Big rewards from small edible plots
Balcony pots and tiny courtyards are no match for gardening guru Paul Crowhurst, on a mission to teach city dwellers how to plant to eat well
Paul Crowhurst is passionate about teaching people how to get the most from their land. His message is simple: Even a small space can grow something edible, along with the satisfaction that comes from doing so. Paul, who works as a tutor for Selwyn Community Trust, will be talking specifics in January through his Growing Food in a Small Space workshop, one of the Free Kai Garden Workshops being offered in Aotea Square this summer through Live Auckland.
It’s a topic increasingly in demand these days as more and more of us move into apartments with just a balcony or into a townhouse with a courtyard garden and it’s one Paul is eminently qualified to address. Involved in horticulture as a teenager, he has spent nearly 40 years teaching people how to grow plants - through managing a garden centre, through an organic garden-to-plate concept for mental health patients, through training roles for industry organisations and through “many, many garden club presentations”.
He is also the owner/operator of Hireplants, an Auckland-based provider of plant-scape services, primarily indoor but increasingly in small spaces outdoors.
“Many commercial customers are asking about edible walls and planters either as a marketing spin for their hospitality business (but generally the enquiry is fuelled by their own passion for fresh locally grown) or as a benefit to staff through the use of office balconies to grow herbs or seasonal veg.”
Hireplants also offers a landscape service focused on small space areas, with a vertical garden system which complements the range of planters.
“By choosing just a few edibles that you use (it’s amazing how many people grow plants they hate to eat) and giving those plants all the love, with a few planters you can grow herbs (Italian parsley, basil, coriander), a cherry tomato and salad greens. Now that is the basis to a meal in summer. To get those plants to fruition, though, means knowing some basic horticulture which is where my passion kicks in.”
Paul’s tips for small edible gardens
1 Choose just a few plant types, starting with what you enjoy eating.
2 Pick planters that take advantage of your aspect. A sunny wall allows a trough at the base and woolly pockets (vertical garden) on the wall. The trough will grow herbs and tomato or chilli and the pockets will grow lettuce, mizuna, miner’s lettuce and other salad greens.
3 Both planter types need water and lots of feeding. The lack of feeding is the biggest stumbling block for most people who underestimate just how much nutrition a plant needs, especially a leafy vegetable. Lots of feed – organic or inorganic plus regular watering.
4 Grow what you can keep. Chillies, beans or cherry tomatoes will crop heavily, if given the love, and the excess can be frozen. Basil and coriander can be made into pesto.
Fruit trees for small spaces
The best fruit trees are mandarins – Encore or Clementine. Both are good for eating and for salads. Both need a lot of nutrients. Few other fruit trees are worth the space and effort for the small yield. The room is more productive with greens or similar. Espaliered trees are great if you have the time and the aspect. An espaliered pear is easy but still requires dedication.
Choosing your planters
- For permanent plants, such as citrus, use only tapered or straight planters, never honeypot shapes, as after four years you will need to repot and the roots will be stuck with the narrow opening and wide waist.
- Make sure the planter is big enough. You can’t grow much in one that holds less than 15 litres of mix. Choose one that works in your landscape. Don’t buy a planter just because it’s cheap if it doesn’t fit your décor. Porous planters, such as terracotta, will evaporate water from the sides so seal first.
Replenishing the soil
Soil should be freshened every six months for annual crops and every three-four years for trees. Feed trees six-monthly with dry feed and monthly with liquid feed. Annuals such as lettuce should be liquid fed monthly too.
Leafy plants, such as lettuce, contain a lot of water - and usually that comes from you - so water frequently but also be conscious that every time you water you rinse out nutrients which you need to replace. If you have an extensive set of planters or a vertical living wall, consider an irrigation system – there are lots of basic, inexpensive kits in the big box stores.
- Planter is too small - consider what you are growing and how long it is going to be in there.
- Too many varieties - choose just a few that you enjoy eating or that you can make most of a meal from. Don’t try root crops or anything that takes longer than two months.
- Planting summer types too early – stick to multi-seasonal plants such as silverbeet, parsley, cavolo nero etc.
- Letting plants dry out – use irrigation systems, mulching.
- Not feeding enough – have liquid feed on hand and make it easy to use. Requiring a chemistry degree to mix nutrients will put you off.
What to plant now
Lettuces, silverbeet, cavolo nero, beans (dwarf or climbing), chillies, cherry tomatoes, parsley, basil
For more information on the Free Kai Garden Workshops click here