breathing apparatus (stomata), but such active involvement brings its own rewards.

Hanging baskets for bare walls. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

The space a yard or patio presents can also be made productive with the addition of a container. Anything that will retain soil or compost can become a growing unit. The most obvious being pots, tubs, window boxes, hanging baskets or a raised bed cobbled together with the aid of spare timber and a few nails or screws.

Traditional containers aside, a perfectly acceptable crop of rhubarb or potatoes can be raised in an empty fertiliser bag filled with soil/compost or a growing bag made from tough material to use year-on-year. Frankly, everything and the kitchen sink is acceptable if it works for you. Novelty containers include old walking boots planted up with succulents such as sempervivum, discarded ceramic toilets with colourful annuals atop and trailing plants dangling over the sides, and an inverted safety hat doubling up as a hanging basket. We`ve seen it all!

Whereas plants grown in the open garden have a free root run, allowing them to forage for moisture and nutrients when stressed, those grown in containers are restricted and reliant on you for sustenance. Occasional precipitation does contribute but regular watering and feeding throughout the growing season is necessary.

So, the choice of growing medium is important. My preference is for a soil-based compost because it has the bulk to avoid drying out rapidly as lightweight alternatives do. If you find it too heavy for use in a large hanging basket and decide on a soil-less compost, at least incorporate polymer granules in the mix. They absorb moisture and release it as required.

Whichever compost you use, the nutrient value will decrease over time and supplementary feeding is necessary. This is especially so with tomato plants which at the fruit-bearing stage receive a general feed, high in potash, every seven to 10 days.


In days of yore, head gardeners made up their own growing media using leaf mould, composted garden waste, sand, fertilisers et al.

These varied according to plant species and the recipe for each was a closely guarded secret.

When the standardised John Innes composts whose contents every career gardener has had to memorise at some stage of training, arrived on the scene, growing potted plants was open to all.

Soil (sterilised loam) was the main ingredient. It came from turf that had been stacked, grass facing down, in a pile for several months.

This was chopped into pieces and subjected to hot steam treatment in a coal-fired unit before use. The advantage this has over ordinary garden soil is there are no viable weed seeds or pests present.

Mixing your own composts can be fun and rewarding.

I do so when the “Hot Bin” composter offers a batch of dark, rich material. It is joined by some gritty sand and a general fertiliser.

The finished product retains moisture yet drains well and allows air to reach the plant roots.

Our container planting is well under way.

Two wooden raised beds support culinary herbs. Another is delivering salad crops to the kitchen.

Recently planted hanging baskets need more development time before transfer outdoors.

They’re at their best when the container vanishes from sight beneath a sea of colour.

Mobile ornamental displays in pots, tubs and assorted containers can be planted with a diversity of subjects for summer colour. Liliums, fuchsias, herbaceous perennials are ideal.

We’ve a dozen different foxglove cultivars for group display or filling gaps that appear in the ornamental borders. Have plants, will travel!

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