No longer the preserve of the middle-aged, middle class, gardening is having a real moment: under-35s have rated it as one of their top five leisure activities, while a third of us are now adept at growing our own food.
And best of all, you don’t need any previous experience – or oodles of outdoor space – to cultivate your own thriving vegetable patch. Here, in an extract from her upcoming book How To Grow, Creative Director and keen gardener Hollie Newton explains everything you need to know about growing your own vegetables, from sourcing quirky plant pots to chitting seedlings (yes, really).
Read on to learn how to grow your own potatoes, courgettes and radishes, even if you only have a windowsill to work with.
As I opened my eyes the other morning I noticed something I hadn’t heard in a while… birdsong. A gang of the little fellas beeping away outside my window, heralding the irresistible arrival of spring. Lighter mornings. Bold new cruise-collection colours. An end to the tyranny of Nora-Batty-tight-situations. And the heady possibility of stepping outside, assessing my own little patch of ground, and deciding which vegetables to grow this year.
Yes. Vegetables. I don’t know about you, but 90% of my decisions in life seem to revolve around what I fancy for dinner. From our first rented balcony, it wasn’t flowers that set me skipping off to the garden centre, but the tantalising prospect of growing my own food. Sweet cherry tomatoes picked from the vine after work. Rainbow chard and pink-ringed beetroot. Potatoes prised from the soil and whisked into the kitchen for New York-style breakfast latkes.
Give me a courgette flower over a gladiolus any day.
Thankfully for us town and city dwellers, even the tiniest scrap of outdoor space can be turned to good vegetable use. Raised beds, big pots, clever planters – even bright and sunny windowsills. With the growing season just around the corner, here are a few things to set you on your horticultural way.
How to plant your plant
Water your seedling with the fine spray of a watering can while he’s still in his multi-celled tray or plastic pot. then ‘pop’ him out by pushing your thumbs up underneath. If that doesn’t work, a quick sharp tap with a trowel while holding the pot upside down should do the trick.
Loosen your seedling’s roots by teasing them out of their soil ball, then dig a hole in the soil, slightly larger than the pot he came in, and tuck your plant in, roots down.
Fill the hole back in, firming the soil to ensure he doesn’t wobble. Then it’s one last water for luck.
When to plant
The below calendar shows the best months to plant, harvest and chit your vegetables.
Alternative pots and planters
Use that imagination of yours. Does your local takeaway chuck out really cool-looking oil drums with bright Indian lettering all over them? After a good wash, this is courgette heaven in the making.
Do you have a big off-license or wine warehouse near you? Ask if you can squirrel away one or two empty wooden wine crates. Drill holes in the bottom and, lo, you’ve created the perfect snuggly strawberry home. Lucky strawberries.
Milk churns. Old barrels. Boring plastic pots painted bright colours with exterior-paint tester pots. I once saw Kirstie Allsopp dive into a skip on national television on the hunt for such things. Sod it… do like Kirstie Allsopp. Go shamelessly foraging for other people’s tat, then transform it in your garden. You’ll be the king of Pinterest before you know it.
Handy hint: Here’s a helpful tip for you when planting in pots. When filling our containers, large or small, put a layer of stones/bits of old brick/broken pots/whatever you find lying around in the bottom. This will help water drain out of the pot (so long as there are holes in the bottom – make sure to drill some if there aren’t any), rather than collecting around the plant roots and drowning them.
If all you have is a vast, flat, vertical wall to work with, drill some shelves into it. Genius. From nowhere for pots and planters to sit, to all the surface area you could hope for.
Alternatively, try a fancy garden shelf ladder. No drilling required; simply lean it against your wall and fill with planters. Wooden wine crates, old pots, brightly coloured tin buckets. The world is your oyster.
Handy hint: All hail the BBQ. It’s basically illegal to have a garden without a BBQ, so work out where you’re going to put yours. On our tiny rented balcony we had two dedicated bricks on which to perch the disposable tin-foil version (we knew how to live). Nowadays, we have a genuinely fancy Weber – but it took me years to save up for this sort of outlandish fire-making, so go with whatever you can afford. On a sunny day, it really doesn’t matter what you cook on – charred sausages and a pitcher of disastrously strong Pimm’s will outdo any restaurant in the Michelin Guide.
It’s difficult to know what the most exciting part is; digging deep into the earth with your hands, mud up to your elbows, excavating each one with a whimper of joy, or the fact that you have to use ‘chitting’ potatoes to get them started. Ha ha ha. Chitting potatoes. There’s really no greater joy than telling friends you’re chitting potatoes on your windowsill.
I naively thought you just bunged seed potatoes into the soil as soon as you bought them, but it turns out you have to put them in a warm place until they sprout. Don’t worry; I’ve learnt a few potato tricks, which we’ll get to in a jiffy.
Come on then. Let’s get chitting.
When: Start preparing early. In late January/early February head to your local garden centre and buy a bag of seed potatoes. I’ve used Swift Seed First Early with great success, but there are many varieties available. They’ll then be ready to plant out around March/April.
Where: A sunny, warm windowsill followed by a sunny to medium-sunny spot in your garden.
How: Chit potatoes in an egg box, that’s my advice. Sit each potato in its own dimple, with the sprouting bits at the top, on a warm sunny windowsill. Then wait. Soon, you’ll notice cheeky green shoots. When they reach a good 5cm tall, they’re ready to plant.
There’s something pleasingly Britain in Blitz about growing your own potatoes. How do you plant them? You build a trench; 10cm deep, nice and straight, in a sunny spot. Line it with a layer of compost, then drop your potatoes in, green shoots upwards. Sprinkle a few slug pellets between the tubers to protect from dastardly underground keel slugs, then cover the whole trench with soil and give them a good water.
Space: Plant your tubers at 30cm intervals.
Word on the gardening street is... when it comes to container planting, nothing is better than a potato bag. More reliable than big pots, and cheaper. Win win. The big garden centres, DIY chains and online suppliers offer a variety of kits, with bags and seed potatoes included.
Chit as above, then fill an 8-litre potato bag with good-quality multipurpose compost to 2.5cm below the rim. Plunge your tubers into the compost, shoots upwards, 12cm deep and gently cover with compost. Now water and place the bag in a bright, frostfree position.
Keeping them alive
Here’s yet another fun potato-growing anomaly. As soon as you see shoots poking out of the earth, cover them over again. Mounding up the earth with your hands to create a sort of man-made molehill is called ‘earthing up’ in the trade. After a while, the stalk will become strong and full of leaves. As long as you’ve created that nice big earth mound at the base to begin with, all will be well.
‘But why the heck are we doing this? We’re not moles’, I hear you ponder. Well, the main reason is to prevent new potatoes forming near the surface and turning green (from the sunlight). Green potatoes are poisonous. Preventing death by green potato aside, often more potatoes will form from the buried stems. Huzzah. More potatoes all round. Feed potato plants every other week with tomato feed – or fancy potato fertiliser – and water when the soil begins to dry out.
When: Start to harvest earlies as ‘new potatoes’ as soon as the plants start to flower (about 10 weeks from planting), however the longer you leave them, the bigger they become. Generally speaking, if you wait until two weeks after the stems die/wither and fall over, your potatoes will be just the right big size.
How: In fact, you don’t harvest potatoes. You ‘lift’ them. Gently lever a fork back and forth to loosen the soil, then ‘sift’ for the spuds with your hands. Be sure to have a really thorough rummage in the soil for any strays, otherwise you’ll find yourself with surprise potatoes next year. Lifted potatoes are best stored in paper bags or hessian sacks in a dark cool place.
Handy hint: Once you’ve lifted your potato chums, if it ís a nice day, leave them on top of the soil for a few hours to dry and cure their skin before storing.
How Often: Harvest your entire potato crop in one go, unless you’d like some earlies.
Good news… courgettes are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the easiest vegetable to grow. One tiny seedling and you’ll have a steady crop of fresh, tasty courgettes for weeks and weeks in the summer.
I’ve been growing ‘Taxi’ or ‘Soleil’ courgettes for the last few years – bright yellow, smooth-skinned little fellas, which look lovely in salads, have a bright fresh taste and are so tender you can eat them raw or lightly pickled, Swedish-style. These are early maturing and high yielding, which basically means that for impatient gardeners (me) you’ll get courgettes sooner – then keep on getting them. However, the following advice applies to all courgette varieties.
When: In late April/early May you’ll see courgette seedlings start to arrive in garden centres.
Where: Find the sunniest spot in your garden. Courgettes love the sunshine. They’re like Joey Essex.
How: Dig a small-football-sized hole in your bed and chuck in some well-rotted manure or compost. Pop the little chap in, tuck him up so that the soil’s nice and firm but not rock solid around him (you don’t want him wobbling about), then give him a good old soak.
Space: If you’re planting more than one, make sure they’re a good metre away from each other. This puppy’s going to get BIG. Silly big. Ours reached the width of a swarthy man’s shoulders last year. He’s got large leaves and likes to stretch. Try not to cramp his style.
If you’re planting in a pot, use the biggest one you can get your hands on. At least 30–35cm wide, as deep as you can find. Then follow the instructions above.
Keeping them alive
Courgettes are thirsty little critters. Keep them well watered and you’re basically good to go. On a hot day I quickly chuck some water at them before work, then water them again when I get back. Apart from that, it’s a good idea to give them a feed every now and then. Every few weeks, sprinkle tomato feed at the base of the stem to keep Mr Courgette happy.
A sprinkle of fertiliser pellets across the soil at the beginning of the season will keep nutrients topped up, but it’s best to follow the instructions on the packet as each one’s a little different.
Good old courgettes. Truly, a low-maintenance gardener’s dream.
When: Courgettes are crazy productive. At the height of the growing season you’ll have anywhere between 10 and 20 courgettes on your plant at any one time. As a guide, harvest when the courgettes reach around 10cm long. They’re at their very best eaten that day but will keep quite happily for a few days in the fridge.
How: To harvest, go and get a sharp knife from the kitchen then carefully slice them at the base; the green knobbly bit where it joins the main trunk of the plant. BE CAREFUL. Sure, you’re brandishing a sharp knife, don’t go maiming yourself. But mainly... be careful of the courgette. Tim is a notorious accidental destroyer of courgette plants. Truly a scourge of the Cucurbita Family. Knives are sharp, and unless my biology GCSE has failed me, plants need leaves.
How Often: Try to harvest a few times a week. The more you take, the more your lunatic plant will grow.
Radishes are so easy to sow that we’re stepping into the world of seeds once more. Rip open that seed packet radish fans. From early spring through to late summer, these are the ultimate small-space container salad.
Handy hint: Radishes are so fast–growing that they’re ready to pick a remarkable four weeks after sowing. The ultimate choice for an impatient gardener.
Radishes grow so quickly and reliably in pots that I tend to keep my raised bed for bigger, more demanding crops.
When: You can find packets of radish seeds all year round. Sow from April to July.
Where: If you don’t want to grow them in a pot, they thrive in beds too, particularly planted between crops that take longer to grow. Radishes will grow in partial shade but they thrive in full sun.
How: Fill your pot as normal, place some broken tiles/bricks/stones in the bottom for drainage and fill with a soil-based compost. Rake the surface to remove any lumps, sow your seeds roughly 5 cm deep, then cover lightly with soil and water with a fine-headed watering can.
Space: Sow your seeds roughly 2.5 cm apart.
Keeping them alive
Keeping the soil moist (not soggy, not dry) will ensure that they grow quickly, taste their best and don’t split open. If you sow seeds in the middle of a heatwave, pay extra special care.
When: When your radishes reach roughly 2.5–3 cm in diameter (their heads poke out of the surface so it’s easy to tell).
How: Gently pull them from the soil. Ta da! Radishes harvested.
How often: As needed for dinner.
And remember! Final tips for Stylist.co.uk readers from Hollie…
- You will inevitably kill a few things along the way. Don’t cry. From freak heat waves to unexpected insect attacks, Mother Nature can scupper even the best-laid gardening plans. My advice? Console yourself with a very dirty martini then try again.
- Grow what you want to eat. Simple advice, but something to bear in mind as you stand, befuddled, in the middle of the ‘grow your own’ section. Unusual-coloured and shaped versions of the classics (tomatoes, courgettes, beetroot and so on) are a fool-proof place to start.
- Start with seedlings – the small pre-grown plants you find in multi-celled trays and tiny pots. Trust me, you have enough to learn without the added hassle of growing from seed. That’s for the next book.
How To Grow: A guide for gardeners who can't garden yet by Hollie Newton is published by Orion Spring in hardback on 23 February, http://bit.ly/zHTGbook.
Photography: Ria Osborne and Hollie Newton
Illustrations: Emanuel Santos