Growing vegetables and herbs in containers in Australia is ideal for people who are renters, live in apartments, townhouses, or houses without much backyard – a lot of us!
It is possible to grow your own vegetables and herbs without a quarter acre of backyard that you can rip up for a vegie bed. It requires a little attention, but you can grow a lot of delicious and nutrious kitchen ingredients for not a lot of effort or expense. Here’s what I’ve discovered in four months of growing in containers (and surreptitiously) at my rental property.
(No space at all? Try growing sprouts.)
It’s entirely up to you and how much you want to spend. All have their advantages and disadvantages; though I use a combination of black plastic pots (cheap and readily available, though light and a little aesthetically challenged) in unobtrusive spots and more terracotta pots (heavier, prettier, but they dry out faster) where I can see them (ie on the balcony in line with the back door).
You can also buy fancy and complicated self-watering pots from garden centres (expensive, small and still plastic), or scrounge foam boxes from the fruit and veg shop (a good size, light and with automatic drainage, but they crumble with age and smaller folk may not be able to resist breaking pieces off).
Another alternative for the DIY handyman: buy plastic storage containers and drill a few holes in the bottom. It all really depends on how much space you have, how much you want to spend to get set up, and how much you value aesthetics in food production.
Growing Lettuce and Salad Greens
The easiest are salad greens. You can grow them in foam boxes from the fruit shop, large black plastic pots from Big W, even an old (and clean) kitty litter tray. Eden Seeds sells a mesclun mix which will give you weeks and weeks of fresh salad and asian greens – mignonette and cos lettuces, mizuna, tatsoi, pak choy – for $2.80 a packer.
If you want to choose your own varieties, pick a looseleaf type rather than hearting lettuce like Iceberg. That way you can snip off leaves as you want to eat them, rather than pulling out the whole plant.
Every vegie gardener wants to grow tomatoes. They are a little more challenging to grow in containers, as you need to make sure they don’t dry out totally in Australia’s hot summers. They also need an adequate supply of nutrients in the pot, as they the roots can’t travel in search of it as they would in the ground.
The good news – cherry tomatoes can provide a good source of tomatoes in a minimal amount of space. They also handle a bit of neglect better than the larger varieties, and produce a lot of fruit for salads, bruschettas and pasta dishes.
You can also try bigger varieties like the Roma (good for pastes and tomato sauces) or the salad varieties like the regular tomatoes from the shops, but they’ll need careful attention and nurturing, as they’re more susceptible to pests and diseases. The big advantage with the smaller types like cherry tomatoes is that if a few of your fruit become lunch for fruit fly or caterpillars or the many pests that love to snack on tomatoes, there are still plenty more left for human consumption.
Growing Other Vegetables
Try dwarf beans (they grow on bushes rather than twining up a trellis), lipstick capsicum, or birdseye chilli. Chillis are productive and handy to have for Asian dishes and stirfries.
Many culinary herbs can easily grown in pots. Rosemary, oregano and thyme are the most forgiving of neglect and are a handy addition of flavours to the kitchen. Basil in an essential for pestos, spaghetti sauces,
Choose either perennial or Vietnamese basil for a longer-lasting plant, or the more familar Italian green basil. The Italian type is an annual and will go to seed after a lack of water, but the seed is easy to collector and re-sow – or just shake it off into the pot and small basil clones will soon appear.
Mint is nice for teas, and is so prolific and invasive that it really only should be grown in pots. Plant it in the garden and it will be appearing in unexpected places for ever.
One other herb, though not of any culinary use, that I always keep around is aloe vera. It’s great for sunburn; just slice a leaf lengthways and rub on the burned area.
And even if you have a black thumb and can kill any plant, put a container of this in a shady spot of the garden or balcony and you will have spiny aloe leaves for forever and just when you need them. It’s the most forgiving container plant I own – it’s lived in a small container pot forgotten in the garden at my previous house, and in a corner of my balcony without direct sun or water and still produces more baby plants.
There are some vegetables that I don’t consider really suitable for containers, due to size, time to harvest, or the ease and cheapness of buying in the shops. Six foot tall, hungry corn plants that produce two ears each, two foot wide cauliflower or broccoli plants that take five months to grow, pumpkins that have dinner-plate sized leaves and like to sprawl. Carrots also will also take months to grow and they’re cheap to buy.
That said, by all means try them if you want to – gardening is nothing without experimentation – if you have the space, love them, or want to try an unusual variety that is expensive or doesn’t travel well.
When to Water
Plants need water, and in containers they need to be more regularly watered than if they were in the ground, as the roots can’t go very far to seek it.
Ideally the soil should be just slightly moist to the touch, not sopping wet and not bone dry. Try not to let the containers dry out entirely as it will stress the plant and harden your soil, but don’t kill them with over-enthusiastic waterings either! Like many things, it’s a balance.
You can pour expensive chemical fertilisers all over your plants, and eat them later. Or you can turn your food scraps and lawn clippings into compost or worm juice and solve two problems at once.
Whichever fertiliser you choose, make sure you feed your container plants regularly. The potting soil leaches nutrients fast – out the drainage holes every time it rains or you water them, and hopefully into your plants and vegies.
Composting can seem a bit of an arcane science but it can be created by the non-expert. There are plenty of fancy composting systems available from Bunnings, the simplest and easiest of which is the large open-bottomed plastic type. It’s the best if you have a large lawn and a big family producing lots of fruit and vegie scraps.
I live in a two-person household so wanted something smaller and more portable (next time I move I want to take my compost with me, not leave it behind). Instead I bought a 60L black rubbish bin for $10 and drilled a few holes in the bottom and placed it on the dirt.
Find an out of the way spot that isn’t too far from the back door (if you put your compost bin in that far distant corner, you’re less likely to be motivated to put your scraps in it). Choose one preferably with some sun rather than deep shade, to keep the heat up and encourage the compost to break down. If you’re using a small bin like mine, try to put it in a nice, sunny spot, as the smaller amount of materials it can contain don’t always generate enough heat on their own.
To get your compost going, put a few scoops of wettish dirt (or scoops of a previous batch of compost) at the bottom of the bin. This adds the bacteria and micro-organisms that break down all the organic matter and turn it back into soil. Then, you want to add about one third food scraps to two-thirds clippings. Collect your fruit (no citrus), vegie and bread scraps in the freezer and every few days empty it all into the bin. Cover with the same thickness of lawn clippings, and put the lid back on.
Dig under the top clippings layer every so often to see if the scraps are breaking down. If nothing seems to be happening (or moving) and it looks dry in there, add a bucket of water. If it smells bad, add more lawn clippings to cover it. In the beginning they might take a few weeks, but if you keep adding scraps, clippings, and water if it needs it, you’ll have a thriving compost that smells like living humus and can break down old scraps inside a week.
The alternative is a worm farm, which only requires feeding with food scraps and newspaper and a little more attention, so might work better for the apartment dweller or lawn-free household (you environmentally friendly people). The worms require more attention and more careful feeding than composts, so are probably best if you have partners or children keen on caring for the worms. I don’t and don’t find them especially appealing pets so stick to making compost, though the eventual worm juice is a fantastic liquid fertiliser.
Useful Links to Get Started
Planting Guide – What’s best to plant in your area and when. In general, temperate areas like Tasmania grow different things and different times to, say, sub-tropical areas like Queensland.
Eden Seeds – Order your seeds and sprouts online. They have a big range of organic and open-pollinated (true to type seeds that you can save and replant) seeds and deliver in the mail within a couple of days.
Compost Worm Supplies – Order the worms for your worm farm over the Internet.
Containing Your Container Garden – Information adapted from the Container Gardening For Dummies book, available for free online.
Factsheet: Container Gardening – Gardening Australia’s rather brief guide to growing plants in containers.
Container Gardening How-To – A question and answer session from Yahoo Answers. Some more informative answers are down the thread.
Container Gardening Guide – Thorough and informative, a good guide on gardening in containers.
Guide to Container Gardening – A quick guide with a focus on growing flowers.
Enjoy growing your fresh vegies and herbs in your own home and backyard. It’s satisfying and delicious, and you’ll never be entirely reliant on the supermarket again.