For spring and summer this year, we’ll be regularly posting tips and advice on everything from grow your own to garden projects that will occupy youngsters. In these unprecedented and stressful times, hopefully it helps in some small way.
Whilst local nurseries and garden centres need our support, it’s possible to buy everything you need online, without spending a fortune.
Fancy munching your own fruit and veggies but struggle for space? Here’s our advice on how to maximise the cropping potential of even the smallest space.
Small is beautiful
‘Mini’ veggie varieties are perfect for tiny plots and there are lots of different ones available. Miniature pumpkins (try ‘Hooligan F1’ and ‘Jack Be Little’) sweetcorn and broad beans (namely ‘The Sutton’) are particularly useful as their bigger cousins will soon swamp a small space. Most mini veg varieties are also quicker to reach maturity so it’s possible to grow more crops in the same space. However, to avoid pest and diseases try to practice good rotation – don’t grow the same crop in the same spot straight afterwards.
It sounds obvious but you can get more crops in your plot simply by growing them closer together than usual. This way you get tasty ‘baby’ veg suitable for picking much earlier. They don’t always need to be specially bred compact varieties, many traditional ones work just as well. Leeks, onions, turnips (try ‘Aramis’) beetroot and parsnips are particularly good for snuggling up closer than normal. Leafy Cavolo Nero, curly kale and spinach don’t mind it a little cramped either, although you will need to harvest the leaves regularly. Don’t bother with other brassicas unless they’re truly compact varieties like ‘Freedom’ or ‘Sunset’. Bigger cabbages and caulis aren’t happy cheek by jowl and are more susceptible to pests and diseases too.
Special mention must go to salads like rocket, coriander and cut-and-come-again leaves as these take up virtually no space at all and are so easy to grow. Early in the season you can simply tuck them in around the feet of bigger slow-maturing crops like cabbages, broccoli and leeks as they won’t be there long enough to suffer from the competition. When the leaves reach 12-15cm (5-6in) high, scissor them off 8cm (3”) above the ground. Always leave the growing points intact or you won’t get any further pickings, so cut with care.
Where space is really tight consider climbing fruit and veg to take advantage of every inch of potential growing space. Climbing French beans love sunny walls, runner beans and ‘Crown Morello’ cherries are useful grown against shadier east and north facing walls. Tumbling cherry tomatoes are brilliant for hanging baskets and ideal when you want frequent pickings of just a few fruits all summer long. Gourds and pumpkins climb well over sunny arches and arbours, but you might need to support the fruits with some little netting or some old tights.
If you want apples, pears and plums from your plot but don’t have the space for a proper tree grow slender cordons instead. A cordon is a small tree pruned and trained into a single stem. Branch for branch you get just as much fruit as a bigger tree – often even more. They have a sculptural quality too. Traditional cordons are trained against walls and fences at 45 degrees; this way the tree puts more of its energy into growing flowers and therefore fruit. Nowadays compact cordons can even be grown vertically. Known as ‘minarettes’, ‘columns’ or ‘ballerina’ trees these take up even less space. They’re suitable for big pots too.
Either buy 2-3 year old trees which have been trained in advance or a cheaper one year old tree (known as a maiden) and do it yourself. The RHS website (www.rhs.org.uk) features lots of advice on how to prune for best results.
For an impressive statement against walls and fences top fruit can also be trained into flat fan shapes (for plums and cherries) or espaliers (for apples and pears), where a few branches are trained horizontally from the main stem. Just like a cordon it’s possible to get a lot of fruit from a tiny tree that takes up virtually no space at all. However they do require more pruning and training to keep the shape.
Apples, pears, plums and cherry varieties come supplied on different root systems which determine their eventual size. For apple cordons in poor soil make sure they’re growing on dwarfing ‘M27’, ‘M9’ or ‘M26’. Pears are best on ‘Quince A’ or ‘Quince C’. It’ll say so on the label when you buy. If not do ask.
Note: for lots of fruit grow self fertile varieties like Apple ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ or other varieties that flower at the same time for pollination.
Keep it in the family
Like cordons and espaliers ‘family’ fruit trees are ideal for tiny gardens. These trees have more than one variety growing together on the same tree. Most common are apples where two or three different types are carefully grafted onto different branches, but pears, cherries, and even nectarines and apricots can also be bought as family trees. This makes it possible to grow several heavy croppers that fruit at different times in under half the space it would take to grow a separate tree of each one.
For big crops most top fruit trees need varieties that flower at the same time to be planted nearby, unless you buy self fertile varieties, of course. There are no pollination problems with a family tree though, as all are self-fertile. Each variety is carefully selected to pollinate the other, so it doesn’t matter if it’s the only tree for miles around. What’s more, these trees are useful pollinators for other varieties you might have which aren’t producing any fruit.
Family trees are usually spliced onto semi-dwarfing root systems, such as M26 or M9 for apples, Colt for cherries or Quince A for pears. These rootstocks keep the tree a manageable size and the fruit within easy picking distance.
The only obvious problem with family trees – especially ‘triple’ trees – is that one of the varieties may start to dominate and crowd out the others. Watch out for this and prune back the overly dominant variety in winter to maintain a balanced shape.
If you’re really short on space, grow crops in patio pots. Lots of veggies, herbs and fruit thrive in baskets, tubs and window boxes. But… more on this next time.
Stay safe, Matt and Polly x