Growing your own salad, veg and herbs at home are projects both richly rewarding and easier than you think, ones that don’t require masses of specialist knowledge, equipment or even space (just a few simple pieces of kit). So, whether you’re planning to grow herbs on a balcony, cultivate tomatoes in old patio pots or create crops of salad leaves for your meals, here’s how to get started.
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How to plant crops in patio pots
Get plants off to a good start with a large pot, some good compost and plenty of sunshine.
- Choose a large pot with plenty of holes in the base. Add upturned pots or crocks to improve drainage.
- Fill with multipurpose compost, mixing in slow-release fertiliser granules that will provide nutrients through the season.
- Add young veg plants, such as courgettes or tomatoes. Keep under cover until after the last frost – usually in late May.
How to grow salad leaves
Whether you like your leaves green and crispy, red and frilly, or peppery and spicy, when you grow them from seed you have a much wider choice than what you’d regularly find at the supermarket or grocers. Growing cut-and-come-again salads is fast, too – from sowing to picking takes just six weeks. And, by making frequent sowings, you’ll have regular harvests over many months.
Sowing and planting
Salad leaves grow well even in poor soils. However, boosting the moisture content by adding plenty of well-rotted organic matter will reduce the risk of crops running to seed in hot, dry summers (which turns the leaves bitter). Start sowing seeds in March, as soon as the soil is workable, and continue until September (or longer if you cover plants with a cloche or fleece and choose winter cropping varieties). Sow every two weeks to ensure continuous cropping.
Prepare the seed bed by removing weeds and stones, and raking over the soil to create a fine texture. Make shallow drills (straight rows made by pressing a bamboo cane into the soil) about 1cm deep. Water along the drill, taking care not to collapse the sides. Sprinkle a pinch of seeds along the bottom. Cover thinly with soil or compost, and water gently.
You can grow patches of salad leaves in gaps in borders among flowers and shrubs. They also grow well in pots, boxes and trays. Fill your container with multipurpose compost, to 2cm below the rim, and firm down. Scatter the seeds over the surface, cover lightly with compost and water well.
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Tending the crop
Don’t let the soil dry out. When the plants reach about 5cm tall, mulch around them with compost to seal moisture in the soil.
When large enough to handle (about 4cm tall), tease out seedlings with your fingers. Either eat them or transplant them to another site to grow on. Leave about 15cm between the remaining seedlings. With cut-and-come-again varieties, just pick a few leaves from each plant. Taking little and often will keep the plants cropping for longer. Once the plants flower the leaves turn bitter, so pull them up, chuck on the compost heap and sow more.
Put down slug and snail deterrents, and encourage predators such as frogs and beetles. Cover salads with fleece to keep off flea beetles, which eat holes in the leaves.
How to grow herbs
Many herbs can easily be raised from seed (which can be ordered online), including basil, parsley, coriander and chives. Keep pots of herbs in a sunny spot near your kitchen door or window, so they’re always close at hand for picking. Invasive herbs, such as mint, are best grown in large containers to prevent them spreading all over your garden.
How to grow chives
A mild alternative to spring onions, chives can be added to sandwiches and salads. Leave a few of the flowers for the bees. To grow, sow seeds outdoors in spring and thin to 15cm apart. Chives are perennials that eventually form good-sized clumps. They grow well in sun or light shade and in pots but must be kept moist. The more you snip them, the more leaves they produce.
How to grow coriander
Use in salads and as a garnish. The seeds have a tangy orange taste – roast to bring out their curry flavour. To grow, give this half-hardy annual well-drained, fertile soil in a sunny spot. For cut-and-come-again salad leaves, sow seeds every four weeks between March and September. Thin out to 30cm apart if you want the plants to flower and set seed (leave them on the plants to ripen).
How to grow parsley
Available in curly- and flat-leaved forms (the latter has a stronger flavour). Both are biennials but are usually grown as annuals. To grown, sow indoors in early spring and plant after the last frost into rich, moisture-retentive soil in light shade. Plant seedlings in a 25cm pot and keep well watered. Also ideal on kitchen windowsills. Pick leaves nearly all year round.
How to grow dill
This tall aniseed-flavoured annual needs sun and fertile soil to grow. Sow the seeds outdoors in spring and keep plants well watered. If growing for its leaves, thin plants to 15cm apart and remove flowers. To harvest seeds, thin plants to 23cm and leave the flowers to set seed and ripen on the plant. Stems are fragile, so grow in a sheltered spot and support by staking.
How to grow oregano
This sweet-smelling hardy perennial grows well in containers and its flowers enhance borders. To grow, buy young plants or sow seeds indoors during spring, waiting until after the last frost to plant them out into free-draining, fertile soil. Full sun will bring out its peppery flavour. Plant in a gravel garden or in containers.