SocietySeptember 30, 2023

Their house, my garden: Growing things in pots


See ya later, ground. This week on Their house, my garden, it’s all pots, balconies, window ledges and the kitchen bench.

Sometimes you move into a tiny CBD apartment to live out your urbanite dreams. You put on your sparkly eyeshadow and smile till 3am behind the bar of a trendy nightclub. But when you turn off the disco light, you miss the smell of tomato leaves and waking up early to water them.

There’s heaps of reasons to not garden in the ground. You might not have any, your landlord might be extremely nitpicky or love weed-killer, the ground might be contaminated, or you might be expecting to move soon and not want to leave your one true love behind.

I have left a trail of vege gardens behind me as I have moved: the patch of runner beans on bamboo tripods at my parents’; the allotment in a common strip of land in North London, the kale planted on top of a confused compost pile (for the record, nappies don’t decompose); and the brick-lined beds I rescued from Kikuyu in a flat the landlord had all but forgotten existed. All of them live on as holes in my heart. 

But there is one vege garden I have been able to bring with me on a move, and that is the one I grew in pots on a tiny sliver of balcony. 

spinach in pots
CBD balcony garden relocated to suburbia

Getting pots

One dusty Sunday morning, with my shoes still sticky from mopping the dancefloor, I went around to my old flat and picked up a large, blue, glazed pot, which I had found on the side of the road maybe a year prior. It once contained a lovely iris, but by the time I returned to collect it, it was a crispy, dried-out stem. I decided not to check on my vege garden around the back of the house.

If you don’t have an old flat with old pots to raid, I’d recommend joining your neighbourhood Facebook group, and the group for the more affluent suburb over the hill. People are often looking to get rid of evidence that they are inattentive plant parents, and give pots away for free. If you’re impatient and want to buy, the best pots are the big terracotta ones, but they have to be small enough so that your weak arms can lift them too. If you feel like pretending you’re in the Mediterranean, but the glamorous, blue, glazed pots are a bit expensive, you can always have olives for dinner.

Flexi bins are a practical and cheap option that isn’t for me because I’m shallow and I want my pots to look cute. Maybe you have some buckets lying around, or have noticed they are only $2.20 from Countdown. I can approve this, especially if you choose the yellow one.

My tiny triangular balcony got full and direct afternoon sun, which sizzled any lifeform that stayed there too long without protection. I’d been hearing the term “microclimate” thrown around by garden-obsessives, so I made a micro-microclimate by really packing and clustering the pots. I reckon the abundance of plants gave each other shade and cooled down their little corner. I even like to think that they were friends, and so didn’t feel so alienated, even though they were nine storeys up in a concrete jungle.

A little slice of paradise

Dirt again

Everything that applies to vegetable gardening in the ground applies extra to gardening in pots. Starting with – you guessed it – dirt. Because pots are small compared to planter boxes and the earth, we want their entire contents to be delicious, nutritious, living compost. If your pot came with dirt in it from someone else’s failed attempt, get rid of it, it’s probably dead. 

I’m assuming you do not have a compost bin. It would be great if you had friends with one though. If friends are not an option, try your local community garden – maybe they can spare or sell some. If talking to people is not an option, fine, buy a bag of dirt. But I would like you first to collect all your vegetable and fruit scraps for a week or two, then blend them into a smoothie to mix into the dirt. Keep water that you have used for cooking and pour that in too. These are tips from my mum. Think of it as a super-speedy compost.

Now because these veggie scrap medleys are high in nitrogen, we need to balance them with an equal mass of carbon. You must also go to a park, maybe not an inner city one, and collect some leaf litter well into its decomposing journey. While you’re there, see if you can find a worm or two to pop in your pot (alive). Worms are friends.

There are plenty of potions for sale at your local garden centre but we’re not trying to re-enact the green revolution in miniature. We’re also not trying to throw all our money away on snake oils.

What plants don’t mind close living quarters?

My neighbours’ pots would suggest only mint grows well in pots, but my own experience, and the internet, begs to differ. The following will do fine: 

  • Most herbs
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes (especially bush and cherry varieties)
  • Zucchini
  • Lettuce, and most salad leaves
  • Chillies
  • Kale – but I’m obliged to warn you, just ‘cause you grew it won’t make it less yuck
  • Peas
  • Beans

If your pots are big enough, put a few different plants together. Think about the different heights of plants – short (herbs, spinach, lettuce) mid (tomatoes, chillies, kale) and tall (beans, peas) – and try to get a balance in each pot. More about seeds, seedlings and plant selection is on its way for next week’s column.

Sun and water

Like humans, plants wish they were sunbathing on the beach with a cold beer. The spots in your house that are good for growing vegetables are the sunny ones. It could be your window ledge or front steps or kitchen bench, the plants won’t care. Plants will usually look sad and droopy if they hate the spot you’ve put them in. Luckily pots are movable. 

If you forget to water them, they will also look sad and droopy, and soon die. It’s best to have a little layer of mulch (leaf litter, woodchips, straw) to help retain moisture in case you forget. You should probably water them every day or every second day. Try to water directly into the pot, rather than wetting any leaves, and do it in the morning before it gets hot.

There is not much leniency with watering, so I don’t recommend going away on holiday. That is how my balcony garden died. (It is now re-born.)

Help, I live in a damp hole with no natural light

Perhaps there is a way to make your predicament a blessing. Have you ever heard of mushrooms? Children don’t tend to like them, but they are delish and they thrive in damp, low-light environments. They do need airflow, so you will need a window to crack open – hopefully you have one for your own sake.

I have seen mushroom growing packs in Bunnings and thought, that’s cool but a bit expensive. I’ve also seen them advertised on Instagram but I would not recommend this because things you order through social media advertising don’t always show up (B, my partner, has been lovingly waiting for a fishing rod for the better part of three months).

There are some online and on special, on a site I found through Google, not Instagram. These pink oyster mushrooms are painfully beautiful and definitely better than any sculpture available to buy for $35.

I didn’t last too long as an urbanite, possibly because lockdown hit and all the good things about living in the city were closed, or possibly because I am afraid of heights. When lockdown ended, we ran away for a month, while the pot garden quietly dried out, got battered by wind, and died. After an appropriate mourning period, I pulled out the dead plants, refreshed the soil, and filled the pots with perpetual spinach. This is the spinach I pluck at my new house, where the pots are looking wholesome as hell at the front of the house and did not start any wars with the landlords. 

Top tip: Even city girls nine storeys up need to play with dirt. 

Tasks for the week: Surveil your house for the spots with the best sunlight.

Keep going!