No matter how petite your patio, you can create a decorative kitchen garden, known by the French as a potager. The secret? Just plant in containers. Soon you’ll harvest some fine foods sans chemicals, not to mention delight in creating unique, colourful, visually pleasing combinations of veggies and flowers. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Most vegetables in containers need full sun. Lettuce and other thin-leafed greens can manage with four hours of fairly bright light.
Choose well-drained containers. Terra cotta is aesthetically pleasing, but also heavy, porous and subject to cracking in freezing weather. Also, you’ll need to water more in summer. (Immerse a terra cotta pot in water for a good four to eight hours before adding soil.) Plastic is cheaper, durable and easier to move; some excellent faux-plastic pots can pass easily for terra cotta. Wood is fine but must be untreated.
You can also use a special ceramic egg pot or other oversize container if you customize it. Partially fill the container with broken styrofoam or crunched-up egg cartons. Top with 20 to 25 centimetres of soil, which is enough for most vegetables. No drainage holes? Grow out of driving rains and water carefully, to avoid drowning your potager creations.
The key is feeding. Plants in pots can’t get what they need from surrounding soil, so you must provide it. Top-quality outdoor soil well amended with manure/compost is essential, as is regular fertilizing. An ideal formulation for contained edibles would be one part diluted granular kelp and one part fish fertilizer, at half the recommended dilution, every seven days.
Grow from seed, or buy transplants. Dream up daring pairings, artfully tucking flowers alongside veggies or in separate pots placed nearby to attract pollinating (beneficial) insects. Shallow-rooted flowers work best, as they won’t compete with your food. Ideal candidates include Alyssum, dwarf Cosmos ‘Sonata,’ Calendula spp., Nemesia, trailing Lobelia, Zinnia ‘Profusion’ series and dainty Viola spp.
Ideal perennials for pollinators: Achillea, Agastache, Eryngium, bronze fennel, lilies, Penstemon and anything daisy-like. Plant individually or with other perennial pals, rather than combining with veggies, for they interact with soil differently, and don’t grow well together. Ditto for Nasturtium spp., also suitable for potagers, for they too prefer their soil pauvre – that is, very lean.
Combinations are endless – try one big, golden-stemmed Bright Lights Swiss chard in the middle, surrounded by densely planted maroon-red Revolution lettuce. Garnish with lots of deep-blue trailing lobelia. Remember, you are the artist, and your palette is the myriad of vivid vegetables available to the home gardener.
I grew Purple Queen bush beans in 15-centimetre clay pots last year. I loved the attractive pink-mauve flowers, and the beans yielded steadily for months. (Cook purple beans until they turn green, and they’re done.) Beans are ideal in pots; they germinate quickly and won’t rot as they will in soggy, cold ground. Avoid “concentrated-set” types used by growers for a one-time major harvest.
Continuous-set varieties to try include Golden Rocky (Roc D’Or), Maxibel, Jade, Gina (bush Romano), and slender filet types. Feed, feed, feed, and harvest regularly when tiny and tender to encourage constant flower (thus, bean) production. Grow three plants per 20- to 25-centimetre pot, seeding from mid-May until mid-July. Stunning interplanted with purple Shiso (Perilla) and chartreuse Amaranthus ‘Green Tails.’ Refresh with a touch of white, either alyssum or trailing lobelia.
With leaves of acid green through red to deepest maroon, lettuce is splendid in potagers. Eye-catching types to try include Freckles (a.k.a. Forellenschluss), Outredgous, Deer Tongue, Mascara, Blushing Butter Oak and darkest maroon-red Revolution.
Seed companies offer lettuce blends, great for “cut and come again” mesclun harvest or growing on. Grow quickly for tender, crisp leaves; feed regularly. Maintain even moisture, with the exception of young seedlings, which are prone to damping off. Lettuce bolts if its roots are hot, so grow in large containers or interplant. Start seed on the coast, March to September, providing partial shade or dappled light at midday in hot summers to avoid burning the delicate leaves.
Savvy gardeners grow lycopene-rich tomatoes in containers, moving them out of the late blight-causing rain if need be. Tomato roots need a cool, moist root-run. Stake upright types, growing each alone in large pots. (Exception: you can tuck in a few companion basil seedlings.) Smaller pots require constant watering in summer – a pain, especially if you need to go to work! Feed weekly.
Rich in history and flavour, heirloom tomatoes are “in.” If you want lots of tomatoes, however, try varieties bred for containers, like Tumbler F1. This cherry with a pointed end is tart-sweet and bears prolifically – I stopped counting at 200 on my pal Cherryl’s Tumbler last year on Gabriola Island. It’s bred to trail and keep branching, so don’t pinch – Tumbler yields steadily until frost or blight, whichever comes first. It’s terrible to transplant when big and quickly outgrows small hanging baskets, so put in oversize pots early. Most won’t make it into the kitchen – they’re great for outdoor snacking.
Sungold F1 cherry is a luscious offering from Japan. Be patient as each turns from deep gold to pale orange. Vancouver shoppers vie for these at farmer’s markets at Granville Island and Trout Lake – grow your own instead. Sungold takes longer to get going at first, then produces consistently. It’s an upright type that will require staking.
Others to try in pots: La Roma, Juliet, Camp Joy . . . just about anything, if the pot is large enough.
I grew Spacemiser F1 in a large pot of half compost and half soil. It made quite a conversation-piece! Power-feed, give it a bit of support, and you too can produce a plant closely resembling a baseball bat, trimmed with zucchini at right angles. Pick while small (13 centimetres long or smaller) to keep it producing; use the coveted golden-yellow blossoms in soups or toss into pasta sauces. For fun, grow semi-trailing dwarf Supersnoop sweet peas around the edges.
Others to Try
Baby eggplants with gorgeous purple blossoms. Peppers? Why not? Leeks, green onions from seed – or plop in purple shallot bulbs. Combine arugula with purple orach; try borage, baby beets or broccoli rabe (a.k.a. rapini).
Basil (lemon, ‘Red Rubin,’ ‘Purple Ruffles,’ et al.) is really effective on a sunny deck. Perennial herbs combine well: sage, thyme, Italian parsley (try ‘Gigante’ for enormous, sweet leaves), rosemary. Mint needs its own space; contained, it won’t take over, and the blossoms attract beneficials.
Not great: winter squash, corn (it falls over), broad beans, peas/pole beans, most Asian veggies. These resist pot cultivation for me – but you try – you’re the designer here!
Don’t forget to create an overwintering potager. Move pots under a protected overhang to keep winter rains out. Start transplants in late summer to pop into your containers – Rouge d’Hiver, Continuity (Merveille des Quatre Saisons) and Winter Density lettuces, Purple-sprouting broccoli, Giant Red mustard, decorative cabbage. The hues and possibilities? Endless.
Sharon Hanna is a seed-catalogue writer, garden communicator, and co-ordinator for KidSafe’s gardening program.