How to grow nice things to pick and eat (whatever size your garden is)
There’s nothing quite like being able to cook something from ingredients that you’ve grown. This has always been a challenge for me – inevitably I spend more time in the kitchen than in my (small) East London garden. But what I have realised is that just a few pots of interesting herbs and flowers can add beautiful flavour and texture to food very quickly, and they can be genuinely very easy to grow, even in small spaces.
Growing things yourself means ingredients are fresher, more flavourful, often more unusual, and kinder to the planet. A scattering of chive flowers in a salad, some torn aromatic basil on a plate of gnocchi, or the petals from a rose on a cake can make all the difference.
The whole point of this article is that gardening is not my strong suit – so I asked three experts for their growing advice for when time and space is in short supply.
In her day job Alice works for Growing Communities at Dagenham Farm, growing salad for their organic fruit and veg box scheme (that I am a proud subscriber of) She’s also written a lovely little book (called Do Grow.) She starts us off with some sound general advice:
General tips for windowboxes or planters:
- One of the biggest challenges with windowboxes is that they dry out easily. Always go for the deepest volume you have space for.
- Put your planters in trays of water that you keep topped up – this is the easiest way to keep established plants watered.
- Whenever replanting, top the box up with organic compost. This will help hold moisture and feed the next crop. Check your compost is peat free as peat is generally sourced from peat bogs. These are amazing carbon sinks for the planet so shouldn’t be wasted on our window boxes! West riding organics does a great one (it does contain peat but it is collected by filtering it out of rivers.) If garden centres don’t stock organic peat free/ sustainable peat composts ask them and try and create the demand.
Nice (and easy) salads to grow:
- Interesting salad leaves are easy to grow and add complexity to bought salad. Sorrel, and wild rocket are particularly robust and flavoursome, while bullsblood, rainbow chard and mustards are tasty and beautiful.
- Edible flowers like nasturtiums, calendula, herb flowers and brassica salad flowers (like rocket) are pretty and delicious and you can’t buy them at the supermarket. They can add something seasonally special to salads and drinks.
Making your own compost:
- Making compost on a very small scale is difficult and often inefficient as the composting process works best with volume. An amazing alternative is considering a wormery – a brilliant way to deal with cooked food waste and coffee grounds, producing amazing compost to feed your plants at home. They are very efficient so can be used in small spaces alongside home compost collection or your own home compost bins. If we compost our organic waste we will save around 70 percent of our rubbish from going to landfill and instead produce a valuable resource.
Anyone who has ever bought seedlings for their garden has likely heard of Sarah Raven, the queen of flowers. After running a course in her beautiful cutting garden last summer, I became even more inspired to add edible petals to my cooking.
Freeze them into ice cubes for cocktails, scatter them into salad for colour and flavour, sprinkle them on iced cakes, or even add them to fragrant teas.
3 easiest edible flowers to grow:
- Any Viola really, but I love ‘Antique Apricot’ and ‘Antique Shades Mix’
- Calendula ‘Sunset Buff’ or ‘Indian Prince’ – strip the petals from the centre and scatter them like saffron strands
- Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’ – fantastic fragrant leaves and edible flowers – handy if you’re somewhere hot as they’re very drought-resistant
3 flowers you’ll never have sow again after the first time:
- Erigeron karavinskianus – sprinkle tiny pinch of seed straight into the pot.
- Agapanthus ‘Navy Blue’ delicate perennial variety, best in a pot depth of at least 30cm.
- For a deep pot in the shade, Hydrangea ‘Little Lime’ – a new variety, bred especially for container growth.
Anyone familiar with my cooking knows how much I love to use herbs.
Hackney Herbal are just around the corner from me in East London – a community passionate about connecting people and herbs and raising awareness about the many ways you can use the plants for wellbeing. I asked Nat for a few tips on growing, and she shared a recipe for an incredible cosmetic herb oil for your bath or body.
Easy herbs to grow on balconies/ in containers
- All of the Mediterranean herbs are easy to grow in pots and containers on a balcony or patio. Our top tips for these is to use a potting mix which is about 2 parts compost, 1 part topsoil and 1 part grit or sharp sand to enhance the drainage. As they are perennial plants you only need to plant them once and then you can enjoy them for a lifetime. Easy herbs to grow from seeds are things like chamomile, borage and calendula.
- No herb garden is complete without a lemon verbena plant, its leaves carry an amazing sherbet lemon scent and it was be used in teas and desserts. It is a tender perennial so will need a bit of protection from harsh frosts in the winter.
- Other easy things to grow in containers are scented geraniums, we love ‘Attar of Roses’ – the fragrant leaves make a lovely drink when infused in cold water overnight. If you’ve only got a windowsill culinary herbs like coriander, basil and parsley are a good choice.
A cosmetic herb oil
One of the simplest things to make for your skin is calendula infused oil. You can use fresh herbs but we tend to dry the flowers first which means the oil you make will have a much longer shelf life. Take a clean glass jar and pack it full with the flowers and then cover the whole thing with oil. Sweet almond is a nice light weight oil and is absorbed easily by the skin. Leave the jar in a warm spot for 6 weeks to infuse and then strain out the flowers. The oil can be used directly on your skin and hair and you could add a couple of spoonfuls into the bath for a restorative soak! The oil can also be combined with essential oils (3-4 drops of essential oil to every 10ml infused oil)
Images: Jess Lea-Wilson (most were taken at Perch Hill, Sarah Raven’s garden)
Further reading: this book is a great intro