Walkden’s wisdom on container veg
Tuesday 5th March 2013, 10:01AM GMT.
Growing veg on your patio couldn’t be easier – you can control the soil type, the situation and the watering, often providing shelter near the house when it’s needed.
Yet some gardeners are put off by the idea of unsightly veg taking up valuable flower space in pots on the patio.
But they shouldn’t worry, says TV and radio gardening expert Christine Walkden.
Walkden may be the wrong person to ask about pretty veg because she finds all veg plants beautiful, she admits.
“I see beauty in a cabbage! A beautiful dense cabbage head in a classic terracotta pot is just as attractive as the non-edible ornamental sorts.”
Some of her patio planting ideas are featured in her new book, Christine Walkden’s No-nonsense Container Gardening.
In it, she features fabulously ornamental purple kale in brightly coloured plastic trugs, lime-green lettuce in a bubblegum pink metal bucket, leafy veg in wooden crates and a hanging basket made out of an old metal colander.
There are colourful flowers in old food tins and shopping baskets, a rock garden planted inside a vintage pram and other quirky ideas.
But veg also win a place in the looks department, she says.
“Kale is a hardy brassica that you can go on picking right through winter and it looks great in containers. Striking red stems and leaf veins make beetroot plants attractive enough to grow in among flowers.”
For those who love colour, you can’t go far wrong with beans, she says.
“Runner beans are ideal because you’ve got all the different flowers, the whites, the bi-colours and the pinks.
“Black Tuscany kale is great to grow to add interest in the winter, and ferny-leaved and coloured-leaved lettuces are also great.
“Now, we have so much diversity in leaf shape in salads, from the spoon-shapes of lamb’s ears to the really frizzy stuff that’s available. It’s breathtaking.”
Lettuce can be grown in any pot, but where it really scores is in shallow, saucer-shaped troughs, where other veg would need deeper soil to survive.
Walkden grows lettuces all year round in seed trays, because that’s all the soil which is required, she says.
“As long as you’ve got 2in of soil, you can grow cut-and-come-again salad leaves. A lot of gardeners hate shallow containers because they dry out so quickly, but lettuce will cope with the occasional drought. They will tolerate the heat generated in the container and the root run.”
To make a window box containing edibles look pretty, plant lettuces, radishes (place them behind because they have pretty foliage), spring onions or chives, and small beetroot such as ‘Boltardi’, with its spectacular red foliage, she suggests.
Climbing beans have long been grown around wigwams but you can grow dwarf varieties in regular plant pots.
“There are a lot of good varieties now that you can grow in window boxes and containers,” says Walkden, who will be mentor to the winning amateur designer of a BBC and RHS competition to create The One Show family garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July.
“Mix veg in with your flowers as well,” she suggests.
“The ferny leaves of carrots make a fantastic edging to a container. We tend to categorise things, but at the end of the day, they are all just plants.”
Walkden believes that great plant companions are those which contrast well.
“I go for things like chives, with vertical growth, contrasting well with the dark reds of kales and beetroot.
“Daisy-like flowers including osteospermums, argyranthemums, coreopsis and calendulas all contrast well with veg.”
Nasturtiums, in shades of orange, yellow and red, are often grown as a sacrificial crop to lure blackfly away from more precious plants, but the flowers make a colourful, faintly spicy addition to salads and look wonderful draping over the edge of containers in front of taller plants.
Follow her advice and soon enough you could have patio plants which not only look good but taste good too.
- Christine Walkden’s No-nonsense Container Gardening is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20. Available now
Best of the bunch – Helleborus
These dainty-looking perennials are valued for their late winter and spring flowers, often in shades of white and dusky pink, but many have attractive foliage too.
Growing to around 50cm, they are versatile plants, suitable for borders and raised beds, can be used as ground cover or planted as single subjects in containers.
They will grow in a variety of soils but won’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, so dig in plenty of organic matter before planting.
They look fabulous interplanted with spring-flowering bulbs or hardy cyclamen, or teamed with epimediums, pulmonarias and hardy geraniums which will take over later in the season.
Their main enemy, apart from slugs, is hellebore leaf spot, a fungal disease that attacks leaves, flowers and stems. Remove the burn-marked leaves in winter to prevent the disease spreading.
Good varieties to go for include H. orientalis ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’, whose blooms range from white, pink, red, purple, black, yellow or green.
A tougher variety is H. argutifolius, which reaches larger-than-average 90cm x 90cm and is best in full sun and well-drained soil, producing greenish flowers from January to March.
Good enough to eat – Onions
Gardening guru Alan Titchmarsh has said that onions are one of his favourite veg to grow, as they are so easy and so rewarding, whether you prefer the tangy spring onions, rich-hued red onions or the regular white variety. Onions are used in so many dishes – the world would be a much less flavoursome place without them.
You can buy bags of onion sets now – immature onions raised from seed the previous summer – and plant them when the ground is workable. In cold areas or on heavy soil, this may be in mid-March or April.
Prepare the ground by digging the soil to loosen it, as soil that is too compact will cause the onion roots to push the sets out as they grow. You need weed-free ground that has been manured in previous years but not recently.
Push the sets gently into the soil so the tips are level with the surface and cover them with garden fleece or a cloche to stop the birds pulling them out. Small bulbs should be planted about 2.5cm apart in rows 15cm apart, allowing enough space to get a hoe between rows. Space larger bulbs 10cm apart.
Apart from weeding you shouldn’t need to do anything else, apart from watering if there’s a drought. By late summer the foliage will start to yellow and fall over, which is when you can lift the bulbs with a fork, leaving them on the surface to ripen in the sun.
Good varieties include ‘Red Baron’, ‘Centurion’ and ‘Shakespeare, a mini-onion idea for stir-fries.
Three ways to… Stop daffodil blindness
1. Plant bulbs at two to three times their depth, because shallow planting leads to poor flowering.
2. Don’t cut down daffodil foliage for at least six weeks after flowering, to allow bulbs to build up food reserves. Don’t knot the leaves, but remove faded flowers to divert energy to feed the bulbs.
3. Feed bulbs growing on poor soils with a general purpose fertiliser in spring and with a high-potash fertiliser after flowering. Mulch and water bulbs in dry conditions.
What to do this week
- Divide overcrowded crocus and replant.
- Dress figs under glass with bonemeal and a mulch of compost over the root run.
- Sow a row of spinach beet for a summer crop. This cut-and-come-again crop should be ready by July.
- Sow tender bedding plants in a heated propagator or in trays on a warm windowsill.
- Mulch beds and borders while the soil is moist to reduce the need for watering and to keep down weeds.
- Prune roses, removing decaying, old and spindly wood.
- Plant summer-flowering bulbs, but check on the packet as some may need to be started off indoors.
- Protect lush new growth from slugs with slug pellets or barriers such as copper tape around containers.
- Cut back stems of dogwood and willow to within 5cm of the old wood, to boost their strength for next year.
- Feed shallow-rooted small or trained trees, cane or bush fruits, using a general fertiliser.
- Plant sweet peas outdoors which were sown indoors last month.
- Dig up hellebore seedling and pot them up to grow on.
- Take cuttings of cottage favourites lupins and delphiniums.
- Carefully lift nets placed over ponds to catch autumn leaves and tip the debris on to the compost heap.
- Protect the blossom of peach, nectarine or fruiting cherry trees with fleece. Take the fleece off on non-frosty days to allow insects to pollinate.
- Mend all fence posts, trellis and other plant supports before vigorous growth kicks in and covers the damaged areas.
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