Diarmuid Gavin: Eat what you sow
Edibles are an essential part of your garden - whether you have rolling acres or just pots on a balcony
Days are lengthening, some turbulence with temperatures remains, but now is the time to ensure you have some tasty crops to enjoy in the summer and through next winter. Even if you only have space for container gardening, make sure to include something edible.
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 that don't require support or side shoots removed so will happily cascade in a basket or container. Plant nursery-raised plants now.
If you've no outdoor space at all, a windowsill is also a growing space and it's the perfect spot to grow herbs, in easy reach for cooking. Basil, chives and parsley seeds can all be sown outdoors now. Pots of herbs can look great on small ladders against a wall.
Sow carrots directly into the ground now. For their long tap roots to develop well, a deep, light, free-draining soil is best but avoid freshly manured soil. Remove as many stones and pebbles from the soil as you can - this will help preventing forking where the root divides itself to get around the obstacle. The seed is quite small to handle but try to sow thinly - you will eventually thin seedlings out to a spacing of 7in between plants.
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 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. Regular picking will exhaust the plant, so retain some seed that you can sow again when 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.
Sow French- and runner beans indoors now, ready for transplanting next month. The inner cardboard tube of toilet paper rolls is ideal for them, as they quickly put down deep roots and then you can transplant the whole tube directly into the soil without disturbing the seedling. You can direct-sow them from late May onwards as well but they will have a better chance against mice, slugs and snails if they get a headstart indoors. The seeds are beautiful and easy to handle, which makes them a good project for children. (I've just sown some 'Scarlet Emperor' and not only am I looking forward to their tasty produce but they have the added bonus of being highly ornamental with their scarlet pea flowers.) These need trellis or a bamboo wigwam to climb up but in smaller spaces you can grow dwarf varieties such as 'Pickwick' and 'Hestia' in containers.
Sow kale seeds now and you'll enjoy the health benefits of this nutrient-rich veg all winter. It's an easy-to-grow crop that doesn't mind a bit of shade. As a leafy veg it likes a nitrogen-rich soil and to be kept watered. For best results, net it to keep off the birds. A popular variety is 'Nero di Toscana' with dark green crinkly leaves.
It's also time to sow and grow peas, parsnips, leeks, broad beans, fennel, globe artichoke, potato, spinach, sweetcorn, winter squash, asparagus, beetroot and lettuce. Growing veg can be expensive when you add up the price of seed, containers, compost and fertilisers but there are ways to keep your costs down. Share seeds with friends (the amount of seed in packets is usually very generous). And you can cut up seed potatoes into about four sections; each one will yield a crop.
Potatoes 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'.
Don't forget, kitchen waste and lawn clippings will make great free compost which will nourish your soil, improve drainage and increase yields for you.