Maximising space 2: multiple harvests from one pot

There are many rewards to be had from growing food in containers, but getting a worthwhile harvest from a small space can be a challenge. My first attempt at balcony growing resulted in one solitary serving of rocket. Fortunately, it’s possible to get a year-round supply of fresh vegetables and leaves from your pots: the key is planning.

There’s plenty to be learnt from historical examples of urban farming. In the Nineteenth Century, before refrigeration and national rail networks, vegetables had to be grown locally if they were to be eaten fresh. To meet the high level of demand in cities, urban farmers developed ingenious ways of growing food intensively on small plots of land. As well as copious supplies of manure, the big secret of their success was planning. They knew exactly how long each crop took to mature. Then, when harvested, the space would immediately be filled by another crop, carefully grown to be ready to plant out just in time. In the suburbs of Paris, the French farmers became masters of this technique. They regularly managed to grow five or more crops on each bit of land every year.

French Intensive Farming, as it became known, is a highly skilled business. But growing three or more different crops in a container per year is not difficult. The trick is to start the year by growing a crop that matures early, following it with a main crop over the summer, and then replanting the pot with autumn and winter crops.

Peas are one of my favourite early-maturing crops. If planted in February or March, they’ll be ready by June or July when they’ll make a welcome addition to the dinner table, singing of summer on its way. (I’ve found that mange tout or snap-type peas give significantly better yields from containers than podded peas.) First Early or Second Early potatoes also grow in just three months, ready for harvest in June or early July. Although potatoes take up lots of space, they taste so much better than shop-bought that it’s hard to resist growing a few. Other crops you can harvest in June or July from a March sowing include mini beetroot (ten to twelve weeks to harvest), chard (ten weeks), carrots (fourteen weeks) and turnip (eight weeks).

Your choice of your first crop of the season will be influenced by what you want to grow next. Even peas and Early potatoes will not be ready in time if you want to plant your tomatoes out before the end of May. In this case, your alternative is to choose an even faster-maturing crop, or ‘catch crop’, to start the year. Good early season catch crops for containers include radishes (three to four weeks to harvest), pea or broad bean shoots (two to four weeks), rocket (six to eight weeks), coriander (six to eight weeks), and many of the Asian greens like pak choi, Chinese cabbage and choy sum. Started under cover in February or outside in March your crop will be ready to harvest by April or May.

As your first crops of the year mature, you can save further valuable space and time by starting the next set of crops in seedling trays or small pots. This means that when your first crop has been harvested, you can immediately replace it with a seedling or small plant.

Your second crop will usually be your main one of the year. Tomatoes, aubergines, and peppers ideally need to go in before the end of May. Courgettes, squash, French and runner beans, on the other hand, can be transplanted as late as the end of June, even mid July if started first in pots. Carrots, beetroot and spring onions can be sown in July – sow direct or raise in modules because root vegetables do not like their roots disturbed.

August and early September is the time to start sowing your third crop in trays or pots, ready to go into the container when the second crop has finished fruiting in late September or October. The idea is to get your third crop well established before the coldest months set in – this will help it to survive the winter. Good winter crops for containers include kale, chard, cavolo nero, mooli, and winter salads like lamb’s lettuce, winter purslane, winter lettuce, and land cress.

When growing intensively in a small space, it’s vital to maintain fertility in your containers. Remember to mix in fertiliser or fresh compost or manure between each crop. I also always add a handful or two of worm compost from my wormery – this adds valuable microbes as well as nutrients and organic matter.

And as with all rotations, you need to consider the sequence of crops. Don’t grow the same crop in the same container again and again or crops from the same family (so don’t follow potatoes with tomatoes, for example). Crops from the same family have similar nutrient needs and will deplete the soil faster. Planting different crops also helps to avoid build up of pests and diseases.  And try to follow a hungry crop like courgettes with a less demanding one like rocket.

By using this technique you can eat green leaves and vegetables for twelve months of the year, even from a small space. And not only will you get a substantial harvest,you’ll also put an end to lifeless empty pots in winter and create colour and life in your containers all year round.

Example year-round planting plan for four pots:

Dates refer to transplant dates – seeds should be started two to four weeks earlier.

This article was first published in the City Planter.

4 comments… add one

  • Hi Mark
    I’m really enjoying your site – many thanks for putting it together! I’m an enthusiastic urban grower, with a small garden in West Bridgford, Nottingham. My front garden is south facing so I’ve crammed it full of food. I’ve got 7 different salad leaf crops on the go, I harvested a massive bowl of salad on Christmas Day, it was just such a nice thing to do – and lunch guests most impressed! My winter salad crops are a real success and draw lots of comments from passers-by who stop and chat whenever I’m out weeding or cropping. The garden as a whole produces 15 different fruits and lots of summer veg. My day job is teaching primary school children to grow food. Best wishes and I look forward to reading the rest of your very useful, informative and interesting site. Penney

    • Thanks Penney. Your container garden sound wonderful. More people should grow winter salads – they are so easy to grow and such a joy to have fresh greens in the middle of winter. I am also growing mine at the front of the house and find, just like you, that it is a really good way to get to know the neighbours.

  • i love all the ideas.
    just started to grow stuff of my own. this site got me excited most.
    but instead of buying a lot of seeds i started with putting a garlic piece, roots of union, potatoe in a pot.
    i also have some rocket and tiny tomatoes growing in a pot on my windowsill.
    i dont have a balcony or a garden. but at least my plant are all protected from the wind, rain, bugs.
    i cant seem to get the watering quite right so i decided that ill try out that self watering system later on.
    still thinking about a way to make my own compost. worms creep me out. but ill find something that works for me too.
    for now ill stick to fresh soil from the store.

    thanks again for the very usefull info


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