Easy crops for your balcony ( Part 1)

If you’re short on time and expertise, the delicious crops—or groups of crops—listed here are a great place to start. The plants are relatively low-maintenance and their produce truly does taste better than the stuff you can buy in the stores. You can sow these from seed, but for a really easy life buy plug plants from garden stores or online suppliers, plant them straight out into their final growing positions, and leave them to flourish.

  1. Tomatoes

However little time you think you have, you have time to grow tomatoes and no summer would be complete without the scent of tomato plants on the air. Grow a pot of basil near them and you can wrap a leaf around a juicy cherry ‘Sungold,’ then pop the whole package into your mouth, or impress your friends with purply ‘Black Krim’ or stripy ‘Tigerella.’

From tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes to big, Italian beefsteak varieties, tomatoes come in all shapes and colors. Buy plants in early summer and plant them straight out. Alternatively, grow them from seed in mid-spring, sowing them about 1 in. deep in 3 in. pots on a sunny windowsill, turning the seedlings regularly so they don’t grow crooked towards the light. Once all risk of frost has passed, plant them outside in a sunny, sheltered spot away from winds (these plants need the heat to ripen well) and feed them every two weeks from flowering onwards with a high-potash feed such as organic liquid seaweed or an organic tomato feed.

Easy tip

When planting tomatoes in a grow bag, don’t cut out the whole panel as the instructions tell you to. Instead, cut three crosses in the plastic and then fold the flaps under to make holes to plant in. This means less water can evaporate from the potting mix, helping to cut down on watering.

3 easy ways…

There are three types of tomato available (with many varieties of each) and each type is suited to slightly different growing methods. The type you choose depends on what container you want to grow your plants in.

Bushes need no support and grow only 1 ft. or so high so are best suited to a large window box or pot. A 1 ft.-diameter pot will take one bush, while a large window box should fit two. The advantage is that there’s no tying in to supports or pinching out of sideshoots; the disadvantage is that all the tomatoes ripen at once. For bush varieties consider ‘Red Alert,’ ‘Maskotka,’ ‘Garden Pearl,’ or ‘Principe Borghese,’ which is a mini plum.

Tumbling forms trail over the edge of containers, so are perhaps best in hanging baskets. Good varieties include the prolific ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ and ‘Tumbling Tom.’

Vining tomatoes grow tall, need supports and are best grown in a large pot or growing bag. The tomatoes ripen in stages all summer and right into autumn, so you can get a continuous harvest out of a small space. Good vining varieties include the sweet, orange cherry tomato ‘Sungold,’ classic red cherry ‘Gardener’s Delight,’ ‘Ferline,’ and purply ‘Black Krim.’

A 1 ft.-diameter pot will take up to four vining tomatoes grown up a teepee of bamboo canes. Grow bags are an easy option—and if you can find a double-depth bag, so much the better.

Either buy metal supports or position your bag at the foot of your balcony railings or trellis and tie the plants in as they grow. Pinch out any suckers that form in the joint between the main stem and leaves to channel the plant’s energy into fruit production. When the plant has formed six clusters of tomatoes—usually in late summer—pinch out the top of the plant just above a leaf. If you don’t do this, the plant will keep growing upwards, producing fruit that won’t have a chance to ripen before the weather gets colder.

  • Salad potatoes

There’s something magical about tipping out a bucket of potting mix onto the floor and unearthing fresh spud treasure, then boiling it, and eating your crop there and then with melted butter and your own potted mint. Potatoes grown in garden soil tend to be a magnet for slugs and other pests, but those grown up high in a tub, large bucket, or bag show no such signs of damage. They’re generally blemish-free and gleaming—needing simply a wash under the kitchen tap to clean off the potting mix.

Potato leaves provide welcome color in the spring and can soon turn your space into a verdant jungle. Grow Salad or Early varieties such as ‘Chieftain,’ ‘Klondike Rose,’ ‘Red La Soda,’ or ‘French Fingerling’ to get early new potatoes with an earthy, just-dug flavor. You can really tell the difference.

  • Project

SPUDS IN A TUB

 WHEN TO DO—MID-SPRING

You will need

  • 1 container at least 1 ft. in diameter—such as a rubber trug, large plastic bucket, pot or bag (not see-through). Avoid very deep pots since the plants need sunlight to develop the tubers. If using a bag, roll the sides down when you plant the tubers, then roll them up as you unearth the growing plants—this ensures the plants always get lots of sunlight
  • Crocks or polystyrene pieces
  • Soilless potting mix
  • Seed potatoes (a 1 ft.-diameter pot takes two potatoes; adjust the quantity depending on the size of your container)

 How to do it

First make sure your container has drainage holes, then add a layer of crocks on the base. Add about 8 in. of potting mix and place your potatoes, with their shoots facing up, on this, before covering with another 8 in. of potting mix. Water well. If a frost is forecast, place a couple of layers of newspaper on top for protection.

Keep the potting mix moist and after a few weeks the potato haulms (shoots) will break the surface. When they are about 4 in. high, cover them with more potting mix. Keep covering them each time they’re about 4 in. high until they reach the top of the container. Then keep watering and feed every two weeks with a tomato feed or organic liquid seaweed fertilizer. When the potatoes flower it’s a sign that the tubers are ready, but have an exploratory dig around before you tip them out; different varieties mature at different times, but First Earlies are worth investigating after about 10 weeks, Second Earlies from about 13 weeks. If you dig carefully you can harvest some potatoes while leaving the others to grow on.

  • Bush beans
bush beans

A wigwam of climbing pole beans, with their pretty purple or white flowers, heartshaped leaves, and twining stems, is a lovely sight in any space. Or why not let them climb up your balcony railings, screening your neighbors and creating a jungly wall of beans?

Beans are wonderfully prolific, particularly the climbing varieties, and are delicious eaten when they’re so fresh you can snap them in half. They’re ideal for containers as long as they have a sunny, sheltered spot and a nice deep root run, so make sure the pot is at least 8 in. deep (a hanging basket is too shallow). Grow either the bush sort, in which case you’ll need no supports, save perhaps a few twiggy sticks, or the climbing pole varieties, which can clamber up a wigwam, trellis, or balcony railing.

Start sowing bush beans about 2 in. deep from late spring and, if space allows, have at least two containers on the go, resowing the second when the initial batch form their first true leaves. Or sow a new handful of beans every two weeks up to late summer, so that you keep a good supply of beans going right up to mid-autumn. Either sow in small pots inside and transplant them when they’re about 4 in. tall, or sow direct into larger containers. A mixed sowing of green, purple, and yellow beans makes a fabulous display when they’re growing at full steam. Good pole beans include ‘Kentucky Blue Pole,’ ‘Fortex,’ ‘Blue Lake,’ and ‘Purple King.’ For bush varieties try ‘Beanonza,’ ‘Tenderpod,’ ‘Gold Mine,’ and ‘Purple Queen.’

Sow bush beans about 6 in. apart and climbing varieties about 4 in. apart around the base of a wigwam or other support they can climb up. Place them in a really warm, sheltered position, keep well watered, and feed every week with a high-potash liquid feed such as seaweed or wormery feed once they start flowering. In the early stages, watch out for slugs and snails.

Later, beans can attract blackfly, which can be squirted off with a jet of water or sprayed with organic insecticidal soft-soap solution. Pick the beans before the seeds inside start to bulge out of the sides of the pod. Keep picking and the plants will produce more beans.

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