07:00 Wednesday 06 March 2013

How to grow veg, even in a small plot

Written byHannah Stephenson

THINKING of growing veg in containers this year? The One Show gardening expert Christine Walkden offers down-to-earth advice on growing a variety of visually pleasing edibles, even in a small garden

Growing veg on your patio couldn't be easier - you can control the soil type, the situation and the watering, often providing shelter near the house when it's needed.

Yet some gardeners are put off by the idea of unsightly veg taking up valuable flower space in pots on the patio.

But they shouldn't worry, says TV and radio gardening expert Christine Walkden.

Walkden may be the wrong person to ask about pretty veg because she finds all veg plants beautiful, she admits.

"I see beauty in a cabbage! A beautiful dense cabbage head in a classic terracotta pot is just as attractive as the non-edible ornamental sorts."

Some of her patio planting ideas are featured in her new book, Christine Walkden's No-nonsense Container Gardening.

In it, she features fabulously ornamental purple kale in brightly coloured plastic trugs, lime-green lettuce in a bubblegum pink metal bucket, leafy veg in wooden crates and a hanging basket made out of an old metal colander.

There are colourful flowers in old food tins and shopping baskets, a rock garden planted inside a vintage pram and other quirky ideas.

But veg also win a place in the looks department, she says.

"Kale is a hardy brassica that you can go on picking right through winter and it looks great in containers. Striking red stems and leaf veins make beetroot plants attractive enough to grow in among flowers."

For those who love colour, you can't go far wrong with beans, she says.

"Runner beans are ideal because you've got all the different flowers, the whites, the bi-colours and the pinks.

"Black Tuscany kale is great to grow to add interest in the winter, and ferny-leaved and coloured-leaved lettuces are also great.

"Now, we have so much diversity in leaf shape in salads, from the spoon-shapes of lamb's ears to the really frizzy stuff that's available. It's breathtaking."

Lettuce can be grown in any pot, but where it really scores is in shallow, saucer-shaped troughs, where other veg would need deeper soil to survive.

Walkden grows lettuces all year round in seed trays, because that's all the soil which is required, she says.

"As long as you've got 2in of soil, you can grow cut-and-come-again salad leaves. A lot of gardeners hate shallow containers because they dry out so quickly, but lettuce will cope with the occasional drought. They will tolerate the heat generated in the container and the root run."

To make a window box containing edibles look pretty, plant lettuces, radishes (place them behind because they have pretty foliage), spring onions or chives, and small beetroot such as 'Boltardi', with its spectacular red foliage, she suggests.

Climbing beans have long been grown around wigwams but you can grow dwarf varieties in regular plant pots.

"There are a lot of good varieties now that you can grow in window boxes and containers," says Walkden, who will be mentor to the winning amateur designer of a BBC and RHS competition to create The One Show family garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July.

"Mix veg in with your flowers as well," she suggests.

"The ferny leaves of carrots make a fantastic edging to a container. We tend to categorise things, but at the end of the day, they are all just plants."

Walkden believes that great plant companions are those which contrast well.

"I go for things like chives, with vertical growth, contrasting well with the dark reds of kales and beetroot.

"Daisy-like flowers including osteospermums, argyranthemums, coreopsis and calendulas all contrast well with veg."

Nasturtiums, in shades of orange, yellow and red, are often grown as a sacrificial crop to lure blackfly away from more precious plants, but the flowers make a colourful, faintly spicy addition to salads and look wonderful draping over the edge of containers in front of taller plants.

Follow her advice and soon enough you could have patio plants which not only look good but taste good too.

:: Christine Walkden's No-nonsense Container Gardening is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20. Available now

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