Flowers, apples, artichokes and other lessons from 2017

Potager container gardening

Growing is endlessly fascinating as there’s always more to learn. As winter approaches, it’s a good time to reflect on the successes and learning of the season. Here are five (of the many!) things I learnt in 2017.

1. Grow veg AND flowers

This year, I grew more flowers. In amongst the salads, herbs and fruits, I planted cosmos, verbena, along with edible flowers like cornflower, borage, nasturtium and pansies.

Late summer: the cosmos and verbena add a splash of colour.
Late summer: the cosmos and verbena add colour.

As my front yard growing space is in public view, I wanted to create a more colourful and interesting display – and it certainly seemed to help spark up more conversations with passers-by! It also provided cut flowers for inside (and to give away), pretty edible flowers for salads, and nectar for the bees.

Mixing with veg adds colour, attracts bees, and some of these flowers are edible, too.
Mixing with veg adds colour, attracts bees, and some of these flowers are edible, too.

The French have a history of creating beautiful vegetable gardens in public view (they call them ‘potager’ gardens). Here in the UK, veg plants are often viewed as lower class citizens, hidden away. This is a shame – some people who live in cities only ever get to see vegetables confined to plastic bags in the supermarket. By creating attractive edible gardens in the concrete spaces or windowsills at the front of the home, we can help give vegetables the profile they deserve! (I’m a big fan of the Incredible Edible Network for this reason).

2. Apples and other larger fruits

Strawberries, blueberries and most other berries make excellent container crops for small spaces, often fruiting well in their first or second year. But what about larger fruit trees?

The apple blossom is a beautiful and welcome sign of spring - good for bees, too.
The apple blossom is a beautiful and welcome sign of spring – good for bees, too.

I’ve been experimenting with an apple tree in a pot for six years. It’s given beautiful spring blossom, but only a handful of apples each year. I confess I’ve questioned if it was worth the space. But this year, it produced over 40 delicious apples. It was a joy! The investment of time finally felt worthwhile.

After six years (and four different homes), this apple finally produces an excellent crop of apples. Delicious, too.
After six years (and four different homes), this apple finally produces an excellent crop of apples. Delicious, too.

On the other hand, the hardy kiwi fruit I’ve been growing for four years has yet to produce even one fruit. It did produce its first (very pretty) flower this year, so I’m not giving up on it…. Yet!

The hardy kiwi flowered for the first time this year - unfortunately all the blossom was then blown off by a storm!
The hardy kiwi flowered for the first time this year – unfortunately all the blossom was then blown off by a storm!

My experience with these larger fruits so far suggests they usually take several years to be productive – and can be a bit of lottery (I also had a plum that never fruited). This makes them less suitable if you’ve very little space or are living in short term accommodation (unless you grow them for the blossom). But if you have the space, time and patience, they may turn out rather well – and they can add height and form to a container garden. But in most small spaces, I’d probably stick with the berries.

If you’ve tried growing any of the larger fruit trees in a container – apple, pear, mulberry, peach, fig etc – I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.

3. Discovering new microgreens

At the other end of the spectrum from fruit trees, microgreens are one of the fastest growing choices. I’ve long championed pea shoots, fava shoots, rocket, coriander and mixed mustards. This year, I created a new online course, How to Grow Amazing Salads, which proved a good excuse to try a whole array of new micro greens. Amongst those I particularly enjoyed were nasturtium (pretty round leaves), basil (vibrant flavour) and Amaranth Red Army (vivid magenta leaves).

This micro basil has a wonderful, vibrant flavour. Grown from basil seeds found in the spice section of the local Asian store!
This micro basil has a wonderful, vibrant flavour. Grown from basil seeds found in the spice section of the local Asian store!

Easy to grow and delicious – I highly recommend experimenting with microgreens if you haven’t already.

4. Are automatic watering systems a good idea?

Several years ago, I ordered an automatic watering system – pipes, drippers and  a timer. When it arrived, I was busy with work and children and it just seemed too fiddly and time consuming to install. I’m ashamed to say it gathered dust in the loft.

This year I bit the bullet. It did take me a while to get my head round how to put it together (definitely scope for clearer instructions and videos to help). But it did become clearer and easier as I worked on it.

It doesn’t fully solve the watering issue – not all the plants have drippers (I have too many pots!), and those that do sometimes need more water. But it does save a huge amount of time, cutting my watering from 15 minutes a day to 5 minutes or less. And,  if I’m unable to water one day, the plants are less badly affected.

I also noticed that some of the plants that like good watering – like runner beans – did seem to grow happier and more lush with regular water from drippers twice a day.

Unless you go away a lot, I’d be hesitant to recommend these systems for smaller container gardens. But if your watering takes you a long time every day or seems a chore, it’s definitely a good option to consider.

5. Jerusalem artichokes in containers?

Jerusalem artichokes are delicious (in my humble opinion), and hard to find in most UK stores.  They are big plants (they also make good windbreaks) – grow easily in the ground. But how easy are they to grow in containers?

From past experience, I know they do well in a big, deep container, but this year I thought it would be interesting to see if they’ll grow OK in a smaller, supermarket vegetable crate (about 6 in / 15 cm deep – and 2ft / 60cm x 1.5ft 40cm wide) . The plants grew really well, reaching well over eight feet tall. I will harvest them as a treat in the early spring and it will be interesting to see how many tubers are produced.

The Jerusalem artichokes grew over 8 feet tall in a container just six inches (15cm) deep.
The Jerusalem artichokes grew over 8 feet tall in a container just six inches (15cm) deep.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear about your learning this year in the comments below. And, if you’ve tried growing fruit trees or artichokes or set up an automatic watering system, what did you find?


35 thoughts on “Flowers, apples, artichokes and other lessons from 2017”

  1. Just in response to your comment on plum trees: My wife bought a plum tree from a well known budget supermarket which was planned for a container. When I read the label I realised that, like kiwis, they needed to cross pollinate. I sent her straight back to the shop for a different variety. We now have two plum trees in containers and we get fruit from both every year.

  2. Our hardy kiwi has not flowered yet, despite it having been in the garden for about four years (not in a pot). It’s growing, just not flowering yet. The self-fertile varieties I know of are Issy and Jenny, although one of them, at least, produces better if a male plant is in the area, I gather.

    My experience of growing J. artichokes in large pots may not be so useful to you, as I packed them in to keep my stock alive while waiting for a suitable plot on the allotment!. They survived in the pot for years, but the tubers weren’t anything to write home about until they got more space on the allotment. But perhaps yours aren’t so crowded!

  3. Hello my fellow potgardener. I only own a small citygarden but I was so encouraged by seeing foto`s of your backyard, I started right away, realising lifting the pots was a way to give them more sun. Never the less, not everything was going to be a great succes. But fortunately, I learned a lot, and summer as well as wintercarrots were fabulous. . and lots of greens too. But the fruittrees…oh my….they stay in large pots, first year there were cherries as well as prunes. The cherries were gone before I could taste (thanks to the birds ofcourse) and the prunes were very small but nice sweet. So far so good. This year I bougt a pear, he grows a little bit, but I realised it was a tree becoming very very high. What do you think…buy a mini…or may be colon …or minarette..complex stuff ..fruittrees. Or..may be…this one grow not that much because of sitting in the pot. Haha..Mark I`m happy with your site, thank you for that. And oh by the way, curcuma was not growing at all.

  4. Hi Mark, I’ve been growing fava shoots since your video a couple of years ago. This year more than ever (although still didn’t manage the weekly intention) and they’re a great way to supplement whatever else I’m growing. I tried pea shoots (once) but didn’t have so much success. This year I’ve been amazed how easy it is to grow curly parsley in pots, and have also tried vietnamese coriander – easier than normal coriander. Doesn’t taste that great on its own but is delicious in combination with other leafy greens and is fine in pots. Am currently growing some winter salad leaves and will try the microgreens you suggest. Thanks for the information you provide, it’s so useful.

  5. You probably know but just in case you don’t kiwi’s need both male and female plants to set fruit you might have to go and buy her a boyfriend if there are no others nearby.

      1. Really, Mark? I didn’t know there were self fertilising varieties. Thanks for the info. I have been wanting kiwis for some time.

  6. Hi Mark
    Thanks for another informative email and amazing photos of what you have been up to in the garden.
    We have a small garden (in australia) and don’t grow any where near your abundance of veg but grow oregano, thyme, parsley, mint, rocket in garden boxes and pots also a pation tomato in a pot.My blueberry in a pot is looking sick and the lime tree in a pot died. I have pot planted a dwarf lemon and a lemonade tree which are looking ok. I was thinking about micro greens so will be interested to read about them. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  7. Fabulous looking plants Mark! Congratulations! We always grow our tomatoes in buckets outside the back of the house. Lots of tiny ones this year – bottled them with homegrown garlic and thyme to have on pizzas and in chillies! Yum! Good hot sun in the afternoons certainly helped them to ripen. Little visitors loved helping to pick them.

  8. I tried growing runner beans in large pots this year, but they got some sort of blight (or was it leaf burn) and barely produced any beans – very disappointing. I have had great success before this year by growing them in the ground. However, my blueberries in pots did very well, even with tap water but with ericaceous compost, though the birds got the fruit before I could! Another ‘find’ has been Chilean Guava (thank you Jamie Wong). I grow these in large pots in s south facing place and they produce delicious berries, not that many but so exotically perfumed yet sharpish – yum! Can’t recall if I used ericaceous on these…

    1. Yes, I totally agree, Tania, Chilean Guavas are brilliant! I have three plants and enjoy then so much. As you say, not a huge number of berries but so delicious. I’ve found that the harvests also seem to get significantly bigger each year as the plant grows – I’ve been slowly moving them into bigger pots.

      IN my experience, runner beans do best in a big pot with plenty of watering. They also really dislike wind!

  9. Would be interested in knowing how you feed your apple tree. I am never sure how the mantra ‘feed the soil, not the plants’ applies to containers. Glad to hear your apple finally had a productive yesr. Maybe there is hope for my potted pear..

    1. Hi Ann, in containers I find you get the best results if you do both. It’s hard to provide all the nutrients plants need in a small space but just feeding the soil. So my apple tree gets a mulch of worm compost two or three times a year. I also liquid feed it with seaweed once a month or so and with tomato feed once every couple of weeks while it is fruiting.

  10. I’ve been growing a hardy kiwi in a pot too – I’m 2 years in and not even a flower! It’s grown loads this year, so I’m hoping that 2018 will be the year of the kiwi! When did yours flower?

        1. Hi Margaret, I can’t recall off the top of my head which variety I have – it may be Issa, but I am certain I was told when I bought it that it was self fertile. I’ve also been told that they can take several years to bear fruit, is that your experience?

          1. I’m in mild winter area, so fuzzy kiwis here, but I notice my favorite fruit tree catalog specifies Issa as the only self-fertile one, and also mentions that it is much more productive if pollinated by any arguta male.

            On another topic, you are brilliant to grow jerusalem artichokes in containers! I planted my first batch in a large box bed, and overnight it was completely overrun. With limited space, I’d have been better advised to corral them in a container!

  11. My neighbor has been successfully cultivating dwarf fruit trees of all kinds in 33-gallon plastic trashcans for more than twenty years. He drills 1/2 inch holes several inches apart around (an a couple of inches above) the bottom of the containers. He has grown apples, Asian pears, peaches, nectarines, plums, and figs–some have later been planted out, some given away in their containers, and others have remained in containers for years or decades. All are fruitful, though perhaps not to the same extent earth-planted trees would be. They are hand-watered, so do require attention almost daily (I am the backup for vacations, etc.), but I think of his experiment as very successfull. Though he has ground in which to plant, there is better sun and warmer temps where the containers are, so he is harvesting food and beauty that would not be possible otherwise.

  12. Grew my potatoes in containers, with fresh commercial compost, the results were ok, but should i have fed them as well, if so with what?.

    1. Hi Brian, as you found, with good quality commercial compost, you’ll get a reasonable yield of spuds without any feedy. As you guessed, you could probably improve the yield with feeding. You can buy specialist potato fertiliser which you can sprinkle in – but just liquid feeding with liquid seaweed and / or a general purpose fertiliser would make a difference. I grow my spuds in old compost, add about 20% worm compost, chicken manure pellets and a bit of blood fish and bone, liquid feed occasionally, and normally get pretty good yields.

  13. I find minarette trees (Upright cordons) really good in a confined space. I created a raised bed 2m x1m 3 years ago and filled it with 2 minarette apples, 1 blackcurrant bush, 1 redcurrant and 3 dwarf summer fruiting raspberries. The apples have produced well for the last 2 years, just taking 1 year to establish. Currants have done well too but dwarf raspberries were moved last year into wooden half barrels to contain them – they kept sending up suckers which I’m still finding. They have been replaced in raised bed by everbearing strawberries. I have shallow, alkaline soil so initially grew 2 blueberries in separate pots but couple of years ago I made a raised bed 1m x 0.5m, dug it out to the hard pan that sits underneath my soil, covered bottom with porous membrane & filled with ericaceous compost. Blueberries have done much better with this arrangement which doesn’t dry out so quickly as pots. I top up compost once a year. I’m waiting on delivery of 2 honey bushes which are supposed to be similar but can be grown in any soil so that will be interesting. Also going to plant a minarette crab apple this winter.

    1. Thanks for sharing your learning and experience, Carol. It sounds like you have a super collection of fruit. For those with enough space, raised beds can often be a good solution – they hold more nutrients and as you’ve found dry out less quickly. I grow a purple raspberry in pots, called Glen Coe – it’s absolutely superb in every respect. Honey bushes I’ve been less successful with. Plants look beautiful and the berries taste good – but so far pickings have been slim. But I’ve heard people sing high praise about them – good luck with yours, I’d be interested to learn if you get the chance.

  14. Hello Mark, and thanks for your column, which is always enjoyable and useful to read. We have got several blueberry bushes in old recycling containers (they were previously in a rather shady raised bed). Not our best crop.. have you any growing tips please?

    1. I know lots of people who grow blueberries in pots – some get wonderful yields some do not! They all seem to be doing the right things: using ericaceous (acid) compost, watering with rain water (tap water is alkaline), feeding them, and repotting them every year or two – and I’ve not really discovered the reason why some do so well and some don’t. Perhaps a reader of this site can entlighten us.

      How much sun are your blueberries getting now? I’ve grown them fine in just four hours sun, but I know most professional growers grow them in full sun for a sweeter fruit.

  15. I grow in blue boxes, recycle bins. All my veggies grow well except for the Brussels sprouts and lettuce. I think it gets to hot in my driveway. Next year I’m trying a cooler location.
    Love your site and all the pics.

  16. My mum always says that for a fruit tree to produce it has to have blossom from others nearby to be pollinated by. Perhaps when you moved into the new house there was access to this which you didn’t have before.

    1. Hi Ruth, yes, your mum is correct. The fruit tree has always produced a few apples in the past but only half a dozen or so – and I think most places I’ve lived have had other apple trees nearby, so I don’t think this was the issue (although moving repeatedly I’m sure didn’t help!). But your absolutely right that pollination is something to think about when choosing a fruit tree. Thanks for raising this. Mark

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