There are many ways to grow food in your own home and garden – even if its tiny. Yes it is way more time consuming than popping down the shops to buy vegetables that have systematically had all their minerals and amino acids removed by mass processing techniques, but it holds its own reward. When you become involved in the life of plants or animals, it opens a window in the universe. Here are a dozen ways to get yourself some food growing space:
Anyone can grow sprouting seeds such as radish, alfalfa, mung beans, lentils, quinoa, wheat, aduki beans or chick peas. Mixed packs are readily available from health food shops, as are small stacker trays for home growing. They can even be grown in a jar with a draining top. Sprouted seeds contain a powerhouse of nutrients with high concentrations of essential enzymes, proteins, minerals, trace elements and natural vitamins. They also have an excellent fibrous value that helps to regulate the digestion and is kind to the intestines. Because they grow right up to the moment they are harvested there are very few nutrients lost – more fresh food straight from the kitchen. Sprouted seeds are delicious in sandwiches, salads, stir fries, soups, stews and dips. My personal favourites are sprouted Fenugreek seeds, a sublime taste!
Another set-up for an internal windowsill but it can work just as well outside. Make sure the plants get a mix of sun and shade as they are very sensitive. Cut three-quarters of the way round a two litre recycled plastic bottle about 4 inches up from the base. Make some drainage holes in the bottom and put in a layer of gravel and some seed compost. Works well for planting small lettuce and rocket seeds. You can also use this process to bring on seeds early for planting out, but watch it doesn’t get too wet or too dry inside.
If there isn’t a drainage system built into your window box, make sure it has holes and that the leakage isn’t going to damage anything in the building. Put down a layer of pebbles or small stones to aid water dispersal, otherwise your box will be prone to rot and mould. For best results use a 50/50 mix of loam and coir compost without added insecticide. Fill to two-thirds with compost.
Transplant your seedlings or plants to the box and top up with compost, leaving about an inch for watering. Give them plenty of growing room, about three herbs to a two-foot long box. Keep it watered and pest/weather free and you should be cropping within three months. Great for small, early salad greens and kitchen herbs.
Gerdening in Pots
Even the smallest garden can accommodate a few pots of herbs. The key is to create the right conditions for each. Do they prefer sun or shade? Do they like it damp or dry, hot or cool? Part of the joy of growing is finding out how to position and nurture each plant. There are many cheap import pots available from garden centres now and pots can be used indoors as well as outdoors. They are suitable for small patios, balconies and safe rooftop locations although they are likely to need constant watering on a roof. Automated watering systems are pretty easy to make though and solar power is ideal to power the pump as when the sun shines they need watering the most. You can even drip feed using water pressure from a water butt.
Upside down gardening
Another great use for empty, clear, two-litre bottles is to make upside-down hanging-gardens. Simply cut off the base of the bottle and pierce it 4 times so you can hang it upside-down. Carefully insert a young tomato, pepper or strawberry plant through what was the ‘top’ of the bottle and add compost around the roots, pressing it down firmly enough so that the plant does not fall out. Then hang it up and water through what was the base of the bottle. You can also use buckets for this technique to get a larger crop, hanging them to suspend large tomato or cucumber crops, eggplants or beans. Some flowers also respond well to this ‘soil on top’ reversal. It has many advantages in a small space and eliminates the need for bending down to tend or harvest the plants. It makes feeding and watering a lot easier.
Get some moss that is farmed specifically for the purpose from a garden centre. Soak it in water and arrange it around your hanging basket (can be made: another recycling opportunity for metal coat hangers). Fill the basket to about a third with the same seed compost mix mentioned above. Please consider getting your own home composting system if you haven’t already. Gently but firmly, ease the root bases of your plants through the side-wires and moss into the basket. Tuck the moss back around the stem of the plants to stop water seepage.
Nearly fill the basket and place other top plants into the compost. Leave enough space on the top so that the water can disperse. Firm it down and give it a good soaking. If it ever dries out too much, take it down and dunk the whole thing in water for a while. If you are lucky – this home herb store can last as long as three years. Recommended minimal herb box/basket contents for Northern Hemisphere include: Oregano, Sage, Parsley, Thyme, Mint. Other useful herbs suitable for baskets and boxes, pots and containers include: Borage, Chamomile, Chives, Coriander, Coriander, Curry plant, Lemon balm, Lemon verbena, Mixed mints, Mixed sages, Mixed thymes, Nasturtium, Pot marigold, Rosemary, Salad burnet, Savoury, Tarragon.
If you want to go a bit larger than pots, its quite simple to make (cat proof) mini-gardens from single sheets of 8 x 4 foot marine ply. Here’s a sketch:
I inset the base to allow it to dry out underneath and before spring will jigsaw the base to improve aeration and drill holes to allow water seepage. I also made the back a little higher to install mirror tiles and improve the light for plants at the front. Although this will weigh quite heavy when it has about 10 inches of soil
in the bottom I am also fixing it with batons to the outside wall to make it wind-proof for safety.
This rooftop box can be covered with polythene or the like to bring-on seedlings, and covered with chicken wire to stop cats using it as a toilet. I used this one to grow a selection of early spring greens.
If, like me, you have a garden that appears to be full of rocks, why not use them to build some raised rock beds? I built the ones shown in the photo over a few weeks, doing a bit every now and then. I ordered in a ton of topsoil and filled them, after putting rock rubble in the bottom to improve drainage. Every year I add a bit of humus or leaf mold to get the soil fertility up. They’re great for growing veg. And you don’t have to bend too far. I also have some larger slabs of granite as you might imagine, living on the edge of Bodmin Moor. I have used these to raise a small wall and create an easily accessible bed.
If you have a wall that gets the sun you can build a raised bed using cement blocks, bricks or wood. The one shown here is an L shaped block wall with the addition of a few more blocks one end and a front made from a piece of reinforced concrete from a knocked down garage. Many people like to use old railway sleepers, stacked up for a retaining wall.
OK so many of you will find this technique of making a raised bed visually undesirable, but it is particularly effective and a great bit of recycling. Shown here is a photo of potatoes growing in a tyre stack (but to be honest I never really got a good harvest with potatoes this way – I think it has to do with getting the right variety and scrupulously layering them as the plants grow). But they do work well for squash, courgettes, broad beans, I’ve even grown some whopping marrows in them. The tyre walls absorb the rays of the sun and warm up the soil which helps stimulate the roots of the plant. The inside of the tyres hold water pockets so that the roots can drink from each tyre. The soil subsides over the season and may need topping up to avoid creating hiding places for slugs and snails under the tyre rims. Watering, feeding, tending the plants and harvesting are all made easier with the elevation. It is also a good way of breaking-in new ground in as it suppresses the weeds in the soil under the tyres.
Stick and Carpet Beds
This image shows a raised bed made from materials found around the house and garden. Some hazel sticks from the hedge were hammered into the ground. Then others were used to weave around the sticks. The top was levelled off with some 2×1 batton and old carpet was nailed to the inside to retain the soil, screened by hand from around the garden. Later I added some metal hoops from fencing wire and some bubble wrap in which my partners canoe was delivered. I’ve got spinach, beetroot, coriander and lettuce in there at the moment.
Allied to the above, I built a retaining wall on a 45 degree slope from a few tanelised garden stakes, added hazel branches, some leftover plywood and black plastic sheeting. I then collapsed the slope into the wall and levelled the garden out. It is accessible from the front ad a raised bed and last year it grew some big pumpkins. This year it has squashes because our deep freeze still has loads of pumpkin soup (a largeish pumpkin makes about 30 portions!)
This has become all the rage in cities, but to an extent people have always grown things up screens at least. Vertical wallgardening has now become an architectural feature in the greening of urban spaces. ‘Le Mur Vegetal’ first coined by Patrick Blanc can be seen all over. Specially designed (and expensive) modules exist to suspend, water and feed plants grown vertically. Vegetable walls exist on practical as well as aesthetic levels such as that in the photograph of Suzanne Forsling’s Gutter Garden shown here.
If this article interests you – I have written and illustrated a book called ‘WildFood Wizard’ – in which this article is included. You can find out more about it here: WildFood Wizard by Simon Mitchell.