How To Grow Your Own Herbs And Vegetables At Home (In Any Space)
The Container Kitchen Garden. Photograph by Mr Andrew Montgomery, courtesy of Phaidon
The growing season is upon us. For those without acres of outdoor space, expert produce gardener Mr Aaron Bertelsen is the perfect guide to growing your own vegetables and fruit on windowsills and balconies, as Ms Lucy Jones finds out.
No matter where you are quarantined right now, whether in a house with a garden or patio, or a flat with a balcony or windowsill, you can grow food and plants to enhance your environment. Pots and containers are a versatile and easy way of beginning a growing habit and bringing some magic, hope and great flavours into your home.
Kew Gardens-trained New Zealander Mr Aaron Bertelsen has spent the past few years experimenting with a container garden at Great Dixter in East Sussex, where he has worked as vegetable gardener since 2007.
Why opt to garden in pots and containers when he has acres of land? The seed of the idea began when he noticed that most people visiting Great Dixter needed a way of growing things that suited their own spaces. “They see all these massive long beds and the scale of the place and say, ‘It’s beautiful, but it’s not relevant to my life. I live on the 17th floor of an apartment building,’” says Mr Bertelsen. Spotting a small go-between area outside the kitchen, he decided to see what he could do with the yard in a bid to prove that people could grow things with whatever space they had. “I never realised how dynamic it can be,” he says. “Day to day, the display can change. You can move everything around.”
Now, when people are turning to soil and seeds for signs of hope and life and considering producing herbs and vegetables at home, especially as trips to the shops and supermarket are less frequent, Mr Bertelen has the following tips for anyone who has room for a single pot.
Why grow your own?
Many people intuitively know that gardening or spending time in nature with plants and flowers makes us feel happy, but the mental health benefits of connecting with the green stuff are just starting to be realised and proved by modern science. “The psychological side is massive,” says Mr Bertelsen. “There’s something special about the effect of nurturing plants on us. For me, out in the garden, you’re carried away into another world. You’re looking at the plants and thinking about what they’re doing, and you forget about the day you’ve just had. It’s like meditation. A lot of people have started to realise this since quarantine required us all to slow down.”
Mr Bertelsen lived in Israel for a couple of years and worked at The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. “There were many victims of bombings who would come and work in the plant nursery as therapy,” he says.
After a day of working from home or, if you’re a key worker, on the frontline, pottering around plants for half an hour or watering seedlings can be calming and meditative. “You’re more ready for sleep than you would be if you were thinking about work right up until bedtime,” says Mr Bertelsen.
“Another reason to grow your own is for the quality and flavour of herbs and vegetables,” says Mr Berltelsen. “If you grow at home, you know where the food has come from and therefore whether it’s full of chemicals or nutrients.
“If you grow your own, you become attuned to the seasons. You’re not going to get an apricot now that’s fantastic, but if you wait until the right season, the flavour intensity will be much higher. I like supermarkets as much as anyone, but they ruin the seasonality of eating by selling overpriced, under-flavoured produce all year round.
“A lot of our fruit and vegetables are grown very quickly and flooded with water, so they lose flavour. If you grow something in a loam-based soil, for example, it’s going to be richer. It’s full of nutrients that translate into the plant, which is why the flavour is so much better. The better the soil, the better the nutrients in that vegetable. This is why I think five a day is a myth. If they have no goodness in them, what’s the point?
“I hope we’re going to rethink production in lots of areas of life and maybe we will bring it home.”
Where to start
“Start off slowly and don’t be too ambitious because that can put you off,” says Mr Berlesen. He’d encourage people to begin with a herb or vegetable that you’re going to use. “There’s no point growing tarragon if you don’t eat tarragon,” he says.
The best seeds or plants to start with are salad crops, tomatoes or herbs, “those things we love to eat straight from the plant”. Other easy foods to grow are courgettes, beans, peas and kale, but the options are pretty endless.
Then, you’ll naturally get a taste for new things. Mr Bertelsen gives the example of finding an aubergine plant, for example, in a garden centre (you’ll have to look online until garden centres reopen). He’d never succeeded in growing aubergines at Great Dixter because they don’t fare well in its soil, but they thrived in a pot.
Herbs are often better in pots and offer an even more intense flavour. “In pots, the plants aren’t getting as big, but the flavours are going to be much more intense,” says Mr Bertelsen. “If you can grow rosemary in a shallow pot and it’s sun-baked, the oils are going to be much richer. A lot of the Mediterranean herbs and vegetables, which we often like the most, actually prefer that harder soil, with dryer conditions. Thyme and basil, for example, don’t like heavy, damp soil.”
Don’t be put off if your produce doesn’t look like the fruit and veg in the supermarket. Yours might be smaller, but there’s joy to be found in having smells and tastes at your fingertips. Mr Bertelsen remembers the best fig he ever ate, while hiking in the desert in Israel. “There was this old fig tree just coming out of a crack in the rock,” he says. “The fruit was small, but had a very intense flavour. You can grow a fig in a 30-litre pot.”
Plan your container crops
Think about the layout of your space. Which area of the balcony, patio or garden gets the most sun? If you’ve got a partly shady area, choose Swiss chard, carrots, beetroot, salad, rhubarb and kale. If you’ve just got a windowsill, grow herbs.
“If you’re on the sunny side, choose Mediterranean herbs,” says Mr Bertelsen. “If you’re on the darker side, big-leafed herbs and tarragon will do fine with less sun.”
In April, you’ve still got time to start seedlings indoors, as well as planting a few varieties directly outdoors should you have access. Start seedlings on a sunny windowsill, but remember to water them little and often. Alternatively, you can buy plug plants, where the seed has already germinated, from supermarkets or order from online nurseries. “The nursery has already done all the hard work getting it started, so you just bung it in a pot and look after it,” says Mr Bertelsen. May is the first main month for planting out.
There are also other options for growing on balconies, where heavy terracotta pots aren’t a great idea. “I’ve got into growing sweetcorn in a large root pouch bag, which I love doing,” says Mr Bertelsen. “They’re fantastic for city dwellers in apartments because they’re lightweight. With balconies, you’ve got to think about weight contrast. A bag is perfect.”
You don’t need a lot of equipment for container and pot gardening. Just peat-free compost, a container – which could even be something recycled from the kitchen, such as leftover packaging, as long as it has drainage holes – a watering can and the seeds or plants. Give plants a good feed, with seaweed, as Mr Bertelsen recommends, or other fertilisers, regularly.
Everyone can grow something, says Mr Bertelsen, even if we’ve got a small amount of space, and experience the joy and wonder and gastronomic pleasure of vegetable gardening. “It’s in all of us,” he says. “That nurturing is in everyone.”
Image courtesy of Phaidon