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.
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).
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.