THE ENVIRONMENT OF THE PATIO
This book is aimed at the majority of us who live in terraced houses, high rise flats, town houses and semi-detached properties with little more than a postage stamp for a garden and often nowhere to grow but the patio.
It seems the great buzz words of the last few years are ‘Grow your Own’. A real movement of people who grow their own food is building in popularity and I longed to be one of them. But with no land at all and even less free time, the whole idea of growing vegetables seemed dead in the water. I became increasingly frustrated watching TV gardeners with acres of space, room for tonnes of produce, chickens and pigs, tell me how easy it was to live off the land. Television programmes that exhorted me to get out there and ‘Dig for Victory’ simply got on my nerves.
I tried an allotment but it had insurmountable problems for me. It was too far away for a start; by the time I got there it was time to come home. Secondly, there were too many regulations. There was always someone coming along with something negative to say (I have since found out that the politics of the allotment can sometimes be difficult to cope with). Finally, when I tried to find a ‘friendlier’ allotment I found there wereno plots available; nothing but waiting lists. So, finally I cut my losses and decided to concentrate on turning my little postage stamp of a patio into a productive foodproducing machine.
WHY BOTHER GROWING ON A PATIO?
So, why should we bother growing our own vegetables on a patio when there isn’t that much space there in the first place?
We have all been urged to look inside our shopping baskets to find out where our food comes from, what chemicals are in them, how many food miles they have travelled and what are the rights and wrongs of the stuff we eat. One thing that all the pundits seem to be agreed on is that sooner or later we will have to grow more of our own food at home. The economics of shipping tomatoes from Kenya and potatoes from Brazil will eventually give way to a more home grown, local system of growing and distributing food. But even if you care little for the politics of food, the very idea of having fresh produce at your back door must excite anyone who, like me, likes their grub. Once you have tasted potatoes plucked from your own garden, carried to your kitchen, cooked and eaten within minutes, you will no doubt have all the motivation needed for growing more and more food at home, even if there is only a postage stamp’s space to grow it in.
The common patio takes many shapes and is made from all sorts of material. For some, like those in a modern town house, it is simply a few paving slabs dropped by the French windows. For others it is a raised area of decking, and for some it is a balcony many metres in the air. The environment of the patio, the growing conditions and its ability to sustain plant life obviously depends on the geographical setting, but they all have some properties in common. There are many reasons why you should consider patio gardening techniques in your garden if it is less than around 10m2. In such a small garden there is not really enough space to set aside land for crops, and by growing in containers you will have a greater versatility, the ability to move crops around, and by harvest, probably a better yield.
THE BASICS OF GROWING IN POTS AND CONTAINERS
There is no end to the ways you can grow on a patio, and no end to the crops you can grow. Of course, the very word patio implies that you will actually be growing in pots and containers of all kinds. Containers should provide all the requirements for a plant to grow well, if only for a few days at a time and with the added bonus of being able to move them around to suit your needs. As a plant grows too large for a space you can move it elsewhere, or you can rotate your pots so that the plants might get their turn of good sunlight.
WATER, ROOTS AND SHOOTS
Roots, the parts of plants we normally don’t see, need to be kept healthy.
Containers need to be the correct size for the plant so that the roots can grow without being confined. The compost they grow in needs to provide water and oxygen as well as an ample supply of nutrients and support so the plant doesn’t fall out of the pot in the breeze. Sometimes in growing on the patio it is necessary to help the roots by providing extra support.
Plants are very selective about where they grow. Too much water and you will find most roots begin to rot, not enough and you will find the plant drying up. The first tip for growing on the patio is water little and often, rather than copiously and infrequently.
When a plant becomes waterlogged the problem is the lack of oxygen. The plant can get what it needs from water but when this is used up, the oxygen dissolved in the water is also used up and isn’t replaced. What you are looking to provide is a balance between a film of water to coat the root hairs and a good air space for oxygen to pass through the water and into the plant.
Do all you can to maintain the drainage of the pot. Make your own compost or growing medium by mixing with sand; normally I find 30% sand and 70% compost is ideal and put a few pebbles or broken crockery in the bottom of the pot. The sand is there to improve the drainage and the compost to act as a sponge to hold water. Sometimes you will want to grow in material that resembles neither soil nor compost. Carrots, for example, grow well in sand with a little vermiculite thrown in, then fed inorganically with liquid feed.
On the whole, the patio does not get the same benefit from rainfall as the full-sized garden. Water not collected in the pots that lie about the patio is lost to the plants because it simply runs away. In the garden, soil acts as a huge sponge distributing moisture evenly to all the plants, but the roots of the pot-grown plant cannot share in the next pot’s water. Consequently, patio crops are thirsty even when it rains, and you should implement a regime of watering for most days. Experience will show which plants need watering most, but take it as a golden rule that they need more than those in the ordinary garden.
Because you have to water pots and containers more frequently than the ordinary garden, the nutrients in the soil tend to wash out with any excess. The systems that circulate nutrients in the soil cannot work inside a pot, so they need feeding more frequently to make up that which is lost. Use slow release fertiliser where you need it most (they are more expensive and should be used only with hungry plants) and have a ready supply of compost for topping up. If you can manage to water with a weak solution of fertiliser, all the better.
WHAT POTS AND CONTAINERS YOU WILL NEED FOR GROWING PRODUCE ON A PATIO
You will need a range of pots from tiny modules no bigger than your thumb for sowing seeds, to 40cm pots or larger for small trees. I have always found it important to have a range of pot types, clay, plastic and more modern materials like polystyrene. I also make a lot of pots out of paper for seedlings and burying into containers.
If you are putting pots on the floor of the patio then always position them on pot stands where possible, and if you cannot, raise them on a stone or a piece of wood, anything to raise them off the ground. This will avoid the pot freezing to the ground on the coldest days and it is much easier to deal with pests like slugs and snails – but more of this later.
Conventional pots are not the only way of growing on the patio. You can buy and make all manner of receptacles for plants. Grow bags are excellent for a number of reasons as long as you remember to put drainage holes in them. Grow bag quality is directly proportional to their cost. I buy cheap ones which I lay alongside paths and in these I grow salad crops. Because I steal most of my ‘land’ from the path, they take up very little room and thankfully, the days when we have to push a child’s buggy along the path are long gone.
Laid flat grow bags can produce lettuce, beets, spring onions, cucumbers, radish and baby carrots all along my path. However, you can put the grow bag on its end and open the top to grow a variety of crops. Carrots grown in this way are superb. They are long and thick and fantastically tasty – but there are other ways to grow big carrots on the patio explained later in the book. You can grow potatoes this way too, if you are desperate, but there are hundreds of ways of growing potatoes.
The ordinary, maligned plastic bag from the supermarket is very versatile on the patio.
You can hang them up by their handles and use them as an impromptu hanging basket, or you can run a rope or washing line through the handles and line them up in mid air. I find this to be almost the ideal way of growing turnips. They are also good at lining larger planters, which while we are on the subject can be made from any old wood – I find a ready supply of wooden pallets to be really helpful. By tearing them into strips and knotting, you can crochet supermarket bags together to make a large, very strong container that will hold big pots, hanging basket style, or you can fashion them into a large container itself to grow crops directly. This kind of structure makes for excellent potato growing bags.
Larger bags, those you get with stones or sand delivered from a builder’s merchants, make fantastic stand-alone planters, particularly for potatoes and you can get half a ton of potatoes in one of those bags, but also for cabbages, cauliflowers and sprouts. Their size makes it possible to grow carrots while at the same time affording sufficient protection from carrot root fly. This type of bag can also be painted in acrylic or emulsion to brighten up or tone in the bag to the surroundings.
Every rugby season, I go through about three sports bags. They simply don’t stand up to the abuse of muddy rugby boots for two training sessions, a match on Saturday and refereeing on Sunday. The old bags make great containers for growing potatoes; they’re black, they’re rugged and they leak. To be honest I thought the bag smelled of potatoes before I started planting. One thing led to another and I tried growing spuds in the bag with great success.
THE BEST WAY TO GROW PATIO PLANTS
By copying nature and growing in clusters, the success of your patio produce will be improved no end. If you line up your plants in pots and containers you will get good growth, but you can enhance the growing space and the enjoyment of your garden by growing in clusters. You can entice plants to grow more naturally by copying how they might be found in nature. For a start, if you place a number of pots and planters together in a huddle you can maximise the effect of rain. A raindrop missing one plant is more likely to water another. You can improve the possibilities of insect pollination by growing together plants bees might be interested in. You can improve a tranquil Sunday summertime siesta by putting together aromatic plants that make the air healthily refreshing, and plonking your deckchair in the middle of them. This makes it much easier to protect a discrete number of plants from the ravages of slugs, birds and whatever else wants to nibble away at your food.
Getting to know your plants
The thing about patio growing is that you notice your plants more and pick out their peculiarities. Plants like to grow to certain heights, depending on their surroundings. So if you have cabbages raised off the ground, you will find they grow to a similar height than those in pots a few feet lower. This almost magical phenomenon is caused by the characteristics of the light in your garden. A row of cabbages in the ground never show this effect.
Take advantage of the shelter patios afford
Generally speaking, patios are warmer places than the open field. There is a number of elements to this. Firstly, your building itself can afford some shelter from driving wind and rain. Sunshine falling on the brickwork, as well as the patio floor, causes the building to warm up even in the coldest winters. This heat is released in the evening to keep the patio area a degree or two warmer and also reduces the length of time plants are exposed to the coldest temperatures.
Secondly, plants grown against or near walls often do better than those in the field or garden. The downside to this is that the property can shelter the patio from the sun.
There is frequently nothing to be done about this, you can’t move your house, but you can do something to mitigate the problem. You might be able to move your patio to a sunnier spot. If your garden is long, the patio might be best afforded at the end, if this part gets the most sun. There are no rules to say the patio must be next to the house.
You can make a vertical patio ie, use a wall, be it a fence or the side of your house to grow on by using a series of hanging baskets and planters. Another solution to this problem is to raise your plants off the ground. If you find how your shadow falls it may be possible to raise them a little to bring them into the sunlight for longer.
Another boon for the patio is the use of plastic. For very little money you can buy small plastic greenhouses that look more like wardrobes. Fix them to the house wall (because they are otherwise apt to blow away) and not only do they take up little space, the house should keep them frost-free for most of the year. A single tea light inside a hollow concrete breeze block, placed inside is enough for those really cold nights.
The Big Chill
That said, plants in pots suffer from the cold more than soil-borne ones. It takes a lot to freeze the soil down to a depth of 30cm, but a plant pot has roots in it only a few centimetres from the freezing air, and in the winter you will need to protect them.
Bubble wrap is excellent for this, but so are newspapers and old woollies. Cover your plants with fleece or, better still, move them to a warmer spot. Lifting them from the ground is a good idea because cold air is heavier than warm and you can save a plant by simply putting it on a shelf.
Choosing your pots
The choice of pot is important. Clay pots tend to crack in the winter if there is a lot of moist compost inside it. Ice expands when it freezes, cracking the pot. Plastic pots are more able to withstand this kind of tension, but are less insulating than clay ones. Try planting in plastic, then putting this into a larger clay pot filled with stones or plastic packing to take up the space.
Fill a wheelbarrow (if you have space for one) or modify a shopping trolley to hold delicate plants so you can move them inside or into a warm spot for the night more easily and then drag them back into the light during the day.
FINDING NOVEL PLACES TO PLANT CROPS
Walls are there for more than hanging baskets. You can buy or make a wide range of plant holders that hang off the wall and in which you can grow food. Old plastic shoe racks, multi slotted and designed for hanging in wardrobes, also hang easily against the wall. I have used them to grow strawberries as well as all manner of herbs. If you drill and plug good quality coat hangers on the wall you can use them to site shopping bags that carry any amount of crops. For example, if you half fill a carrier bag with compost and grow a potato tuber in it, slightly closing off the neck when the vine has come out of the top of the bag, you can place this on a hook, watering with fertiliser solution. It works better if you put a black plastic bag over the shopping bag to stop the young potatoes from greening. You only get a small crop, perhaps only enough for a single meal. You can get carried away designing places to hang bags of growing potatoes – and you need only 180 of them for a year’s supply – implausible but tempting!
Up on the roof
Roofs are excellent places to grow, but keep it lightweight, such as salad crops, garlic in pots and radish. Similarly, car ports are excellent places for growing crops, especially if you fit a plastic roof. A large tub with a vine trained along the car port makes a wonderful feature as well as several gallons of wine. We have already mentioned the idea of lining paths with grow bags, and steps are a good place to place pots if it can be done safely. Similarly, the tops of walls and fences make for good growing places as long as they are safe to use. You can dangle bags on either side of a fence for growing on the top if you have access to either side, or a good neighbour.
A completely fantastic way of growing crops is in drainpipes, which can be cut to size and then split into two length-ways. Tape the two halves back together (for ease of opening later) and block off the gap at the bottom. Fill with compost and grow carrots down the tube, and turnips, parsnips, herbs of all kinds, strawberries – almost anything.
For root crops you can, when they’re ready, break open the pipe again to reveal the most perfect crop ever.
The thing about soil pipes is they are interconnecting. You can buy jointing bends which slot into each other and therefore make a tree in which will grow all kinds of crops.
There is no end to the ways you can put them together. This type of container will fix to a wall very easily and make a back door herb garden, an interesting strawberry container, or salad container. It will fill with a huge amount of compost making it capable of growing some quite impressive crops.
Use, re-use, recycle . . .
You can re-use old lampshades by lining them with a plastic bag, filling them with compost and hanging them like baskets around the garden. Or why not try cutting the polystyrene packaging you get around televisions and white goods into receptacle shapes.
You can use children’s swimming pools and cleaned-out tin cans, plastic bottles, trays and dishes, mugs and cups (with drainage holes drilled in the bottom).
Old milk bottles – you can hardly call those plastic containers ‘milk bottles’ but they make excellent carrot growing containers. Fill the bottle with compost by three quarters and drop a couple of seeds into the bottle and water it. The bottle itself acts as a little greenhouse, the seeds grow up and eventually you can reject the poorest growing.
After a while the plant grows through the hole in the top, and you have a carrot plant. You can do the same with many other root crops, or try starting off larger crops before transferring into a larger pot. Everything including the kitchen sink It might be amusing but many household items are good for growing. The kitchen sink, as well as making a great pond, is good for growing herbs and if you keep the drainer you have a surface for pots too. Try to get some plants growing out of the taps!
It’s harder than you think. Toilets and potties are traditionally used with a wry smile in the garden, but ensure you give them a thorough cleaning before you grow crops in them. Still, I think they are better for growing flowers.
Refrigerators have excellent uses in the garden. You can remove the door and use the space as a cold frame, especially if you have a piece of clear plastic to cover it. They can also be used to grow mushrooms inside, because they are easy to clean, insulated and dark when you close the door.
IT’S A WHAT?
In some circumstances, especially when you are growing cabbages and their related crops in pots, what you end up with bears no visible relationship to what you would buy in the shop. A recognisable, round-hearted cabbage is turned into a 2m tall, long leaved plant. Cabbages show what botanists call polymorphism; that is they adopt one shape in the garden and a completely different shape in a pot. This phenomenon is quite common, though less marked in other crops than with cabbages. Saying that, the cabbages you get in a pot still have a lot of cabbage leaf on them. They might not look like cabbage leaves, but they certainly taste like them. If you plant an onion set into a piece of compost-filled drainpipe, it will grow quite happily, but not achieve the same size as its soil-grown sibling. But it’s still an onion, and there is nothing to stop you from growing hundreds of them along paths, against walls, on shed roofs and so on.
JUST HOW MUCH CAN YOU GROW?
The simple answer, of course, depends on how much space you have. We have already seen some ways for getting more crops in and I am sure you can use your imagination to find even more. The point of patio growing is improving your life. How lovely to have a row of salad onions to brighten up your summer salads! Even better to have a year’s supply of lettuces, or turnips that were growing one minute, roasting the next!
Then, best of all, a week’s worth of potatoes for every month between July and December. You might not be self sufficient, but you can be well on the way, and if all the space you have is a landing on the north face of a high rise block of flats, you can still take great pride in the meagre crop you can grow there. And in all vegetable growing, pride is the best seasoning of all.
You can increase your growing area considerably by making use of securely fixed window boxes. It is possible to obtain a week’s worth of crops from a window box and as much as a month’s supply from them around the whole house. You can get a continual supply of cut-and-come-again herbs and salad crops. More than mere window boxes, you can affix boxes directly to walls for the same effect. I like to place a bracket on the wall that allows me to hang the boxes and remove them once they are used. This way I can leave the wall free and rotate the boxes or stack them as I require. It is possible to fix cloches to window boxes as long as you are sure it is secure. A cloche is a transparent covering for growing plants, keeping them warm and protecting them from the wind. The thought of scratching a neighbour’s car because the wind has blown the cover and/or the box itself down the street, is enough to keep me awake all night.
Growing on the outside of the window can be matched by growing on the inside of the window. The kitchen windowsill is probably the very first place a child begins growing food. There are very few people who haven’t, as a child, grown cress in an eggshell or carrot tops in a saucer. Windowsills can maintain even temperatures and good light intensities, so it makes sense to use them. It is an easy job to put some shelving up at the windowsill, especially in an infrequently-used room. This is the ideal spot for starting seedlings, especially as the trays do not take up all of the space and block off lots of light.
Make a frame
Many of you will know the A-frames standing outside shops. If you put a couple of supporting ‘legs’ on the open side of a pallet, you get a directional A-frame fence against which you can grow all kinds of crops, particularly courgettes or cucumbers. You can even build a container at the bottom of the pallet for the plant to grow in.