How do I start my container garden?

Blank canvas: the front of my old London flat without plants

If you’re growing in a new place, or for the first time, you may be thinking, ‘what’s the first thing I need to do to get started?’.

A little time to observe and learn about your growing space is time well invested – and a good idea before going out to find pots and seeds.  Luckily, this can be a rewarding and relaxing activity in its own right! To help, here are some questions you can ask yourself.

I must stress: you don’t need all the answers straight away. Far from it. But thinking about them at the start can help you to save time and develop your space  more successfully. Observation, combined with trial and error (ie making lots of mistakes), is the route to vegetable paradise!

1. How much sun does my space get?

Observe your growing space at different times of day.

  • How much sun does it get and at what times?
  • Which bits get the most sun? (the sun can vary considerably across even a tiny space – you want to identify the sunniest!).
  • Which bits get the least sun? (these are good places to put a wormery or water butt).
  • How does the sun vary at different times of year? Because the height and the trajectory of the sun changes with the seasons, the amount of sun reaching your space will vary.
  • Look around to see what else might affect the sun in your growing space eg trees coming into or out of leaf?

It may take several seasons to fully understand the sun in your space (I was still learning about my London flat after several years of growing) – but you can glean a lot of useful information fairly quickly.
Once you have an idea of how many hours sun your space gets, you can choose crops that will do well in it. See the Art of Growing in Small spaces for ideas of which crops grow well in sun and shade.

2. Where’s the nearest water source?

Watering is the most time consuming part of growing in containers. Thinking at the outset about where your water will come from is therefore a good idea.

  • Where’s the nearest tap?
  • Is there a downpipe and space to install a water butt  – a great option if space / access to downpipes permits – or an outside tap?
  • Or could you run a hose from inside?

The closer you can put containers to a water source, the easier and quicker watering will be. I’ve carried water up and down two flights of stairs to water about twenty pots.  This proved feasible, but it did extend the watering time from about 5 minutes a day to nearly 20 minutes.

It’s far from essential to have a water butt or outside tap – and in some spaces it’s simply not feasible. And if you start off with a few pots, and are happy to spend a few minutes each day with a watering can, watering shouldn’t  prove a problem.

 

 

Here’s some water butts I installed and linked together on a sunny south facing balcony for a friend. OK, so it looks a bit industrial, but at least it never runs out of water! By the way, you don’t need this many butts, just one can make a significant difference.

3. Where are the best places to put pots?

  • What else will you want to use your space for and how will this affect your growing? (My wife once pointed out that there was nowhere left to sit on our balcony….. This prompted a radical redesign, moving many pots to shelves on the wall, to make room to sit down again!)
  • In light of this, where are the best places to put pots?
  • If you’re growing on a window sill or roof top, consider how you can secure pots so they don’t fall off – and what weight of soil and pots your structure can hold.
  • Can you see any vertical spaces you can use? Is it sunnier higher up? Is there somewhere you can put a shelf? Or can you attach strings anywhere for plants to grow up? Or somewhere you can put a hanging basket? (These are questions you’ll want to consider more later on – but there’s no harm to think about them a little at the outset).
  • Try to imagine what your space will look like filled with plants – and how the plants will affect each other. For example, if you plan to grow climbing plants, what shade will they cast, and where? (Again don’t worry at all if you don’t know at this stage – it’s something you’ll learn as you go along).

Discovering new vertical space: by attaching strings to the top of the windows I was able to fill the window with tomato plants – better than net curtains!

4. How exposed is my space?

Wind can have a significant impact on crops. Basically, they don’t like it! This is often a particular problem for balcony and roof top growers. If your space is windy, don’t despair, there is often a solution. See those peskerly north easterlies for more info and ideas on how to reduce wind. In the UK, the prevailing winds in the winter are from the North East (these usually last until late May)  and in the summer from the South West.

  • Observe your growing space on different days and at different times of year. How does the wind vary? It can be surprising how a balmy calm space on one day may feel windy and hostile on another.

 As I said at the outset, you don’t need all the answers before you start growing. It’s asking the questions and thinking about them that’s most useful.

Finally, draw a Plan

It’s a great idea to sketch your growing space (ideally to scale if you can be bothered). Mark the route of the sun on it, any particularly sunny or shady spots, and the direction of the prevailing winds. Start sketching in where you will add pots and what you’d like to grow in each. You can see a plan of my London balcony and window sills here.   I should add that my working drawings are much, much messier than this (some would say a disgrace!). But its the process of drawing a plan that is more useful than what it looks like!

BUT, if all this sounds like too much work before you even start….

A really good strategy is to just start with a few pots, some easy to grow crops (pea shoots, rocket, French beans perhaps), and  learn as you go along. You can move your pots around, see what grows well where and work out the answers to all these questions as you go along. 

 

This is what the front looked like after several years of growing. I added a few more pots each year! © Vertical Veg 2011

 

24 comments… add one

  • I have one question..where do you think are the best sources for buying seeds? do I search for good ones locally (North Africa) or look for them online? How do I know that they are good quality?

    and thank you!

    Reply
    • You can do either. You’ll often get a wider choice online, but if you are starting, and if you can find a good, knowledgeable local supplier, this can be the best place to start – they should know what grows well in your climate, and many will offer invaluable local advice – most growers are only too happy to share their knowledge. The other thing to look out for is any local seed swaps or plant sales – I’m not sure if they have them where you live, but they are super places for meeting and learning from other growers as well as getting plants and seeds at good prices

      Reply
  • Hi I’m so interested in container gardening too..however I have a limited space on my windowsill just like yours. Could you kindly tell me how u secured your pots to the windowsill from falling ?

    Reply
    • I screwed eyes into the walls on each side of the windowsill, and then ran a piece of wire or strong string between the eyes to tie the container on. does that make sense?

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  • Thank you for your helpful advice and tips! I am about to move to a flat in London with a 3.9m x 1.5m south facing balcony, 7th floor. I am trying to figure the best way out from a distance (I live in Germany and the flat is not finished yet). I love plants and want to grow as much as possible to be honest, but I am also not sure how well that is received in London? Aside from how successful I will be… haha. Do people complain when your balcony is full of plants, if they grow up the wall etc? The flat is our own though.

    Reply
    • Hi Anna, in the most part, people are receptive and supportive of container gardening. But it all depends on your particular landlord (if you are renting – so good news that you own it) or any particular rules in the flats you live in (some have more rules than others). Your best bet is probably to move in and look at what the neighbours are doing.

      Reply
  • I have 3 balconies, but sunlight does not fall directly as the shadow of the next building falls over my 1st floor apartment. But they are sufficiently bright bcos of natural sunlight.
    what kind of plants – flowers, fruits, vegetables, greens- grow well in these shady balconies?

    Reply
  • Love this…Can’t wait to do something on my porch…I already have a small garden outside my apartment in a little patch that used to be grass, but I already filled it up and would lile to do some containers, and hanging baskets….the apartment upstairs as a porch with a metal railing around it and so I can hang wires down from that for my baskets. I would like to mix flowers and some herbs, and whatever else I can think of….

    Reply
    • Sounds like you are concocting a good plan there!Flowers and herbs mixed can look great.

      Reply
  • What might I plant late June early July with some success? I have a sunny spot I’d like to take advantage of and your site gave me some ideas, but It’s a little advanced in the season already.

    Reply
    • Hi Karen, great question, I’ll do a blog post on this early next week – there is still lots you can plant at this time of year.

      Reply
      • I’d love to know too! :)

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  • For a while now I have been looking for suppliers of planters that would clip onto the top section (horizontal) of the handrail by the front door. I was thinking of those “municipal planter” that you see in cities. I am a great fan of formal “municipal” gardens. Have you come across any that would be suitable for growing veggies and herbs?

    Reply
  • Thanks very much for the information, and for the speedy reply.

    Reply
    • Pleasure!

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  • How are you anchoring the window boxes to the sills here?

    Reply
    • With hooks screwed firmly into the wall on each side of the sill – then tying the containers on with wire. It seemed to work quite well.

      Reply
  • Be careful about putting those water butts on balconies–or really, anything heavy. Highly saturated soil weighs a ton (It does; a ton per cubic yard.) So be cautious and plan with final weights of your water and plant containers in mind too.

    Reply
    • Great advice, Lee, you can’t be too careful. One thing I learnt is that if you have a supporting wall as part of your balcony, you can put significant weight on top of the supporting wall – but if at all unsure, you should always seek professional advice.

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  • Hi Mark, I enjoyed reading your article encouraging gardeners to monitor where, when and how much sun they get in their garden. There is a online tool called SunEarthTools.com that might help in mapping the sunlight in a chosen area. The tool will calculate the position of the sun in the sky at one point on the earth at a particular time of day. Simply stated, the tool will display and allow you to calculate today’s hours of sun, the time of day, and direction it will come from. I hope you find this tool useful. It would be really useful if the tool allowed you to calculate future results, unfortunately this option does not appear to be available. At the very least, you might find the tool fun to play with. Cheers!

    Go to SunEarthTools.com, then select SunPosition. Enter your complete address in the Search window, then click on the magnifying glass. A Google map will be displayed of your neighbourhood with an overlaid graphic showing the SunPath plus hourly points for your current time and day (default). In addition to the map and graphic, SunRise and SunSet times are displayed for the current date. As with all Google maps, you are able to zoom-in on your location.

    There is a drop down menu called Mode which gives you the option of choosing a graphic for either sunpath (default), sunrays, shadow, or path + rays. Click on Mode, then the option button desired, and Execute.

    Link to SunEarthTools SunPosition

    Reply
    • Thanks Allan, this is really useful!

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  • Just popping outside to take a closer look at the herb bed. Consists of rosemary, winter savoury, chives, oregano, majoram (2 types) thyme (2 types) sage and lemon balm at the moment. Hey I didn’t realise there was so much variety out there!

    Reply

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