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Top Crops for Containers, Part One: Vegetables

by Mark Ridsdill Smith

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Tomatoes

You can grow pretty much any crop in a container, but if you’re short on space, then you’ll want to focus on a few that can really deliver. I look for compact or climbing crops that are high-yielding, fast-growing and look great too. Without forgetting the most important thing – what I like to eat!

Equally, I usually avoid crops that mature slowly like purple sprouting broccoli; are hungry for space like artichokes; or produce small harvests like broad beans, unless they’re a particular favourite.

After experimenting with growing more than 50 different crops in containers, I’ve selected the six that I’ve found the most worthwhile and that I think would merit a place in even the smallest garden.

(Most of the crops I’ve chosen need at least a few hours of sun a day but if your outside space is shady, keep an eye out for next month’s feature on leaves and herbs as many of these plants are well-suited to less sunny conditions.)

1. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the most rewarding crops to grow in containers. The freshly picked fruits taste infinitely superior to anything bought from a shop. And as long as the plants remain healthy, they will produce a bigger yield than almost any other container crop – up to several kilos per plant. The only drawback is that tomatoes can be prone to disease, particularly blight which is fatal if it strikes.

What to grow

Tomato plants come in a huge array of shapes and sizes – from huge, triffid-like vine tomatoes, to tumbling varieties for hanging baskets. Your choice is largely determined by how much space you have.

A good, and very large, vine tomato is ‘Costoluto Genovese’ (from The Real Seed Catalogue, www.realseeds.co.uk). It produces attractive, tasty tomatoes and high yields. The popular ‘Gardener’s Delight’ (widely available), is a more moderately sized vine tomato.

A small but productive bush tomato is ‘Cherry Cascade’ (from Thompson & Morgan, www.thompson-morgan.com), which is perfect for hanging baskets. ‘Tumbling Tom’ (widely available) is a bit larger but is also good for hanging baskets and smaller pots.

How to grow

Cherry tomatoes need at least five hours of sun, larger tomatoes need at least six. The size of the pot you’ll need depends on the variety but vine tomatoes will need big pots (40cm diameter or larger) if you want a decent yield. The plants need a high quality, rich compost, and should be fed with a liquid tomato feed once a week while fruiting. Sow the seeds inside in March or early April and transplant outside after the last frost. Alternatively, buy plants in May or June.

2. Runner or French Beans

Runner beans were first grown in the UK as ornamental plants and as soon as they flower, it’s easy to see why. They look great on a balcony or patio clinging to a wigwam and because they’re vigorous climbers, you can grow good-sized plants in a small space – just site them so they don’t overshadow other crops. Runners are productive, too, producing beans in good quantities over several weeks. The beans are at their most tender and delicious when they’re picked small (around six inches) and regular picking encourages the plant to produce more.

If you don’t fancy growing runner beans, climbing French beans are a good alternative. They’re a little less productive but can be just as attractive and some people prefer the taste.

What to grow

‘Wisley Magic’ (from Thompson & Morgan, www.thompson-morgan.com) is a high-yielding and tasty runner bean. ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ (from The Real Seed Catalogue, www.realseeds.co.uk) is a good climbing French bean with an interesting history.

How to grow

Sow runner beans after the last frost – any time from May to early July. They do best in a good sized pot (40cm diameter or larger), filled with rich compost and prefer full sun but will still crop well with around five hours of sun a day. They like lots of water so try not to let the compost dry out. Feed occasionally with a liquid tomato feed when the plants are fruiting to get the highest yield.

3. Chillies

Chillies bring a splash of bold colour into the garden whilst adding a fresh, zingy flavour to dishes that supermarket chillies just don’t provide. What’s more, just one happy plant will provide you with a regular supply of chillies from July until October.

What to grow

Tasty, productive and early fruiting varieties include ‘Ring of Fire’ (from Tamar Organics, www.tamarorganics.co.uk) and ‘Iranian Round’ (from The Real Seed Catalogue, www.realseeds.co.uk).

How to grow

Sow seed early (February or March) in a warm, bright place indoors. In May, after the threat of frost has past, transplant into a medium sized pot (30cm diameter or larger) filled with good quality, free draining compost. Alternatively, you can buy chilli plants in early summer. Chillies need a warm site and do best in full sun. Ideally they should be watered in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with wet roots. Bring the plant in before the first frost and it will survive inside over the winter – and give you an early crop the following year.

4. ‘Tromboncino’ Squash

If you’re looking for something unusual and eye-catching, give ‘Tromboncino’ squash a try. These plants produce amazing, snake-like fruits which taste similar to courgettes, just with a slightly firmer flesh. Unlike space-hungry courgettes however, ‘Tromboncino’ squashes are climbers and so are a much better choice for a small garden as well as being more fun.

What to grow

‘Tromba of Albenga’ from Franchi Seeds of Italy (www.seedsofitaly.co.uk) or ‘Tromboncino’ from Suffolk Herbs (www.suffolkherbs.com).

How to grow

In common with most squashes, ‘Tromboncino’ likes lots of sun – at least six hours a day. They also need a big pot (ideally 50cm or bigger), a rich compost and plenty of water as well as something to climb up, such as trellis or a pole. Feed with a liquid tomato feed every two or three weeks while they’re fruiting.

5. ‘Bright Lights’ Chard

‘Bright Lights’ chard, with its vivid yellow and red stems, looks sensational in a container. You can harvest the leaves when they’re small to brighten up salads or let them grow tall and stately and cook them like spinach. If you sow seeds in the spring (for a summer and early autumn crop) and August (for a winter and early spring crop) you can harvest leaves all year round (although they may need protection from hungry pigeons in the winter!).

What to grow

‘Bright Lights’ chard or rainbow chard – both are widely available.

How to grow

Chard doesn’t need a lot of sun – four hours a day is fine, six is even better. The size of pot you’ll need depends on the size of plant you want to grow. You’ll be able to grow plants that are eight to ten inches tall (perfect for salads) in a window box. If you want bigger specimens, grow them in a larger pot (40 to 50cm diameter) and give each plant plenty of space. ‘Bright Lights’ chard is less greedy than tomatoes or chillies but still needs a good quality compost to crop well.

6. Chinese Cabbage

Many of the oriental greens are tailor-made for container growing in small spaces. They grow quickly, taste delicious and aren’t too fussy about how much sun they get. There are many excellent choices including pak choi, choy sum and Chinese broccoli to name just three. I’ve chosen Chinese cabbage because, in my experience, it is one of the fastest-growing (just nine weeks to maturity), amongst the easiest to look after and it tastes great. It’s also pretty versatile as you can use it both raw and cooked.

What to grow

Chinese cabbage is available from companies such as Tamar Organics (www.tamarorganics.co.uk) and The Real Seed Catalogue (www.realseeds.co.uk).

How to grow

Chinese Cabbage will grow with just a few hours of sun each day. Sow in early spring or after Midsummer’s Day (if it’s sown in the weeks leading up to Midsummer’s Day, the increasing day length encourages it to bolt). Sow in September for a winter crop. It’s fairly hardy and will survive some frost and snow so it can be grown in the open in winter, but is best under some cover.

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