My experimental container garden (and front yard larder!)

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What can you grow to eat in containers on a concrete, north facing (and windy) front yard?

I’ll be finding out at my new (ish) home, in Newcastle, North England. And blogging here about what grows (and what doesn’t), how me and my family eat it, the rewards and challenges – and how it changes the way we eat and live in the city. 

Here is the front yard container garden – not finished but on its way:

The Wall of Veg. I removed the old fence on top of the brick wall and replaced it with containers. I added a facade made of pallets to hide the containers.

The Wall of Veg. I removed the old fence on top of the brick wall and replaced it with containers. I added a facade made of pallets to hide the containers.

This is the same space 18 months ago, soon after we moved in. Lots of concrete and not much else – typical of many front yards in cities these days.

Lifeless, uninspiring concrete.... a blank canvas.

Lifeless, uninspiring concrete…. a blank canvas.

The space is a lot bigger than my old London balcony. This gives more room to experiment – so I can try different vegetable varieties to see which do best in containers, test different ways to feed, different soil mixes, and different ways of making wormeries and containers with reservoirs. Let the trials begin!

I’m building most (but not all) of the container garden with recycled materials. The wood is mostly pallet slats, from the local wood recycling project (a convenient way to find recycled wood in the size you need, as well as supporting a super, local project). The containers include upcycled buckets, bags, tins and crates.  Amongst the food crops I’ll also be growing a few flowers to attract bees and insects, as well as to add colour and cheer to the concrete. Veg gardens at home should look good, too!

Crates, bags, buckets and tins. Most of the containers are recycled.

Crates, bags, buckets and tins. Most of the containers are recycled.

Making the most of small spaces

Within the space I’ll be creating a variety of ‘elements’. If you’re growing at home in a city, space (or lack of it) is likely to be one of your biggest challenges. The idea of the ‘elements’ is to show a variety of simple, easy ways to grow more in a limited space. They include a herb ladder, a salad ladder, a Wall of Veg, a micro green shelf, and a fruit pallet.

Ladders like this are a simple and effective way to grow more in a small space.

Ladders like this are a simple and effective way to grow more in a small space. This has lettuces, parsley, sorrel, beetroot, dill, wild fennel, thyme oyster plant and chervil.

Choosing what to grow

The climate here in Newcastle is cooler than London (being 300 miles further north) and some of the yard doesn’t get a lot of sun, particularly in winter (I’ve spent some time observing the space to see how much sun different bits get). So I’ll need to chose carefully what to grow. It’s too cold for chillies, aubergines and basil to do well.  But many herbs, salads, leafy veg (like kale and chard), root vegetables, and woodland fruits (like blackberry, blueberry and raspberry) should be OK. With careful selection, I should still have lots of choice.

My other experimental areas…

In another post, I’ll tell you about my sunny, south facing patio on the other side of the house – where I’m mainly growing different herbs and tomatoes. And about my trials with containers in a polytunnel on my allotment. Like many people who love growing, I keep finding more space to grow!

Inspiration for the future….

By growing some of your own food at home you get fresher, healthier and tastier food, right on your doorstep – AND the joy and fulfilment of growing it. Wonderful. 

But what also inspires my work with Vertical Veg, is how container growing (even in a tiny space) can open doors to bigger changes – like supporting major change in diet, or bringing people feeling isolated in a communnity together, or contributing to a less wasteful way of living. I’ll be exploring and writing about this more in the coming months.

Your turn

If there is anything you’d like to find out from my experimental container growing, please let me know in the comments below.

40 comments… add one

  • Hi,

    I noticed that you are using the ‘supermarket stacking containers’, I have quite a few of these myself and was planning to use them. Did you line them to prevent the soil from escaping? I was going to buy some landscaping fabric to line mine.

    Many thanks,

    Mike

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    • Hi Mike, yes I lined them with weed suppressing fabric. I’ve also lined them successfully with newspaper – works great, just doesn’t last as long. They make good containers. Mark

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      • Great! Thanks for the quick reply Mark. :)

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  • What a wonderful transformation Mark. Attractive and edible too. I like the idea of using old ladders to put containers on. I’ve been thinking of this as I pass a reclamation yard near us, so one I think I’ll follow up on now.

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  • Container gardening is a great idea, especially for city dwellers. I’ve had such a demand for containers I have decided to make and sell them :) I grow mostly vegetables & herbs in containers made for the job. With the right compost mix they definately produce the goods. Downside of containers is that they tend to dry out fairly quick, so need constant watching.

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  • Hi Mark,
    last year was a bit of a let down for me, but better this year?
    I am growing spring onions, carrots, beetroot, spinach, tomatoes, chillies, ridge cucumbers, runner beans, horseradish, chives and mint.
    I do have a small garden but keep that for flowers, but have space for containers and what I have learnt this year is that to grow well you do need heat, luckily we have had a lot of warm days here, but definitely need a small greenhouse.
    I have tomatoes growing in 5inch pots, beetroot in 4inch, chillies in 5inch, spring onions in anything, carrots in like a galleon can, horseradish the same. Spinach in 4inch and 5inch. Runners I have three to a container which is about 5 litre in size
    and another same size container for the cues, they are both doing great,though I think next year I will up the container size only so I can get more water in, the small ones dry up to quick!
    regards
    john

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  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the continuing inspiration, and great to see your front garden space full of lovely edibles.

    A question – Do you ever have problems with squirrels? I’ve got plants in containers on a balcony and roof space here (in my north London flat). I’ve found this great when it comes limiting the damage from slugs and snails – not many get to climb up so far. Not so squirrels, though, which have got into digging into any pots with a bit of bare soil showing (often burying peanuts they’ve acquired from neighbours’ bird feeders, I guess). They also knock over smaller pots. This means they’ve killed off seedlings and young plants, even damaged more established crops. Last year they polished off my crop of nicely ripening sweetcorn that I’d carefully nurtured and hand pollinated (it must have been the squirrel/s – cobs removed from the plant and they’d chewed away the kernels). So disheartening. I’ve had to construct elaborate barriers with wooden skewers, chicken wire, and so forth, but they’ll get in/through/over if they possibly they can.

    Any ideas to keep them off? Anyone? Making ‘fences’ round each pot takes so much extra time, and extra expense : (

    Anyway, Good Growing!
    Yan

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    • Like all mammals, squirrels are sensitive to capsaicin, the ingredient in plants of the pepper family that make chilli hot. Dried chiili crushed up very finely (or buy powdered) will put them off. Mixed with vaseline and smeared around the pots it will soil their fur and it will be uncomfortable when they try to lick it off. It sounds mighty cruel, but it won’t do them any permanent damage (unless they are contact lens wearers). I mix chilli in with the bird seed on the feeders. Birds have no sensitivity to it at all. The squirrels are happy to eat kitchen scraps from the bird table and leave the feeders alone.

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      • Thanks for the tip, Kim

        All best,
        Yan

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  • Mark,
    I admire your creativity. I, too, Iive in an urban setting in Columbus, OH and space saving is a must. There’s nothing better than being surrounded by nature even in a concrete jungle! I’ve got to ask….do you have trouble with people “sampling” the fruits of your labor? I’m not sure I could trust my neighbors when things look that tasty! :) Keep up the great work! I love your blog!

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    • Hi Barbara, lovely to hear from you in Ohio. Nothing taken (that I’m aware of!) from the from the front yard yet, luckily. In my experience, talking to quite a few people who grow in a spaces like this, theft does happen, but luckily very rarely and a lot less often than many people think. In the UK, drunken vandalism is more likely, unfortunately – but luckily that is rare, too. Maybe try a few pots and see? Your neighbours may be inspired to grow a few things themselves. Best of luck with it, Mark

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  • I love your idea! I just started a rolling container garden in our front yard! Here in California there is so much sun, it is mandatory for shade. Since we are in the middle of a drought, we use excess shower water for our plants. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  • Love the ladder idea. What are you using as “soil” is it the same for all the containers ? Do you feed? If so what with. I have had problems this year with a bought container medium drying out and not re wetting despite the almost constant rain! Thanks

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    • Hi Elaine, I experiment with lots of different things for ‘soil’. Mostly, at the moment, it is a mix of peat free compost (the brand Sylvagrow is the best I’ve tried), worm compost, a bit of john Innes no 3 and some pots have a bit of biochar. Most of the soil in this container garden is at least one year old, some of it is two or three. Again I try lots of different ways of feed – but worm compost and chicken manure pellets and liquid seaweed are used the most. I’ll be writing a fuller post on this soon.

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    • I can recommend a worm bin. The liquid feed it produces is great! Also, chat up your local coffee shop and take away the used grounds as it makes good compost. Waitrose supermarket have “help yourself” coffee ground bins outside the stores – you don’t have to shop there. I am using polystyrene packing peanuts as mulch for tomato and potato containers to see if it helps the dreaded blight.

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  • Beautiful front yard! It’s amazing how plants can brighten a place. I’m curious if you have much success with fruit growing. It’s something that challenges me, being in a cold climate as well. I have a small blackberry plant in a pot, they are pretty resilient. Maybe it’s just a matter of picking tough varieties. Best of luck at your new space!

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    • HI Lee, yes I grow quite a lot of fruit and most of it does pretty well. The most successful include a Glencoe purple raspberry (this is brilliant!), a thornless blackberry, blueberries and strawberries. The rhubarb also does really well. The apple does quite well but I think the berries are probably more suited to small containers. I’m also trying quite a few more unusual fruits like kiwi, Japanese Wineberry, and Ascap berries – all are growing well but haven’t yet fruited much, but I hope they will. Mark

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  • Hi Mark, you certainly are optimizing every bit of space and it looks great. I can’t wait to see your patio and other projects.

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  • Hi Mark,
    I love your new container garden, especially the salad ladders! We have about an acre here in Issaquah, Washington, USA but I prefer to grow tender greens, peppers, eggplants and most of the tomatoes in containers on the deck. That way they are usually safe from deer, rabbits, grey and native squirrels, voles, rats, moles, gophers and all the other vermin that hang out around here. These guys don’t bother the potatoes, so we do grow those in the ground. Thank you for all the great gardening ideas!
    Azar

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    • Hi Azar, wow, you sure have some challenging pests to deal with. The horrible Spanish slugs I have seem very tame in comparison.

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  • Seems like a lot of temptation for passers by to help themselves :0

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    • Hi Elaine – I used to live on a busy main road & worried about things getting pinched when I began putting out containers, including some nice ceramic ones. But I think people appreciate efforts gardeners make, and neither plants or pots went missing.
      Mark – love the new garden. Recently moved into a new house myself with a front garden a sea of paving. This is really inspiring

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  • really enjoy your pictures and writings…. I am in Thompson Falls, Montana…. We do have a short growing season also…. I have been gardening for a long time, yet still am getting fresh information from you..thank you…. Wish you great success with our container gardening…..

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    • Thank you for your kind message, Rene – like you, I always love learning and there is always more to learning. Wishing you great success for your container gardening, too.

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  • Thank you for sharing a good information. Am going to try this at the middle of August this year. But now I have container strawberries and their are well , although some diseases like bright is disturbing me

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    • Great stuff, Steven. Very best of luck with your container garden. Don’t worry if everything doesn’t work perfectly first time – it doesn’t for any of us, but we quickly learn.

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  • Brilliant photos, I will certainly be trying some of these ideas out. Thank you so much

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  • I have done the same thing in my front garden! It is working very well. It started as a trellised area to conceal the many refuse containers we have to use in Epsom and Ewell. It is now filling up with beans, squashes, lettuces and tomatoes. My husband has made a large window box for chinese greens and herbs. The only downside is that snails will appear from nowhere ): and tomato blight is awful with all the rain, so best to grow them up in hanging baskets.

    Reply
    • Hi Kim
      Love your idea of concealing refuse containers with plants on trellis. Snails do seem to be particularly fond of chinese greens and, as you’ve found, they do appear everywhere. I try and go out with a torch at night to round them up about once a week. I also lift the pots up from time to time and collect up all those who have set up board and lodging underneath the pot!
      Mark

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  • Dear Mark,

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article and your enthusiasm!

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Laura :) in Toronto, Canada.

    Reply
  • Thats looking good. Have you tried growing brussels in containers. If yes how did they turn out. I have 13 plants and no space left in the garden or at tbe allotment! 😢

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    • Hello Sue, I must confess, although I’ve grown maybe hundreds of different things in pots I’ve never grown brussels. I really like them to eat but I’ve always been a bit scared of growing them – partly due to their size and partly because of how long they take to grow. But I do remember meeting someone who was growing them very successsfully in large containers, and they looked impressive, too. So definitely worth a go if you have some nice large containers you can spare. If you go ahead, would love to hear how you get on.

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      • Hi up date on the Brussels sprouts. They grew, they cropped in grow bags. Was well chuffed. Cut the bag in half. And planted them as normal, then shouted a cane down through the bag for stability. Sadly, I forgot to take pictures!

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        • Terrific result, well done, Sue. I bet they looked impressive in the bags, too?!

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  • Congratulations with your new home and may it be a happy home.
    Your gardening is wonderful. I truly admire your inventiveness (hope it’s an english word). I get a lot of inspiration from it. My gardening space is very limited but nonetheless enough for me, because I live near the coast and there’s often a lot of wind. In spite of that I’m growing tomato’s for the first time and so far so good. It’s a very nice feeling to grow your own veggies..
    So thanks again for your inspiration.

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    • Hello Annemie, lovely to hear from you. It sounds like you are doing some wonderful gardening. Yes, you can really get a huge amount of pleasure from growing in a very small space, and there are some advantages to it. One of the challenges for me now that I have more space is that I always try and do too many things – and sometimes I would like more limatations. Happy growing, Mark

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