You don’t need acres of garden to grow fresh salads and veggies. All you need is a balcony, patio or a postage-stamp of a garden, some good-quality terracotta pots, the right growing medium and watering can, and you’re A for away.
Whenever we’re asked what containers to use on a patio we tend to recommend a nice big terracotta pot, or a matching set of terracotta pots as pictured here. Why terracotta and not plastic? Obviously terracotta pots look so much classier, but there are practical reasons too. Terracotta pots are made of clay, and natural materials like clay tend to work better with plants. Terracotta pots are able to breathe, allowing air and even moisture to move through the walls, keeping pants healthier and helping to prevent fungal root disease. Plants don’t like sudden changes in temperature, and terracotta pots act as insulation, slowing down variations in temperature. Weight is also an advantage – terracotta pots are heavier than plastic or wood, which is great when you’ve got a cat that keeps rubbing itself against your veggie pots and knocking them over! Finally, terracotta pots get better and better with age, weathering and developing a beautiful patina that cannot be replicated.
What to plant?
Choosing what to plant can be overwhelming when you’re starting out. Our first rule of thumb is: plant what you eat! There’s not much point in growing coriander if the flavour offends your very being. But if you love cooking with other herbs plant things like rosemary, thyme, mint and origanum. Another thing we suggest is to mix things up a bit – don’t be boring and grow only edibles. Beautiful ornamentals can do well in containers alongside their edible bedfellows, and some have the added benefit of being edible too. Viola flowers can be tossed in a salad, while the flowers of lavender and calendula have a range of uses. In the above pots we grew bok choi, baby spinach, statice, osteospermums, Lavandula stoechas, brachyscome, salvia, bidens and viola for a balanced, beautiful look.
A good base
The key to potting success is a growing medium that can fulfil a plant’s nutritional needs. Whenever we’re getting ready to plant up containers we start by mixing up a big batch of potting medium. To do this we mix 4 parts good-quality potting soil, 1 part palm peat (soaked in water beforehand) and a big handful of pelletised organic plant food (like Atlantic Bio Ganic). Prepare the medium in a big bucket so that you’ve got enough for all the pots you’ll be planting up. When planting, place a handful of gravel or stones in the bottom of the pot, to ensure good drainage and prevent the drainage holes from becoming blocked. Then fill the pot with potting medium to about 2/3 full, place the plants in the pots and fill up the pots to a few cm below the rim.
Keep them hydrated!
Plants will put up with a lot, but you can’t expect them to survive without water. Containers have a limited water-holding capacity, which is why we add water-retentive materials such as palm peat to our mix. Check if the soil is dry by pushing a finger into the first inch or so – if it is dry, water. In hot weather you’ll need to water your containers daily, in the morning before it gets too hot. Check again in the afternoon and water again if necessary. In cooler weather, especially in seasons when plants aren’t growing as fast, you can get away with watering pots about 2 – 3 times a week. Remember that overwatering can be as bad as underwatering, so always do the finger test before watering. Also try to be responsible in watering, by using harvested rain water or grey water when you can.
Container-grown plants need regular care including feeding, as the nutrients in the limited quantity of soil get depleted. Feed leafy greens with a watersoluble plant food that is high in nitrogen, such as Nutrifeed or use a slow-release organic fertiliser that can be scattered around the base of the plants without burning them as chemical fertilisers can. Plants that produce fruits need a fertiliser higher in phosphorus, such as EcoBuz Multigro or Atlantic Fruit and Flower.