7 City Farmer Stalwarts-crops That Give a Lot Back

Some crops you shower with attention and they reward you with a measly few fruits— eggplants can be a prime example; others demand very little from you but give you a seemingly endless supply of leaves or fruit in return. These are the stalwarts of the vegetable world, perfect for those trying to create an allotment on high as they will make a real impression on your table. You never know, you may even find yourself self-sufficient in some of them

Fava beans

Not only are fava beans a delicious early crop, maturing at the start of summer, they are also one of the prettiest vegetable plants you can grow, with black and white flowers that rival the sweet pea for fragrance. As long as you choose a dwarf variety, there’s no reason why you can’t grow these beans in pots, but they grow best in cool climates.

Sow seeds in the autumn in a raised bed, pot, or grow bag, 2 in. deep and about 6 in. apart. You can also sow them in early spring. When the plants start looking floppy, prop them with twiggy sticks or canes and string. Don’t pick the pods until they’re about 6 in. long, then look forward to a long feast of beans—they are wonderful steamed, then popped out of their skins, in warm salads with feta cheese and the first potatoes and beets of the year. You can also eat the shoots, which, when lightly steamed, taste rather like spinach. A harbinger of the new season.

Scarlet runner beans

A wigwam of Scarlet runner beans garlanded with pink or red blossom, buzzing with bees and with long flat pods of beans, rivals any ornamental flower in the prettiness stakes. They are also the most accommodating plants, churning out bean after bean from the moment they get into their stride in mid-summer right up to mid-fall. You can make the most of their jungly, heart-shaped leaves and spreading habit on a balcony by letting them scramble up railings or trellising. Or why not make a flavorsome tunnel of beans?

Sow Scarlet runner beans about 2 in. deep and 2 in. apart in early summer directly into the container you’re growing them in—a raised bed, grow bag, or pot at least 1 ft. in diameter. Either grow them up a wigwam or position the pot near to a structure the beans can climb up.

When the plants reach the top of the support, pinch out the tops to encourage them to put out side shoots. Scarlet runner beans like full sun but they will also produce a decent crop in the shade. Keep picking the beans and the plant will keep producing more.

Good varieties include the old favorite ‘White Emergo,’ with its pretty white flowers, and ‘Scarlet Emperor.’ There are also dwarf varieties such as ‘Hestia,’ although you get many more beans if you grow a climbing variety. Keep the plants well watered and feed them every two weeks with a high-potash feed such as liquid seaweed once the pods start to form.

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.

Project

MAKE A SCARLET RUNNER BEAN TUNNEL

Growing crops up archways, tunnels, and pergolas is not only a great way to make the most of limited space, but also creates an atmospheric focal point and some lovely dappled shade to sit in. As the photo demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be a permanent, heavy structure either. Climbing pole beans, squashes, and cucumbers would also grow well up bamboo canes such as these.

WHEN TO DO : MID-SPRING TO EARLY SUMMER

You will need :

  • 2 deep trough-style planters, each at least 3 ft. long
  • 11 bamboo canes, each at least 6 ft. long
  • Scarlet runner bean seeds
  • Strong garden twine
  • Soilless potting mix A chair or stepladder to stand on

How to do it

Fill the planters with multipurpose potting mix and position them about 6 ft. apart. Firmly push five canes, evenly spaced, into the potting mix in one planter, then repeat with the other. Standing on a chair or ladder, tie the tops of opposite canes together so you have five pairs. Then lay the final cane along the top, tying it in tightly to each of the pairs so that you have a reasonably firm structure. Sow the beans at the foot of the canes.

Chard

When grown to maturity, chard is one of the most productive vegetables you can grow; pick the outer leaves and the plant will keep going for up to nine months. The bonus of chard is that if you grow ‘Bright Lights’ or ‘Rainbow’ chard, with its vivid stems of yellow, purple, and pink, the plant is a lovely sight too. “Swiss” chard has relatively tame, white stems but perhaps a finer taste; steam the leaves as you would spinach and add plenty of butter and black pepper or mix them in a cheese sauce and put them under the broiler until bubbling. Cook the stems for longer—some people think they rival asparagus when dipped in melted butter—or chop them up and add to risottos for interesting color and texture. Sow in small pots inside in mid-spring and then transplant to a sunny spot in a raised bed, pot, or window box in late spring, planting them about 8 in. apart.

Garlic

It’s surprisingly easy to grow a lot of garlic; even on a small balcony you could have a few pots growing merrily away, each one providing you with a good ten plump heads that you can hang up to dry in your kitchen and which will keep for months. A long-storing variety such as ‘Korean Red’ is harvested in mid-summer and will keep until the following summer.

Another good long-storing variety is ‘Kettle River Giant’ from the Pacific Northwest, which tolerates cold winters, while ‘German White’ from the northeastern states has large cloves that are easy to peel and are delicious when roasted. Don’t be tempted to plant supermarket garlic, as it may not be a variety suitable for your climate. It is better to buy heads specifically for growing from a garden store or specialist supplier.

Plant garlic in spring or autumn, breaking the heads into individual cloves and popping them into soil about 6 in. apart in raised beds, pots, or window boxes, pointy end up so that the tip is just below the surface. Keep them well watered and harvest them when the leaves begin to turn yellow. Have an experimental dig around before you pull up the whole crop, leaves and all.

You can eat garlic fresh, but if you want to store it, hang it up somewhere warm and dry for about three weeks until the leaves turn papery, then roughly braid them together and hang them up in the kitchen next to the stove.

Kale

This earthy brassica is a real performer and you’ll be picking the leaves from late summer right through to late spring. Kale is delicious in soups, as a side vegetable, or even stir-fried until crispy and scattered with pumpkin seeds and Parmesan. The only pest you’ll be looking out for with this crop will be pigeons, which can strip the plants, but use netting only as a last resort because birds can get caught in it.

Try ‘Lacinato’ kale with its plume of dark, crepy leaves, or ‘Red Russian’ with red midribs and such a mild crunch you can eat the small leaves raw in salads. ‘Dwarf Blue Curled’ has frilly leaves and an eye-catching blue color.

Sow kale seeds in small pots in late spring and then transfer the seedlings to raised beds, pots or window boxes in mid-summer, planting them about 8 in. apart. Secure the plants well—the test is to pull a leaf; if it breaks before you uproot the plant, it’s planted firmly enough.

Raspberries

This fruit bush needs a big pot (about 18 in. diameter), but if you can provide this, a few raspberry canes are well worth including on a city farmer’s balcony. You’ll be amazed how many berries even a few canes produce, and they are so velvety-soft and sweet when picked at the peak of ripeness. Throw them on the top of a meringue, add them to cereal, or just eat them right there by the plant.

Plant canes in the fall, ideally in a soil-based potting mix (if not, a soilless one will do), as these plants will be in the pot for several years and so they need a potting mix that releases nutrients slowly. After planting, mulch the potting mix with shingle, grit, or some other suitable material, because raspberries have shallow roots and might dry out otherwise.

It’s best to choose autumn-fruiting varieties for pot growing, such as ‘Caroline,’ or something you can’t buy, like yellow ‘Anne’ or purple ‘Royalty.’ Feed the plants every two weeks with a high-potash feed such as liquid seaweed once the berries have started to form. Harvest the fruits from late summer right through to mid-fall. In late winter, cut all the canes right down to the level of the potting mix and mulch with fresh garden potting mix or, if you have it, wormery potting mix.

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