Achievable edibles

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Vegetable garden, Lost Garden of Heligan, Cornwall, England

Having grown up in a family where many of our fruit and vegetables were grown in our home garden, I always thought that I would follow suit and become self-sufficient. However, an obsession with ornamental plants has made me unwilling yet to devote much space to edibles. This may all change one day, but at the moment, my compromise is to shoehorn a few crops into small spaces here and there through the garden: in pots and troughs, and in occasional seasonal spaces that occur when shrubby perennials are cut back. However, I continue to feel rather guilty about not producing more food.

New book on growing edibles in containers

A newly published book from CSIRO/David Bateman Publishing called How to Grow Edibles in Containers: Good produce from small spaces by Fionna Hill has made me feel better about my approach, reassuring us that it isn't necessary to have a kitchen garden like something from a grand English estate like Heligan (pictured at the start of the blog) in order to enjoy the satisfaction of growing food to eat. With apartment living becoming more and more common everywhere, guidance on how to grow food in small spaces so that people can still participate in gardening and have a connection to plants, is very welcome. Eating something you have actually grown yourself is incredibly rewarding, and freshly picked crops that have not been sprayed with ghastly chemicals during their growth are so much more nutritious than those bought from a shop. Salad leaves, for example, are probably several days old by the time we purchase them, and don't last long - in comparison, a mixed selection of just-picked leaves from the garden is a delight that is achievable even where space is at a premium.

Seedlings of crops that can be continually harvested

Rather than trying to encompass a huge range of edibles in the book, Fionna particularly advocates growing crops that are hard to buy in shops, and those that will continue to grow even as they are harvested, such as baby spinach and compact lettuce varieties. She gives her verdict on which plants are easy and are most likely to succeed, and be less prone to pests and diseases. Her friendly, down-to-earth style, and her provision of many great practical tips and suggestions, combine to make the whole enterprise seem achievable for even the novice gardener. She includes a chapter on how to involve children in vegetable growing, so that the next generation will learn these simple skills and gain an understanding of where food actually comes from.

Potted edibles in the garden of Pamela and Harry Fowell in Sydney

Some of the unusual salad crops covered in the book include ones that can be grown through the cooler months, such as miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), mizuna (Brassica juncea) and corn salad (also known as lamb's lettuce Valerianella locusta). Interesting root crops are mentioned, such as ginger and turmeric, which I wouldn't have previously thought of trying. Fionna gives tips on choosing cultivars of root crops such as carrots and turnips that grow in a ball shape so that they won't be hampered by being grown in a container - and suggests compact varieties of other edibles (such as eggplants) that suit life in a pot. She explains how to use smart-looking supports for climbing crops such as cucumbers. She also mentions some useful perennial crops for pots, and some edible flowers are also covered.

Basil grown as a microgreen crop on the kitchen bench

The author is a great fan of microgreens: seedlings that are grown en masse in shallow containers then harvested when they are still tiny - after about two weeks growth. These trendy little leaves have great nutritional value despite their diminutive size and make a wonderfully tasty addition to salads as well as being useful for decorative garnishes. They can be grown indoors on a kitchen windowsill or outside, and some crops suitable include basil, fenugreek, radish, coriander, beetroot and mustard. I've been interested in microgreens for a while, and this book's explanation of how to grow them is the best I have read. One suggestion I particularly liked was the idea of using recycled bonsai pots or bamboo kitchen steaming baskets for these crops, so that they can look decorative as they grow.

Decorative rainbow silver beet, Lavandula Garden, Victoria

Indeed, throughout the book, Fionna gives ideas for how to make potted edible plants look attractive on balconies or elsewhere: choosing decorative varieties, such as gorgeous blood vein sorrel (Rumex sanguineus and Okinawan spinach (Gynura bicolor), and planting them in good-looking containers. She suggests a variety of possible objects to use as containers, many of which are recycled objects such as baskets and wooden boxes, emphasising the point that vegetable growing doesn't have to be an expensive exercise involving buying specialist kits and so on.

Nasturtiums are one of the edible crops covered in the book

Organic methods of fertilising and pest control are recommended through the book. A few recipes are included at the end of the book. One point to be noted is that because the author gardens in New Zealand, some of the particular cultivars mentioned may not be available in Australia; however, similar types are sure to be available via seed mail order companies in Australia. Overall, I felt inspired by this well-illustrated and easy-to-readbook to expand my vegie growing with some different crops, and get back to microgreens!