Diarmuid Gavin: No veg patch too small...
How to grow your own vegetables in the tiniest of spaces, from windowsills to crowded courtyards
Glossy packets of vegetable seeds are starting to appear in our supermarkets and garden centres, an A-to-Z of produce with enticing pictures on the front and cultivation guides on the back. With so much choice available, whether in shops, catalogues or online, it can be hard to decide which is best for you. And with renewed interest amongst householders about food security and the origins of what we eat, growing our own is a common topic of interest.
For many people, outdoor space is limited, sometimes to a small courtyard or balcony area. Moreover, there are competing demands on that space for relaxation or dining, or for growing ornamental plants. So realistically, unless you have a large garden or some plots in an allotment, you are looking for crops that you like to eat, won't take up a huge amount of room, are easy to grow, and will give a good yield. Here's my guide to what's easy to grow.
* Any of the 'cut and come again' crops are invaluable - you just pick a few leaves as you require and the plant will keep growing. These include lettuce, mustard, kale, chard and spinach and are often sold together in seed packets as mixed salad leaves. As you are not letting the plant mature, you can grow them tightly together. Regularly picking will exhaust the plant so retain some seed that you can sow again when the crop is finished. If you prefer a whole head of lettuce, try smaller varieties of butterhead and cos such as Tom Thumb and Little Gem. Dwarf green curled kale is a compact crop you sow from April onwards, which provides healthy greens in the depths of winter.
* Keep it simple and avoid crops that need trenches, such as celery and asparagus, or earthing-up, such as leeks. Sprawling pumpkins and squashes and larger crops such as Brussels sprouts aren't generally suitable for smaller areas.
* Potatoes remain hugely popular with Irish people. And the good news is that they are incredibly easy to cultivate. They can be grown in containers or grow bags, even on a balcony. You buy them as small tubers, not seeds, and one or two tubers will give a great yield. However, for small spaces I'd recommend only growing early potatoes - these are quicker to mature and you avoid the problem of blight that can occur with main crop varieties. In addition, when your harvest is finished in June and July, you get your space back. Good varieties are Orla, Nicola and Colleen.
* Use vertical space where available - this can be on a trellis on a wall, or create a small bamboo wigwam - and grow climbers such as runner, broad and French beans and peas. These crops are some of the best to grow yourself as they taste so much better eaten straight after picking. Broad beans are hardy and can be planted in autumn or spring, but French and runner are half-hardy so can only be planted outdoors after frost in May. Choose dwarf cultivars in smaller spaces such as Hestia and Pickwick runner beans and Purple Queen French beans - these can manage without any support at all.
* Utilise any leftover spaces by tucking in some smaller crops, also known as intercropping. This could be a few radishes, which are some of the quickest seeds to harvest, a couple of beetroots (Boltardy is your reliable choice here) and a handful of spring onions (White Lisbon).
* Hanging baskets are a great way of maximising your growing space, particularly on balconies. You could be harvesting pounds of cherry tomatoes later this summer. Hundreds and Thousands, Tumbler and Tumbling Tom Red are all bush varieties which don't require support or side shoots to be removed, so will happily cascade in a basket or container. Sow indoors in March and April for outdoor planting in May.
* If you've no outdoor space at all, a windowsill is also a growing space and it's the perfect spot to grow herbs within easy reach for when you're cooking. Basil, chives and parsley seeds can all be started indoors now until early April, and when the soil warms up you can sow seeds of chervil and coriander directly into soil outdoors from March onwards. Pots of herbs can also look great arranged on small ladders against a wall.
* Where space is very limited, you might feel you don't have room for seed propagation. In this case, you can buy many of the plants mentioned here as seedlings in garden centres during spring and - with some of the hard work already done - take it from there.