Sowing seeds

Short version:

My method for novices deterred by the perceived effort, cost or time taken to grow seeds, though I’m probably upsetting experts with my inability to follow instructions.

  1. Collect toilet roll tubes, tetra pack cartons and plastic tubs for free and environmentally friendly containers.
  2. Choose seeds wisely
  3. Fill with normal compost
  4. In the recommended month sow 1-8 seeds (depending on plant) in each container, picking a suitable container for each plant.
  5. Place on a windowsill / warm place and keep the compost damp.
  6. When planting out pop the whole toilet roll in the hole so you don’t disturb the roots. When planting Tetra Pak you can cut off the bottom and put the whole carton into the soil to provide a bit of protection from pests. 

It’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the information on different months to sow, types and mixes of potting soil, necessary temperatures, levels of light and water requirements, seeds that need soaking, scratching or a cold spell in the fridge. Then after all that, planting those seedlings outside requires another long list of requirements.  

If you have the time, the patience of a saint and all the fancy equipment, like under pot heating, growing lights, a greenhouse, cold frame or even things like perlite and vermiculite then following all the guidelines could give you perfect results.

The question is: ‘How much worse will it be if you don’t follow instructions to the letter?’ Seeds may take longer to germinate. Fewer seeds may germinate. Seedlings may be weaker. At worst, nothing grows, and you’ve wasted the cost of a few seeds.

If you have a lack of space like me, I would advise starting most plants indoors. This provides a good start and ensures that something is actually growing before it takes a spot in the garden. You then also have spares for gaps as they appear. Planting straight into the ground can also lead to small stalks of nothingness – evidence of marauding molluscs. More mature plants are less susceptible or recover better.

Also, my neighbour reminded me last week that those new to gardening can find it difficult to distinguish between intentional seedlings and weeds. Once you’ve been growing a while, you’ll be able to tell the difference but until that time – by growing everything in separate containers you’ll have no issues with identification.

1. Find containers

Toilet roll tubes – great biodegradable modules that you pop straight into the ground. It doesn’t disturb the roots and it’s a good way to reuse waste packaging. These are only suitable for fast germinating and growing seeds like peas and beans as the cardboard can go a bit mouldy and fall apart if left damp for too many weeks. Name and date the tube in pencil.

Mushroom boxes – stack the toilet rolls in here so that they don’t fall over and have somewhere for their water to drain into.

Plastic pots – pierce the bottom. A bradawl is the easiest, or even a pin heated with a lighter will do.  

Tetra Pak cartons – If you pull out the side tabs and flatten the top they cut easily. You can also cut a corner on the bottom to allow for drainage.

Make sure you wash the plastic pots and Tetra Pak cartons thoroughly before use. You can write names and dates with a permanent marker. Place these in the mushroom boxes or a tray of some sorts to avoid water draining everywhere.

You now have many randomly sized pots for free and even better you’re helping the environment. You haven’t bought a plastic pot, made from crude oil, that uses energy and creates carbon dioxide in the manufacturing. You are reusing something pre-made for another purpose and when you’re finished with it you can wash it and still put it into your recycling.

2. Choose your seeds wisely

Don’t be tempted to plant the seeds out of an apple you just ate or out of the butternut squash you had for dinner. Despite being an advocate of free or cheap growing, this is not usually a successful way to grow food. The first issue is that a lot of tasty fruit doesn’t provide you with seeds that are ‘true’. That seed will have the half the DNA of the mother plant but the pollen that led to fertilisation could have come from any of the species including crab apple. You might be lucky enough to get a tasty undiscovered variety, or you could get something sour and gross. This gamble would be fine if you didn’t have to wait several years for the first apple to find out. Your butternut squash may produce fruit (yes – squashes are technically fruit) in the first year but it, again, may not taste as good. If the original was grown in another country your new plant may also not be suited for your climate. It may grow but might not fruit. It also may not be disease resistant.

Buy from a reputable supplier. Spend time reading the back of packs and choosing types of edibles and varieties that will work in your garden for its conditions. It may be worth noting that if you live in a paved or concreted yard – you could grow amazing summer squashes or aubergines. Generally, cities are warmer than the countryside and when there is a lot of concrete absorbing and radiating heat it can push the temperature higher still. You won’t, however, be able to grow deep rooted plants like artichoke without a ridiculously large pot.

Sow things that work for your soil and circumstances. E.g.

Seeds come in ridiculous quantities for small garden growers. I would never be able to plant 15 courgette or tomato plants in a year. I’d manage maybe 2 or 3. Kale comes in packs of something like 50 and at a push I’d manage maybe 10 plants. A great way to lower costs is to swap seeds or even plants with a neighbour. Seeds usually have plant before date, usually a couple of years after purchase.

Sort your acquired seeds into the months to be sown in. Sowing at the right time is something that I do believe is important. By sowing at the correct time, you ensure the soil outside will be suitable (frost free and/or warm enough) by the time your seedling is big enough to go out there. You also give your new plant a long enough period to grow and fruit to ripen before the weather turns cold. I.e. If you sow a tomato seed in January the plant will have grown far too big and probably died before the weather is warm enough to plant it outside. If you sow it in August by the time the plant has matured enough to flower the weather will be turning too cold to set or ripen fruit. I’m not too strict about dates though – if something should be sown February to March, I’ll still merrily sow it in the first 2 weeks of April. I would just maybe leave those plants indoors for a little longer so that they can catch up.

This is my crude, but effective, seed filing system. In early Jan before I start I sort everything into the month I’m going to plant in. If I sow something that I think I’ll want to sow again in a later month e.g. peas, beans and coriander rather than put it back into the original envelope I’ll put it into the next month I’ll want to sow it in. That’s why every Jan I need to resort.

Unless you have lots of experience for now avoid the seeds that need scarification (scratching the surface of the seed) or stratification (a period of cold).

3. Fill containers with Compost

The cheap and lazy me uses whatever giant bag of compost I happen to have open at the time. I feel it’s more efficient to sow everything in 30 pots in one go once or maybe twice a month. E.g. early March I may sow 5 containers of runner beans, 5 sugar snaps, 5 fine beans, 2 tromboncino, 2 pumpkin munchkin, 3 cherry tomatoes, 2 thai basil, 3 basil and 3 coriander. I’m sure each type of plant would have its own ideal type of potting soil but it’s so quick, easy and cheap just to fill all the pots with the same soil. Let’s face it – if it can’t grow with the decent compost I provide indoors, then it sure as hell isn’t going to make it in my terrible clay soil outdoors.  

4. Sow your seeds

I don’t believe in thinning. The idea that you sprinkle lots of seeds into a tray of compost, wait for them to grow and then prick individual seedlings into their own pots sounds like an inefficient use of time and resources. So many seedlings get squished or die in the process and roots get tangled. I also don’t have the heart to kill a food plant when the books say sow 2 or 3 together and pinch off the weakest 2.

How many you sow in each pot depends:

Things that will grow into tree/bush type things and you want to keep indoors for as long as possible like tomatoes, artichoke, pumpkins and other squashes, physalis, etc I’d stick to one seed per larger container.

Things that you just want to make plug plants for like kale, swiss chard, rocket, nasturtiums, you can do one seed per small container.

Things that grow tall and thin like cucamelons, peas and beans I tend to do 2 or 3 to a container.

Tender herbs that get cut down quite quickly (basil, coriander, dill) and so don’t get chance to grow very large I’ll sprinkle maybe 5 or 6 seeds in one.

I’d suggest planting a few more containers than you need in case you have a couple of dud seeds. You then also have a spare or two if you do plant out your first seedlings and they get ravaged by the slugs and snails. You can always give these away or do a seedling swap.

Label them so you know what you have. If you’re fastidious: plant, variety and date. If you’re me there’ll be an unintelligible scrawl on the side naming many different plants after I’ve used the same container a couple of times.

5. Leave to grow

Windowsills or any sunny spots will do. Keep the soil damp. Some seeds germinate almost immediately whilst some take a little longer. There may be containers that continue to look barren. Not all seeds within a pack are viable. Some plants are just harder. I’ve failed to germinate perilla, tomatillo and pomegranate this year. Following instructions to the letter may have led to success. Then again, it may not have. If you think something hasn’t grown pop something else into these pots. Because I like to keep it easy, cheap and avoid anything too time consuming I give up on the harder to grow things. There will be some things that are better (though more expensive) bought as plants.

6. Choose a spot suitable for your plant

You can ‘harden off’ your plants by putting the containers outside during the day and bringing them back indoors for cold evenings. If the nights aren’t freezing, I have often skipped this step with little or no damage. You will have to see for yourself how necessary this is for your garden. If unsure plant one straight into the ground and see if it’s doing OK a couple of days later.  

Ensuring enough sun, space and supports if necessary, gives you less work in the long run. If your plant is susceptible to slugs and snails, then you can cut the base off the container so you have a couple of inches of container as a barrier, but the roots still have soil access. You can put slug tape around the container or cover with the top half of a bottle to stop them getting in. I only bother with really precious plants that are very attractive to critters.

After all that it’s worth noting that carrots, beetroots and turnips are best sown in situ. Because they are easy small plants grown in larger quantities, they are just a faff to put in containers first. Beetroots will need thinning no matter how careful you are as each ‘seed’ is actually a cluster of seeds.

Then after that has been said, by growing perennials or self-seeding varieties you cut out all the above work. However, perennials usually take much longer to establish themselves and become productive. To get self seeders into the garden of course you need to sow them first. Things like peas, beans and squashes don’t have a perennial version and they can provide you with food as you wait for your perennials to get going.  

So, being end of June, there’s still time to sow some kale or Swiss chard for eating in spring, or peas (including sugar snaps and mangetout), beans (runner or French), beetroots, kohl rabi, , quick growing herbs (like basil, dill, coriander) or salad leaves for something yummy this year.

Today, out of that list I’ve only sown peas, but I’ve also sown an array of edible flowers that should hopefully make it into the lawn (more on that later). All of those would germinate in situ in this lovely weather, but the lawn flowers seedlings would never survive being trampled and I’m sure those little slimers are just waiting to take the growing tips of my beans! Grr…

Grow my pretties… grow…

Kales and Collards

Cavelo Nero Kale 3 months old

Short version: Grow perennial kales and collards for an easy life. In addition grow annual kales for eating through winter. Eat all bits of any brassicas that aren’t too fibrous. Daubenton’s kale is amazing – unless of course you dislike the taste of brassicas. If that’s the case then maybe this post isn’t for you, unless you can be convinced that home grown tastes better than shop bought.

Brassicas and St Bernards

So kales and collards are brassicas. These also include cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, the odd-looking kohl rabi and the Chinese sounding kai lan. You may find it surprising that they all belong to the same species, all with 4 petals in their flowers. If you remember your GCSE Biology you will know that that ‘same species’ means they can pollinate each other. It’s like dogs. All dogs are the same species despite how very different looking the breeds are. A chihuahua and a St Bernard could mate to produce puppies but I couldn’t begin to imagine what traits the offspring would have.

Brassicas, like dogs have diversified through human intervention. People have chosen traits that they like and through cultivation (or breeding in the case of dogs) have selectively grown (bred) a variety (breed) that has the desired characteristics. Some brassicas are grown for their flower buds, like cauliflower and broccoli. Some are grown for the succulent stems like, kai lan.

Given that they are all the same species and all parts of the plant (except the roots) are edible, I’d like to encourage you to try the bits of brassicas that you may not usually eat. It’s good for your bank account and it’s good for the environment. Obviously there are some bits that are not worth eating. You’ll not be surprised to hear that walking stick collard stems are really very tough. Feel free to try broccoli leaves or the flowers of any the brassicas. This year we have begun roasting the cauliflower leaves (shop bought I’m afraid) that we used to throw away. We literally pull the leaves off, wash, chop into 1-2cm width sections, toss in oil and a pinch of salt and roast on 190oC (fan) for 20mins. You can even roast them with the cauliflower florets and stem cut into around inch sized pieces. We find them tastier than the florets but tougher on the teeth.

To Grow or Not to Grow?

Being all the same species, it does mean that they generally do well in the same conditions. They are decently shade tolerant and are good for winter growing. They also favour alkaline soil. Now which of the brassicas are the easiest to grow?

Cabbages

The books all go on about cabbages and Brussel sprouts. I always see the seeds in the shops but I don’t know a single person who grows them. I attempted to grow cabbages, once about 11 years ago. They took an awfully long time. I patiently waited the suggested time, cut off my shot putt sized head, removed the lacey looking caterpillar eaten leaves, removed the leaves with little holes in, removed some more leaves, cut the now closer to tennis ball sized cabbage in half to find some more little worm like things. I was still determined to eat what I could salvage. The other 3 cabbages that I had managed to grow did not fare much better, but at least I was mentally prepared. I have not planted cabbages since. A red cabbage grew of its own accord last year but it didn’t even make it to my kitchen as it was so infested.

Brussel sprouts

My last pathetic plant of last year’s crop that by March still had no buds. At all.

I’ve grown about 20 Brussel sprouts plants in the course of 3 years. No matter how long I wait, I only get pathetic pea to marble sized buds. The buds eventually start to open instead of getting any bigger. Out of all the plants, in the whole time, I may have had about 5 respectable sized sprouts.

I could do the research and learn how to grow cabbages and sprouts successfully (maybe), but I just don’t see the point. They take forever to grow, they have a fairly large footprint, if they’re tasty they get eaten by something else first, you have to practise good crop rotation and they have to be planted every year. They also haven’t tasted any better than shop bought cabbages or sprouts.

Kales and Collards

Here begins the brassica love. So – about a year and a half ago I was looking for perennials to make life easier, something to keep the garden green over winter and something to cover the hungry gap. In my hunt I found kales and collards.

The Annuals

Clockwise starting top left: Red Russian, Pentland Brig and Cavelo Nero in a large pot by our front gate. These are about 3 months old and are crammed into the space. I’m hoping the Cavelo Nero will grow nice and tall and leave more space at the bottom for the others. I’ll eat whatever is growing the most into submission to allow space.

There is a plethora of annual (or biannual really) kales and collards seeds available in shops and online. Some of them are quite beautiful and come in pinks, whites, purples and greens. I, therefore, don’t understand why anyone grows ornamental cabbages.

Kales are fab! You sow the seeds. If you need to thin the plants, you eat the spare seedlings. Once you think the leaves are big enough and the plant has enough to spare – you start taking the leaves. The plant continues to grow, and you continue to harvest over a long period. You avoid a glut that needs storing and one of my favourite things about harvesting kale is that you are providing maintenance as you do so. Let me explain.

If you’re waiting for a plant to mature before you harvest, like cabbage, you don’t really pay much attention to it. If you’re regularly picking from a plant, as you look for leaves to harvest you may see slugs, snails or caterpillars that need picking off. If a leaf is badly infested with aphids and you don’t want to eat it, you can remove it and bin it. If you have a leaf with a few unwelcome guests, you can harvest it and give it a good wash before cooking. The pests are now going down the plug hole and are no longer in your garden.

Growth then slows down with colder weather, but there is still enough growth to feed you over winter. Kales and collards are hardy and after a frost they are sweeter. Then as the weather warms up the plant will attempt to flower to make seeds. When this happens to Cavelo Nero it is a bonus. The plant will send out masses of tasty tender flower shoots. These need to be cut off because once kales ‘goes to seed’ they die. However, if you keep cutting back the flower shoots more (albeit thinner ones) will grow to replace the ones you cut off. You do eventually give up as the flower shoots becomes so thin that you can’t see the point in trying to cook them.

It’s hard to see but in this photo the brightest green parts are the flower shoots just beginning here in March. They form at the base of the leaves and have their own mini leaves. They kept us in tender greens till the end of April.

There is a large number of varieties, but these are ones that I have grown and would recommend.

If anyone has any favourite kales that they would like to recommend or know of any kales that have yummy flower shoots like Cavelo Nero, please do post in the comments.

The Perennials

The perennial kales and collards are harder to get hold of. There are no seeds. The reason why these are perennial is that they don’t flower or make seeds for a few years. Even if a plant does flower and seed (and then, of course, die), because of the ease of cross pollination you couldn’t be sure that the offspring would be perennial. This means that you must get a cutting. This was something that I found quite difficult. These websites either have them or have a waiting list:

http://www.backyardlarder.co.uk

http://www.incrediblevegetables.co.uk

http://www.pennardplants.com

Daubenton’s Kale

I ended up getting my Daubenton’s kale from ebay. I bought 2 variegated and 2 non-variegated. The variegated does better in my garden and the cuttings root more easily. If you’ve looked at the websites, you may be shocked at the prices. I was too. Now that I’ve been growing mine for a year and a half I think the pricing is fair. The plants are still quite rare. They’re not something you’ll be likely to see in your local gardening centre. Apparently, they used to be more common but commercial cultivators in the past shunned perennial brassicas in favour of annuals that they could sell seed for year after year.

If they’re hard to get and expensive surely they’re not worth it, right? Well:

  • We get year-round abundance.
  • They’re expected to continue to do so for years.
  • They fed us through winter and the hungry gap.
  • Even now in June it is growing vigorously and with asparagus season over and our sugar snaps just starting, the Daubentons provide our family of 3 with a vegetable side dish every other day.
  • We’ve gotten plenty of new plants from the original 3. Some have been kept and grown and some given to friends. It’s not just a desire to get everyone growing it, it’s also like insurance. If I manage to kill all mine off hopefully there’ll be someone I could beg a cutting from.
  • They are mostly left alone by pests.
  • Most importantly, they taste yummy. I’ve had no bitterness at any point of the year. My very fussy 3 year old absolutely loves it just simply fried in oil with a bit of salt. She won’t eat shop bought curly kale.
  • The smaller leaves are tender. The large ones are tougher but still tasty.

That’s a lot to ask of a plant that cost you about a tenner. Maybe it’s because cuttings are small. Most people wouldn’t think twice about paying £10 for an apple tree.

Purple Tree Collard

6 months old and 3 feet tall.

It wasn’t till December last year that I finally managed to get hold of a purple tree collard (from The Backyard Larder). I have much less to say about it because I’ve only had it 7 months. Still, I’ve eaten from it three times so far and its taste is similar to the daubentons but is slightly nuttier and sweeter. It also requires a bit more chewing. My 3 year old has yet to touch it.

All my kales and collards, perennial or otherwise have few problems with pests beyond the occasional hole. The only thing that has been an issue has been powdery mildew. If it happens removal all the affected leaves and spray with a mix of a litre of water, a few drops of soap dish, a few drops of vegetable oil and half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda. If caught late then it’s the same thing but you’ll be removing almost all the leaves. Whenever I have done this the plant has always sprung back after a month or so. It only happens in the hotter months when the plant is stressed from lack of water. The spores are spread by disturbance during rainfall and are specific to brassicas. So they won’t infect plants of other species and plants of other species with their own powdery mildew won’t infect your brassicas.

Two weeks later it doesn’t look so bad.

Other Brassicas

Last year I tried kohl rabi for the first time. I neglected them and past harvest time they had holes munched into the leaves and swollen stem. I luckily tried to recover what I could. I’m so glad I did, as they were very sweet, tender, almost juicy and slightly nutty. It was better than any that I had bought from a shop before.

The nine star broccoli is apparently a perennial cauliflower, despite its name. I wouldn’t know as mine is pathetic. I’ve removed the flowers in the hope that it will then divert its energy to plant growth. Time will tell. I’ll let you know if it works. This is 6 months old and a pitiful 8 inches. It does not look anything like cauliflower.

Kai Lan (Chinese broccoli) is apparently perennial but I’d never know as every time I’ve tried (and I’m Chinese … so I’ve really tried) pretty much everything is devoured by something that isn’t me. I think the slugs and snails gang up with the caterpillars for these.

So, in conclusion brassicas are good vegetables to grow for eating through winter, are shade tolerant and do well in alkaline soil. Out of the brassicas the collards and kales are less affected by pests. The younger leaves are tender but the older leaves less so. Harvesting can happen over a lengthy period. For the easiest option perennial kales and collards are edible all year round, including the hungry gap and requires none of the faff of yearly sowing, thinning, planting out and crop rotation. In small spaces a perennial kale is the most efficient use of space and time for growing food.

I cannot recommend Daubenton’s kale enough. I think it may be our family’s favourite green. It’s not easy to get hold of but I think it’s well worth the effort.

In the interest of experimentation I need to try another perennial kale. I have my sights set on Taunton Deane and I WILL find a space in the garden…. Er… somehow.

Making a Pallet Planter

Here’s a couple of pallet planter ideas:

I’d like to show you how we built the easiest and most convenient one. The others, in more detail at the end either require either more than one pallet, a lot more work or can be more difficult to maintain once finished.

Materials:

  • One Pallet Check for safety. Generally if they have no markings then they have not been treated. Markings like DB – debarked, KD – kiln dried, HT – heat treated are all safe. MB means treated with methyl bromide and is to be avoided. Check for spillages on the pallet. If you can’t identify the spill then be aware it could be an unsafe chemical.
  • Screws – length and number depends on your pallet and how many pieces of wood you need to go through and how you’re putting it together. The pallet you have may be very different to the one I used. Here’s your chance to get creative! If in doubt about 30 self tapping wood screws around 5cm in length should do. They will typically be phillips (cross head) screws. Self tapping means you shouldn’t need to drill a thinner hole into the wood first.

Optional Extras:

  • Landscaping fabric or plastic sheeting – thick black bin liners or rubble bags will also do for plastic sheeting. Landscaping fabric won’t help protect the wood from rotting but may feel more natural.
  • Staples

Tools:

  • Hand saw
  • Electric screwdriver with a Philips screw bit – I’d call this essential as a manual screwdriver will have driven you insane after the first two screws and you’ll give up unless you’re really tenacious.
  • Hammer
  • Protective gloves – why get avoidable splinters?

Optional extras:

  • Circular saw (with safety goggles)
  • Crowbar
  • Scissors
  • Staple gun
  • Electric drill
(or wood drill bit that can be swapped in for your screw driver head)

Step 1 – Get a pallet

If you don’t have your own have a look around your local streets for anyone who having works done. I have seen them left outside people’s houses for the taking. This seems to be the new unofficial London way of reusing. For anyone unfamiliar with the practise, residents leave unwanted but still usable things outside on the street and anyone passing can help themselves. Sometimes it will have helpful note attached.

Step 2 – Plan and cut the pallet

With this particular pallet there were 9 slats so it was perfect for cutting into 3 sections. The top and bottom thirds made the front and back and the middle section provided the two sides. It should go without saying, but please be extra careful here if you’re not used to DIY. If you’re using a circular saw, make sure you use eye protection.

Step 3 – Remove unwanted bits

Here we removed most of the bottom frame of the pallet. We kept 2 edges to support the base, but also mostly because we were too lazy to remove them. We kept all of the blocks for something to screw into during assembling.

Step 4 – Line the planter

You can line with plastic to keep the moisture in, protect your wood, if the slats are too far apart or if you feel uneasy about the source of the pallet. You can line with landscape fabric if you want a more organic feel whilst keeping the soil in. It won’t be a moisture barrier though.

As we weren’t worried about the pallet and the slats were very close together, we just did it to protect the wood a little, so we didn’t ensure full coverage of the insides. Lining the pallet can be done at the end too, but it can be difficult to get a good angle with the staple gun.

Step 5 – Assemble your planter

Decide which is going to be the bottom and try and keep that bottom edge level. Start with a corner and attach them together. Assistance with holding things in place helps to speed things along. Try to screw into some nice thick wood. We kept the blocks in the middle of the pallet for this purpose. I’ve used a random assortment in previous pallet planters.

If you have good self tapping screws you can screw straight into the wood. If you’re worried about splitting the wood or getting stuck part way then feel free to drill a pilot hole with a wood drill bit that is thinner than your screws.

This helps to keep your screw going in the direction you want and avoids this:

Basically here the screw would no longer go in and the cross in the head began to shear so the screwdriver was turning but no longer gripping the screw. I gave up when the screw would not go in and wouldn’t come out either. When this happens there really isn’t much you can do. To avoid it sticking out I used bolt cutters which then shortened it to a dangerously sharp, ankle height stump. I used a glue gun to cover it and then let the rosemary grow to hide it. One of my many garden failures that basically teaches me what not to do next time.

Put 6-8 screws in each corner. We put in 2 at the top and bottom of each side.

When filled with soil and covered in plants you’ll realise that it never needed to be perfect.

Step 6 – Place in situ

I recommend on top of soil. Doesn’t have to be bare and weeded. If you put it on top of turf, as long as the planter is deep enough, the turf will die from lack of light and provide you with some organic material at the bottom. On top of soil, though, means that the roots of the planter are not restricted to just the planter. It can grow down and then have access to the water table so your plants may not need as much watering. If you’re placing it on the patio or on a hard surface you may want to add a bottom to your planter but ensure, if you line it with plastic, that you  pierce the plastic in several places to allow for water to drain. Personally I see very little point to adding a bottom as the wood at the bottom will be moist most of the time and rot fairly quickly. Even if you wanted to move the planter at a later date it’ll be very heavy, especially if it’s full of plants.

Step 7 – Mix in composting waste

Vegetable waste from the kitchen and grass clippings or old un-diseased plants are good. Just chuck it all in and mix it up a bit with the soil at the bottom to introduce some microorganisms. Feel free to skip this step but I like to do this because:

  1. It’s a good use of uncomposted kitchen waste
  2. It provides more organic material for the plants later
  3. It’s the laziest form of composting, even better than hole composting (there’ll be an article or video on this soon)
  4. You use less actual compost to fill the planter

Don’t do this if you planting something quite deep (or if the planter is very shallow) as your plants may compete with the microorganisms for nutrients while the breakdown process is happening. Typically though, when microorganisms and worms have access, it will break down fairly quickly. By the time the roots reach it, it should be ready to fertilise.

Step 8 – Fill with compost

If you’re going through the effort of building a planter then you may as well provide the best start, especially if you’re using a planter as a raised bed because your soil (like mine) is pretty pants. We made this one as a raspberry bed and it was filled with shop-bought ericaceous (acidic) compost. I don’t have the right chemicals/products and am far too lazy to make pre-existing soil acidic enough to make raspberries happy.

Other planters

Single pallet planter

Potential:

  • Very simple.
  • It’s good for pallets with wide spaces between the slats.
  • For more growing space in small foot print.

Construction:

Staple landscaping fabric to the inside of the front first. Then wrap either a double or triple layer around the back and staple it at the front (you can see the fabric folded over and stapled at the left and right edges in the right photo above). If you have spare planks of wood (we used two old floor boards) it’s a good idea to screw these in place over the back AFTER stapling the fabric to support the weight of the compost on the fabric. Fill with compost. Put plants at the top. Poke holes into the landscaping fabric. Squish plants in. Here strawberries worked well, as did perennial rocket, Egyptian onions, sorrel, chives and especially watercress, which went crazy at the bottom. Salad Burnett did really well here but I discovered that none one in the family (including me) liked eating it.

Problems: 

  • Fiddly to put plants in the gaps. So annuals (plants that die within a year) are hard to grow. If you start with it lying down it’s easier to put the plants in and they settle their roots better, but it’s very heavy to put into place once it’s full of compost and plants. Also when it goes from horizontal to vertical the compost shifts down and can pull some of the plants down inside through the gap.
  • You can water the top easily and it will find its way to the bottom (our watercress loved this), but the flat surface dries up very quickly and the vertical wall is hard to water without washing the compost out.
  • Watering eventually had to be done in summer with a spritzer – which, as you may have guessed, was very tedious.
  • The second year, when the plants are re-growing, sometimes shoots grow behind the fabric rather than out the front. You just have to check every now and then and tease them out.
  • As you can see from the gaps, as things died in the summer it was really hard to replace them as the dry compost couldn’t be made damp enough to support new young seedlings.
  • Must be fixed in place as it’s pretty heavy and could do serious damage if it fell on someone.

Wonky Planter

This is pretty much the same as the planter in the main body of the article but the pallet had large gaps in the front so rainbow chard is planted in the gaps at the front.

Potential

  • Makes a large planter which retains water better
  • Don’t be afraid to play with shapes. This one is tapered to one end to fit into the space better.
  • The plants in front don’t dry quickly like the single pallet planter
  • This won’t apply to many people but this planter and the one next to it are also helping to stabilise the fence panels behind by breaking up the flat surface that the wind pushes against and because the planters are also screwed to the fence, they provide a large weight to hold the panels too.

Construction

Much the same as the main planter in the article but used additional wood left over from building a raised bed.

Problems

  • Needs more than one pallet or some extra wood.
  • Need to be choose plants that don’t grow too tall or bushy in the gaps otherwise they overcrowd what is in the main body.

Slanted Slat Planter

The front of this planter has slats at an angle.

Potential

  • Makes a large planter which retains water better
  • With the slanted slats providing ‘pockets’ for the plants they get a better purchase and it is easier to water.
  • When using both the front and the top you can grow loads of different plants in a small foot print
  • The strawberries hang so they don’t lie on damp soil and go rotten

Construction

Much the same as the main planter in the article but the front side has slats pulled off a pallet. Screws go through the slat, through triangular bits of wood and into a support in the corner. The plastic sheet is slit to allow roots to grow into the main body.

Problems

  • Needs more than one pallet or lots of extra wood
  • Those triangles are a major pain in the backside for someone like me who isn’t a carpenter and doesn’t have the fancy tools.
  • I stupidly cut the plastic sheet all along the whole length of the slat so compost kept pouring out onto the strawberry plants in the front. I’ve had to prop it up with bits of bamboo canes.

Big Block Planter

This is the first pallet planter I made about 7 years ago. It was in our previous house which just had a paved ‘yard’ and not much growing space. Everything was in pots. I’m afraid these are the only photos of it and the quality is pretty poor.

Potential

  • Grow a blimmin’ tree! Our climbing squashes and tomatoes went crazy in this.
  • Retains lots of water and had plenty of nutrients

Construction

A pallet at the front and another the back. The sides were 2 planks of wood on each side holding the pallets together. 3 layers of landscaping fabric were wrapped around the sides and stapled to the back and front to hold the compost in.

Problems

  • You need 2 pallets and, realistically, more than 2 planks of wood on each side. After I realised how flawed this design was I had to keep shoring it up with more spare bits of wood as they became available (I try not to buy wood if I can avoid it and use old shelves and random planks left over from DIY projects).
  • Took about a 5 huge bags of compost to fill it.
  • You feel like the compost at the bottom is just wasted, unless you really do plant a tree.
  • The plants in the front grew so well that they choked each other out.
  • The plants in the top grew so well and choked each other out. Maybe that’s a win…?
  • It was so tall I had to hang out of the window to harvest some of the stuff, and of course opening the window damaged the plants.
  • A cat decided to use it as a scratching post until it started leaking compost.

So that’s it. Hopefully you’ve learnt what not to do from reading about my mistakes and I’ve given you a few ideas about what you can do. I also hope that this articles illustrates that you don’t need a big garden, or even any bare earth to grow things. You don’t have to buy a raised bed, though I guess you do need to pay for screws and compost. All the plants in the photos, except for the strawberries and the yacon, were raised from seed – which isn’t expensive and you get hundreds in a packet. Do a seed swap and save money there too. It does seem like quite some hard work but the planter in the main article took less than two hours and once you’ve made it you’ll have it for years.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions or feedback and thanks for joining me!

So I’m not an expert in plants…

…but my garden is full of edibles…. and I’ve managed to keep it alive for another year! Yippee!!!

I am completely in awe of (and grateful) to the actual horticulturists who spend years studying and training so that they are able to breed hardier, tastier varieties, can tell us the best way of growing things and how to amend soil, or how to control pests, etc. However, I do feel that most (if not all) don’t have the true experience of only having a tiny (sometimes inhospitable) space. Also, when you garden for a living you can, or surely must, dedicate time and effort to this passion. The rest of us just squeeze it in where we can. Also, who wants to come home in the dark after work in winter and go tend to the garden? Yeah… I feel the same way.

Saying that though, there’s nothing more satisfying than eating food that I’ve grown myself. I love the thrill (yes thrill – don’t judge me) of growing edibles in the laziest way possible, as cheaply as possible, as sustainably as possible, using all the space as efficiently as possible and without all the special equipment and products.

I’ve learnt everything I know from pouring over books, scouring the internet and a bit of experimentation in my own garden – but even that is informed by the experimentation of those who have come before me. In this information rich world, we stand on the shoulders of others and most of our knowledge is built on other people’s work. I certainly didn’t discover for myself that raspberries, blueberries and kiwis need acidic soil… and I certainly didn’t breed the hardy variety of kiwi that grows outdoors in my London garden. I, therefore, only think it’s fair that I pass on everything that I have learnt hopefully to inform and inspire anyone, everyone to grow their own food. Of course, with my little garden I’m not living The Good Life, but I can at least say that in a good year our garden supplies maybe 30% of our vegetables and I’m hoping to increase that by growing more hardy perennials that thrive despite neglect.

My blog possibly has some selfish roots too, as much of our current lifestyle is not environmentally friendly. The pollution levels in cities are incredibly damaging to all who live there, especially children. Growing some of your own food, however little, makes a difference. I’m no eco warrior. There’s plenty of guilty pleasures that I can’t give up. I just hope that growing our own edibles could be one of the small changes we could make, especially in cities to make a small difference. For every plant you grow, that’s carbon dioxide being removed, and oxygen being added to your immediate environment. For every single thing you eat out of your garden, that’s zero food miles and zero packaging. Think not of just the disposal or recycling of our supermarket packaging, but also the energy required in its manufacturing. That’s also food grown without damage to the environment if you choose not to use pesticides or fertilisers (I’ll also add an article later about how fertilisers can also be bad) and, of course, in your garden you won’t be practising single crop farming. I aim to add articles about how to reuse or recycle things which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than buying special equipment that, again, requires energy in its manufacture and transport. Lastly in my deranged growing edibles evangelism sermon, I’d like to highlight that, from watching us grow our own, little ones can develop a better respect and understanding of how food is produced. It’s the younger generation that seem to be leading the fight to reverse our environmental impact.   

In this blog I’ll add details on all the things I’ve grown that I would (and even wouldn’t recommend) growing for certain spaces and situations. I’ll give suggestions and ideas on how to build things and use things as cheaply as possible. I’ll be happy to share my mistakes so you can also see what not to do. Lastly, I’m afraid the science teacher in me may also feel the need to add some science-y info on things like eutrophication. You could google that – or watch this space!   

Hopefully I have you convinced if not at least interested. So I’ll get off my soap box and wish you Happy Growing!

Jessi