Thursday 22 March 2018

Let your mind run wild with places to growFrom old sinks to baths, Michael Kelly has been reaping the rewards as he tries out different containers for growing

I HAVE been pleasantly surprised with the success that I have had growing aubergines and peppers in containers and grow bags this year. I have about 15-20 pepper plants in pots in the potting shed that are very productive -- churning out bell and chilli peppers over the last two to three weeks.

For the first time ever for me, I've also had good aubergines -- thanks to container growing. For the last few years, I've grown them in the ground in the polytunnel and I've never been rewarded with even a single aubergine (though the plant is attractive and produced lots of pretty flowers).

This year, however, I grew the aubergines in a grow bag in the potting shed and we've been enjoying beautiful sleek, black aubergines for a month now.

I'm blessed with plenty of space to grow here on the Home Farm, so I generally only grow in containers when I end up sowing far too many seeds in the spring. Rather than throw the excess plants out, it makes sense to make use of them by either (a) giving them away to fellow GIYers or (b) pot them up into containers.

They can then be moved to anywhere you have a bit of space.

If you are short on space, however, container growing can be a lifesaver -- even a balcony or windowsill can become a productive GIY HQ. The good news is that with a little care most vegetables will grow well in containers.

In addition to the space-saving positives, there are a number of additional benefits to growing your food this way. For starters, they make an attractive addition to any garden. It's also generally easier to get plants going in pots because they are not as vulnerable to pests and the elements as they are in the open ground. The great bane of the Irish grower -- the slug (boo! hiss!) -- is not as big a problem when growing in containers as it is in the soil.

Weeding is generally not a problem either, particularly when using bought compost. A container is, quite simply, a more controlled environment for a plant to grow in.

Containers are portable. You can move them to the best growing conditions -- the warmest, sunniest, most-sheltered spot in the garden. Or, you can move them to the most convenient location.

Having containers of herbs near the kitchen makes a lot of sense and let's be honest -- we tend to use our produce more if it's convenient.

If you move house/apartment you can simply take them with you and if you're staying put, at the end of the season the more tender plants such as peppers can be brought indoors, extending the growing season.

When it comes to what containers to use, you can simply let your imagination run riot. Anything can be used as long as it has proper drainage at the bottom to release excess water. You can buy fancy terracotta or ceramic pots which will be highly attractive in the garden, or you can go a little more thrifty and make your own containers using items you might have lying around the garden.

I've made great use of an old Belfast sink (great for growing baby leeks) and an old iron bath (for herbs), but you could also use colanders, hanging baskets, wheelbarrows, wellies, watering cans or shopping bags.

It goes without saying that you should use large containers for large or deep-rooting plants and smaller containers for smaller plants.

Herbs and salads will be happy in a container of 10cm depth, but most vegetables will need a container at least twice that depth.

In general terms a larger container with more soil will accommodate a larger root system and produce a healthier plant. A layer of drainage material such as pebbles or small stones is a good starting point when filling the container. This will aid drainage in the pot and ensures the holes in the bottom of the container don't get blocked up with compost.

Garden soil is not a great option to fill your containers. The roots of plants growing in containers do not have the option of going deep in search of nutrients -- so you have to make sure the growing medium you use makes nutrients readily available. Garden soil also brings weed seeds with it!

Far better to buy a specific container-growing compost mix as this will have the right mix of nutrients to give your plants a good start. Some plants, such as lettuce, will do fine in multi-purpose compost, but hungrier plants, such as tomatoes and aubergines, will need a more nutrient-rich food.

To save money you can make your own compost mixes, but I have never done this so I don't have any special recipes to share with you, I'm afraid.

The biggest problem with container growing is keeping the plants watered and fed. Indoor containers in particular will need regular watering -- as much as twice a day on very warm days.

Make sure to water properly. Check the soil by putting your finger down into it -- the surface may look wet, but the soil beneath can be bone dry.

Vegetables that are staying in the container for a long time (beyond six-eight weeks) will need feeding -- a liquid organic seaweed feed is ideal.

Finally, we come to what to grow. As I said, pretty much everything will grow happily in a container but for larger plants stick to dwarf varieties. Container growing is about maximising space, so pick plants that are quick cropping (lettuce, oriental greens, herbs), or give a high return (tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, beans).

• Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

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