How to make your crops work hard so you don’t have to

A city farmer’s balcony is all about growing as much food as possible in a small space. Follow these tips and you’ll keep your mini city farm in good shape.

 Quick crops for an extra harvest

Fast-growing plants such as radishes, cut-and-come-again greens, and peas for pea shoots are great to sow around the edge of pots containing larger, slower-growing crops such as zucchini, beans, or strawberries. They don’t take up much space or nutrients and you can be eating them within the month, leaving space for the main plant to grow into as it matures. As an added benefit, these crops shade the soil, reducing water evaporation on hot days.

High and low

Underplant tall plants with lower, more shade-tolerant ones. Try the ‘3 Sisters’ pot for a clever combination. Tall plants such as pole beans will grow up a wigwam in the center, which leaves space around the edge for compact plants like arugula or parsley, or those that trail over the sides, such as strawberries or tumbling tomatoes. Also use any nearby vertical supports, so you may have peas or beans at the back of a container with lower, bushy plants such as zucchini in the front.

Always have plants waiting in the wings

Rather than sowing a new crop once the previous one has been harvested, why not sow a batch in advance in small pots? This way you will always stay one step ahead and have little plants ready to pop in the minute the pot is free. In winter and early spring, sow seeds inside on a sunny windowsill; otherwise sow in small pots in a sheltered spot outside once all risk of frost is past. When replacing a crop, dig up the old plants, shaking off as much potting mix as you can, then fill with trowelfuls of fresh potting mix, garden potting mix, or wormery casts to replenish the fertility before planting.

A eulogy to corn

Homegrown sweet corn thrown into boiling water within minutes of picking and eaten with plenty of butter is one of the most sublime treats the gardener can experience. It’s delectably sweet since the sugar has not had time to turn to starch, as it does in storebought versions, and super-crisp too. However, you will need a sheltered site because wind can flatten a crop to the ground.

The “supersweet” or “tendersweet” varieties are the most delicious—particularly ‘King Kool’ and ‘Sun and Stars,’ which have colorful two-tone kernels.

If growing from seed, start sweet corn off in 4 in. pots in mid-spring on a sunny windowsill, sowing one seed per pot about 1 in. deep and then transplanting in late spring/early summer. Alternatively, sow direct outside in late spring into the pots you’re planning to grow it in. Corn is wind-pollinated, so plant it in blocks rather than rows to enable the pollen on the tassels to reach other plants. Aim for a maximum of three plants in a 12-in. pot (several pots are best to ensure good pollination).

Keep well watered and feed every two weeks with a high-potash feed such as tomato food or liquid seaweed. To test when the cobs are ready to pick, push your fingernail into one of the kernels—if the liquid is milky, they’re ready, if it’s clear, put the saucepan away for a few more days.

Project

PLANT A ‘3 SISTERS’ POT

This combination of three crops in one pot was traditionally grown by Native Americans and rather sweetly takes its name from the fact that the plants look after each other. Corn provides something for the beans to climb up, while they in turn add nitrogen to the soil. This benefits the corn and squash and the latter helpfully shades the roots of the other plants, protecting them from the drying effects of the sun. If you can’t find a compact squash, use a climbing variety, but make sure you can provide something for it to climb up nearby or it will soon rampage out of the pot and over the floor.

WHEN TO DO: LATE SPRING/EARLY SUMMER

You will need

A large, lightweight pot such as a plastic tub, about 2 ft. in diameter

Soilless potting mix

1 compact squash (such as ‘Sunburst’) or zucchini (such as ‘Tuscany’)

5 sweet corn seedlings

10 climbing bean seedlings

How to do it

Fill the pot with potting mix, then plant the squash in the center and space the corn seedlings out evenly. Plant two bean seedlings at the bottom of each corn and water well. Encourage the beans to climb up the corn by winding their tops around them as they grow. Place in a sunny, sheltered spot, keep well watered, and feed every two weeks with a liquid seaweed feed once the squash starts to form fruits.

city farmer crops that just keep on coming

Keep the following crops coming all summer long by sowing these every couple of weeks from spring right through to late summer. A “conveyor belt” of around four medium-large containers (at least 1 ft. in diameter) at different stages of growth should provide you with a rolling supply of each of the following crops. If you’re growing in an average-sized raised bed, sow a row every two weeks instead.

Arugula

a is a zesty must-have, and you can eat fresh arugula leaves all year round if you grow it yourself. Seeds are best sown direct into the container you want to grow them in, thinly, and barely covered with potting mix. Wild arugula, with its serrated, sword-like leaves, is best sown from mid-spring to midsummer, while salad arugula, milder-flavored and hardy enough to grow over winter, should be sown from midsummer to mid-fall. Both types will grow in sun or partial shade and are fine in containers (though wild arugula will not do well in something as shallow as a hanging basket). Keep plants well watered or they may bolt (run to seed). Fast-growing arugula can be snipped just above the smallest new leaf and it will resprout a couple of times before needing to be resown.

Beets

Baby beets roasted in the oven and served with feta and new potatoes are one of the pleasures of early summer. Harvest them small, when they are really tender and sweet. Sliced paper-thin, they are also wonderful raw. Don’t forget you can eat the leaves, too—delicious in salads or steamed—so this works as a rolling salad crop as well.

Sow seeds about 2 in. apart direct into medium-large containers placed in a sunny spot. Do this every two weeks from mid-spring to mid-summer. Harvest when the beets are the size of ping-pong balls. Good varieties include the mini-sized ‘Red Heart’ and ‘Red Cloud,’ ‘Boltardy,’ ‘Little Chicago,’ (its small roots are good for pickling) and ‘Chioggia,’ which has striking concentric rings when you cut it in half.

Bush 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.

Carrots

Homegrown carrots are in another league from the shop-bought variety. Grow them yourself and you can pick them young, crunchy, and sweet. Eat them raw, make juice from them, or steam them to retain their delectable sweetness. Choose early varieties such as ‘Nantes’ and ‘Orange Rocket,’ but if you’re feeling more experimental, ‘Kaleidoscope Mix’ contains purple, yellow, white, and orange carrots, while ballrooted ‘Thumbelina’ can even grow in shallow window boxes.

Chard

picked small and eaten raw, makes a nice alternative to spinach. If you choose ‘Bright Lights’ or ‘Rainbow’ chard it also has attractive multicolored stems. Sow and grow as for spinach.

 Scallions These are so tasty—in stir-fries, salads, or scattered over soups—and take up very little room. Once sown—½ in. deep, 1 in. apart—they need no attention. Harvest by pulling them up when required.

Spinach

Spinach is a wonderfully versatile container crop, since you can either eat the leaves raw when young in salads or steamed when they are more mature. It will grow in any container, although in small containers it’s best to harvest it as baby leaves. Sow seed thinly, 1 in. deep, from early to late spring and again in the autumn for pickings all year round. Thin newly emerged seedlings to about 3 in. apart.

Radishes

are so easy to grow—and so fast to mature—that it would be a real shame not to include them in your edible balcony. They can take as little as a month to go from seed to plate, adding a welcome spicy crunch to a leafy bowl of greens. A pinch of seeds sown every couple of weeks will keep you in radishes all summer long. ‘Cherry Belle’ is a classic red round variety, while the pretty, long ‘Fire and Ice’ has a white tip and is perfect for slicing. ‘Bright Lights’ will give you multi-colored radishes, in yellow, purple and red. Sow radish seeds about ½ in. deep and 1 in. apart in any container—they will flourish in window boxes or hanging baskets as well as in larger pots.

Snap peas & snow peas

Regular podding peas are not ideal for growing in small spaces such as balconies because you don’t get left with an awful lot of actual pea once you have shelled them.
Sugarsnap and snow pea varieties, however, are much more rewarding in containers as you can eat the whole pod. They’re also so delectably sweet straight after picking that you’ll be tempted to eat them raw rather than steam them or stir-fry with garlic and ginger—also delicious.

Grow them in medium-large pots or deep window boxes, providing twiggy sticks, netting, or multiple lengths of rough garden twine for them to climb up. (These peas climb via tendrils, so they aren’t good at clinging to smooth surfaces such as bamboo canes.) Or try planting them in hanging baskets where the peas will hang down rather than climb up. Good varieties of snap peas include the relatively dwarfgrowing ‘Snowbird,’ ‘Sugar Daddy,’ ‘Sugar Bon,’ and ‘Mammoth Melting Sweet Pod,’ while ‘Sugar Snap’ will grow fairly tall. Dwarf ‘Gray Sugar’ and ‘Norli’ are good snow peas.

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