Potted vegie plot

Sunday, 11 September 2016

One of my lettuce plants, which has been harvested many times

In my parents' largish garden, about one-quarter of the space was devoted to edible plants, including fruit trees and vegetables. Whilst I have always had aspirations to follow suit, my garden beds remain more or less full of ornamental plants, as I have not yet exhausted all my experiments in finding which grow best in Sydney's climate for me - and how to combine them in pleasing ways! However, over the years, I have been growing more and more edibles in troughs and tubs. I do have a few small patches of herbs in temporarily bare spots in garden beds and one raised vegie bed against a fence for climbing varieties such as snow peas, but troughs are my mainstay, and my focus is on herbs and salad greens. We now don't have to buy these at the greengrocer, and it is a rather wonderful feeling to be able to step outside at dinnertime and pick a big bowl of mixed greenery for a salad. Nor do I have to buy those bunches of cellophane-encased herbs any more, which generally would be half-used then languish in the fridge until they turned to sludge.

Lambs lettuce is a good cool season salad green

All the salad greens I grow will continue to produce new leaves over a long period if just a few leaves of each plant are taken at any one time. Different coloured butterhead lettuces, baby spinach and rocket are the basic crops grown, but over this past winter I have tried a few new things. One is lamb's lettuce (Valerianella locusta), sometimes know as corn salad or mache. It grows as rosettes of soft, bright green, rounded leaves and loves the cooler weather, thus being useful for salads in winter. It can be used fresh or cooked, and is said to be high in vitamin C. It is related to such plants as Scabiosa and honeysuckle! Another good doer has been watercress, which adds a tang to my leafy salads. It is supposedly full of nutrients so I sometimes just eat handfuls whilst I am standing in the garden! I am not sure if what I have been growing is true watercress (Nasturtium officinale), which supposedly only grows in running water, or land cress (Barbarea verna). I have grown mine in an ordinary trough and it has done very well over the cooler months. Both types of cress are related to rocket. Both the lamb's lettuce and the water/land cress have regenerated quickly after the first leaves were picked and are still going strong. These types run to seed quickly over summer so are best grown during the cooler months.

Rungia klossii, the mushroom plant

I have been growing a couple of unusual perennial greens this year too, including the so-called 'mushroom plant' (Rungia klossii), one of the few edible members of the Acanthaceae family that I am familiar with. It comes from Papua New Guinea, and is a low-growing perennial with a mild mushroom flavour to its foliage. The nutritious leaves can be eaten raw or used in a stir-fry. This one can be propagated from cuttings, which will form a clump (ht 60 cm). It has sky-blue flowers in spring.

Centella asiatica, used in many Asian dishes

Another unusual perennial green I have been growing is Indian pennywort or gotu kola (Centella asiatica). Native to the wetlands of Asia, it grows from creeping rhizomes and has rounded, pungent-tasting leaves, a little like the foliage of violets. It is much used in Sri Lankan cooking (as well as many other cuisines) for side dishes and salads; and is also thought to have medicinal qualities. It belongs to the Apiaceae family, of which parsley and coriander are also members (they are also excellent subjects for growing in troughs!). It loves moist soil and is best grown in a pot so it doesn't spread too far - just like mint!

Watercress or land cress growing in a tub

To fill my troughs I use potting mix combined with sieved homemade compost, with some granular fertiliser. Once the crops are starting to grow, regular watering and feeding with a soluble fertiliser are important to support robust development. Give each seedling sufficient space to grow, by thinning seedlings where seeds were planted directly into the soil, or transplanting seedlings grown first in a punnet to a reasonable distance apart. When the crop is finally spent, I generally tip all the soil out into the compost heap and start again with a fresh batch of potting mix and compost to give the next crop the best possible conditions. Unlike in garden beds, this allows me to grow a vegetable from the same plant family again in that trough, another advantage of container plots!

There are any number of interesting vegetables available these days, including many Asian varieties, and there are many more leafy greens I hope to try. It is useful to note that most leafy greens can be grown in part-shaded spots. Also, because they don't need pollination, those that get attacked by pests such as the white cabbage moth (for example, rocket) and the flea beetle (such as mint and basil) can be grown under a frame covered with fine mesh.

My potted vegie plot doesn't need much attention but gives me lots of rewards!