I’ve been attempting to grow fruit and vegetables on my balcony (actually several balconies), for a few years now so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned. I am by no means an expert but I do feel that next year I know exactly what I want to plant and, more importantly, what is actually worth growing; often I’ve been sucked into the trap of thinking, ‘ooh wouldn’t it be cool if I grew that!’ rather than properly considering the conditions it might need. This has led to a lot of disappointment. Occasionally however, I have managed to learn from my mistakes.
Tomatoes are probably the first vegetable most cooks try to grow at home and I’ve had varying degrees of success over the years. What I’ve generally found is that trying to grow full size tomatoes in pots or grow bags in a limited space is not really worth it; they often toughen up into ‘London tomatoes’ – thick skinned and mealy. Cherry tomatoes are the way forward for me. This year I discovered the ‘Vilma‘ variety which are specially bred for growing in pots. They shot up really well from seed to produce strong and somewhat stocky plants that trailed over the pots and produced lots of really sweet and flavourful fruits over a long season. I’ve come to realise though, that with tomato plants, quantity is key – you need to grow more than three to make it worthwhile.
I’ve also had great results with chillies and I find you only need a couple of plants to get a really good yield. This year I grew one batch of seeds from a little self-contained pouch I got when I won the Tipped chilli cook-off and the others I grew from some chillies kindly sent to me by Jess, again for winning the cook off. They nearly always grow easily and look all pretty on the balcony as the fruits turn from green to purple to red.
I’ll also be growing more salad leaves next year. I’ve had success with every type I’ve bought including different varieties of rocket (which is much more peppery than the shop bought stuff) and Beet Bull’s Blood. They grow so fast it’s hard to keep up; you keep cutting them and they grow back within a week.
Other successes include the bay tree (an incredibly useful addition to the kitchen garden) and of course some herbs; not all of them mind you – I’ve had the least trouble with hardy ones like rosemary and thyme. Among the softer herbs, basil has worked well (particularly the Greek variety) and I did manage to keep parsley alive once, although not for very long. The one herb I have never been able to grow is coriander. If anyone has any tips on that then please let me know.
And now for some of the fails…
When I heard it was possible to grow potatoes in containers, I was excited. Generally, I am not a big potato eater but the flavour of a home grown spud is so spectacularly different from that of a shop bought one. It brings back memories of lazy summer lunches in my parents’ garden – forking up the potatoes, shaking off the dirt and tumbling them into the basket ready to be washed, cooked and made ready to receive butter. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when the ‘great potato harvest’ turned up just three teeny spuds from one flamboyantly leafy, lush plant. I had to laugh as Chris desperately scrabbled through the dirt with his fingers, “where are they? where ARE they?!”
Next, the padron peppers. Not a total failure as you can see but the problem here was one of quantity. The three plants I managed to keep alive produced just four peppers between them and I think it was a real struggle bless ‘em; the plants are now yellow, scrawny and basically on the way out. I suspect a greenhouse might be a more suitable environment.
And finally, the strawberries. These were incredibly disappointing because they had so much promise. I bought a variety bred for growing in pots. They even managed to survive a week wrapped up in the post office depot (the postman failed to leave a card to let me know they were there) and went on to recover well, producing a pleasing amount of scarlet fruit. When it came to the eating however, the berries were hard and sour, no matter how long I left them to ripen. I really don’t know what went wrong.
So there you have it – the fruits of my rather limited labours. Next year I’ll be growing more tomatoes, salad leaves and chillies and experimenting yet again with the herbs. I also like to grow some non-edibles for a bit of colour; sweet peas are absolutely essential as my favourite flowers and the lily trees (top photo) were spectacular, provoking gasps (actual gasps!) of joy from visitors.
I’ll be trying some winter salad leaves now but I’m also looking for a new addition for next year. What have been your successes? Any vegetable I simply must try growing? Any tips on keeping herbs alive will also be very gratefully received!
You can see my full urban gardening Flickr set here.