Suburban Micro Growing

Juliet Kemp
Monday, 20th January 2014

Even growing small amounts on your window sill can make a difference to your pocket. Juliet Kemp shows you how to cram as much as you can into a tiny space with techniques like successional sowing and stacking.

You may live in a tiny flat or have no more outside space than a windowbox. You may even only have an indoor windowsill available. But it’s still worth getting yourself a container and some compost, and growing just a little food of your very own.

I won’t talk here about getting hold of a container or compost, but bear in mind that Freecycle and the waste stream can be very helpful for finding free containers, and ‘compost’ may be available on the cheap from the council or constructed for free at home if you have space for a wormery under the sink.

Once you’ve set up your container and have an idea of sun, shade, water, and wind, you can put your permaculture hat on and think about making the best use of your growing space. When you have very little space, making the most of it is vital, and permaculture practices offer some great tools for this.

Succession sowing 

Succession sowing means planting your crops so they mature in quick succession, so your space is never empty. You can succession sow the same crop, planting a few seeds every fortnight for a couple of months, to crop one after the other. Or you can succession sow different crops, timing the second one to mature after you’ve harvested the first one. Succession sowing makes very efficient use of your space, and is particularly useful for small spaces.

Here's some suggestions for plants to follow one another:

– Rocket and other lettuces can be sown from February indoors or outdoors in warmer areas, and harvested from two or three weeks later (for microgreens).

– Early peas can be planted from March and harvested from June.

– Tomatoes can be started off from March indoors, but won’t crop until August or September.

– Radishes can be sown in April and harvested from about four weeks later.

– Peppers can be sown in May outdoors (earlier if started indoors) but if you sow them in May they won’t crop until September.

– You can sow peas again in June for another crop.

– Spring onions can be sown in June for harvesting in September.

– Parsley, rocket, and lettuce can all be sown from July onwards for a late summer/autumn crop. Lamb’s lettuce is particularly good as a cut-and-come-again plant.

There are other plants too that might fit into your schedule. Pick the ones you like, and fit the times together like a jigsaw. You might start in February with some greens, plant early peas in March, start a pepper indoors in April and then move it into the windowbox as you finish harvesting your peas, then in June/July, pull up any greens which have gone to seed, and plant more to see you through the summer. 

You may even be able to grow a few robust veggies through the winter – try rocket, lamb’s lettuce, parsley, or other herbs. 

Cut and come again plants

Some plants – like carrots – you grow, pull up, eat, and that’s it. This uses up a lot of space for the amount of food produced, which is not great with a very small space. ‘Cut and come again’ plants are a better bet – plants you can harvest from repeatedly, either for a season or indefinitely. Here’s a few possibilities:

– Perennial herbs: rosemary, sage, oregano, and thyme will all last indefinitely in the UK climate. Sage and thyme will be happy in quite small pots, but rosemary may like a larger one.

– Annual herbs: basil, coriander, dill, and others. Parsley is biannual and also self-seeds so once planted it should keep itself going.

– Loose-leaf lettuces and salad leaves: rocket, oak leaf lettuce, lollo rosso, curly endive, and others. Rocket will self-seed. 

– Perennial salad leaves: sorrel and chicory are both perennial and add a nice taste to salads though can be a bit much by themselves.

– Peas: not exactly ‘cut and come again’, but if you keep harvesting, the plant will keep growing new peas for quite a while. You may need to feed them to support this. You can also eat pea shoots as microgreens, so you could plant lots, thin them and eat the shoots, then harvest the peas of the remaining plants later.

Multi-layer sowing and guilds 

As well as horizontal space, you have vertical space in your container. Consider growing plants at different heights to make the most of the available space. Bear in mind that the more plants you squeeze into one container, the more careful you’ll have to be about water and soil fertility, and any plants sharing a container should have similar requirements.

Guilds are another important aspect of permaculture – plants that support one another to keep the whole system healthy. This is a bit harder to do in a container than it is in a larger garden, but you can do at least a little towards it. 

Here are a few multi-layer and guild ideas, but you can use your knowledge and imagination to generate and experiment with others. 

– Peas are a nice tall/climbing plant. They’ll keep producing a harvest for quite a while, and are also nitrogen-fixing, so support the rest of the plants.

– Microgreens (green leaves harvested very young) are a good low-level crop, and good for a quick catch-crop between other things. You can let some of them grow on and eat them as full-size leaves, providing a taller crop.

– Some perennial herbs are taller than others, for example rosemary. You can stack these a little. 

– Nasturtiums can grow over the edge of a container. They’re pretty, edible, and they deter some pests (and are thought to act as a sacrificial plant for aphids). In warm areas or microclimates they may self-seed.

– In a larger container, you could grow tomatoes as a taller/climbing plant. They will start getting large once early peas are past their best, so could be succession-sown.

Planning

When you’re planning, take a look at the suggestions above, and consider a few more things:

– Your space and container size. Some plants have deep roots (chard, for example) and won’t do so well in shallow containers. Some plants need plenty of space to spread. Salad leaves are generally good in most containers, as are most herbs.

– How much time you have – be honest! If you only have a few minutes a day, go for perennials over annuals for lower maintenance plants. 

– Sun and shade. Some plants prefer sun, some will tolerate shade, but there’s little point in trying to grow a sun-lover in a shady place. Many green leaves will do reasonably well in the shade, but most herbs prefer sun (mint however is happy in the shade).  

– What you like to eat. Don’t grow things you won’t use!

– Water. Will your container get wet if it rains, or is it indoors or under an overhang? During dry spells you’ll need to water either way. Some plants need more water than others (tomatoes need lots, whereas most Mediterranean herbs can cope with dry spells) so if you regularly go away for a couple of days, go for drought-tolerant plants. 

– Soil fertility. The more plants you want to fit in, the more likely you are to have to feed them (with a commercial plant food or with home-made comfrey or nettle tea). Most herbs do quite well in poor soil, and you can try to create guilds to promote soil fertility. However, the bottom line is that a container doesn’t have much soil life, so it can’t keep itself fertile. 

Take a look at the plants that will fit all the limitations of you and your space, and then consider succession sowing, multi-layer sowing, and harvest. Think about where the tall plants should be (furthest from the direction the sun is in, as a rule), and what will look best next to one another. Then go forth and plant!

Having said all of that, if planning seems a bit like hard work, just pick a couple of tasty veggies, sow a few seeds, and see what happens. Experimentation can be one of the fun parts of gardening, and it’s better to plant something a bit sub-optimal than nothing at all.

So look around you for a nice windowledge, and get going with micro-scale urban growing! 

Juliet Kemp is freelance writer and author of Permaculture in Pots: How to Grow Food in Small Urban Spaces. After recently aquiring two new gardens in London, to design a create, Juliet still does plenty of container gardening.

Permaculture in Pots: How to Grow Food in Small Urban Spaces is available from Green Shopping at a special discounted price of £9.70. You can also buy eBook versions for KIndles, iPads, Kobos and other devices.

Useful resources

Urban permaculture growing

An extract from Permaculture in PotsHow to grow and look after winter herbs

A review of Permaculture in Pots 

Urban oasis on a balcony: from concrete furnace to edible habitat

Watch: How to grow a revolution in your own backyard

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