No garden? No problem… Here are eight clever ways to bring the outdoors into your apartment or smaller abode.
1. Indoor salads Herbs and vegetables need sunlight and warmth to thrive, usually at least six hours a day. One fine weekend, take a careful look at your available light and how it changes from sunrise to sunset, and choose and place your plants accordingly. In this sunroom a combination of direct and reflected sunshine makes it possible to use both the windows and the floor for a variety of herbs and vegetables. Soft salad leaves, which you can grow from seed and snip from seedling stage, are ideal for bright but less sunny situations. Mixed baby lettuce leaves, rocket, English spinach, oriental greens, mustard and cress are all worthwhile options.
2. The sprout garden If you really have no spare space, sprouts are the answer. Sprouting racks take up very little room – they can even be kept in a cupboard if you prefer sprouts blanched, and can provide a delicious variety of nourishment and greens to round off all kinds of dishes. Racks of three, six and more are available online from vegetablegardener.com, which also offers a wide range of seeds for sprouting, as do most health stores.
3. Fragrance and flavour Woody aromatic herbs such as thyme, lemon thyme, oregano and savory will grow happily on a sunny windowsill or even against a bright wall that reflects light and warmth, like this one. Basil must have sun and heat to achieve maximum flavour, but soft-leaved herbs like mint, parsley, coriander, chervil and lovage can get by in cooler situations with less sun.
4. Balcony boxes A deck or balcony offers loads of possibilities, especially if it’s north- or east-facing and not too windy. (South-facing is usually too cold and the western sun often too fierce.) Here a few large, deep pots or boxes can provide you with a gratifying supply of herbs and salads. Good ones for sunny aspects: Swiss chard, tomatoes (cherry tomatoes are the most rewarding), sweet peppers, chillies, summer basil, chives, fennel and woody herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. Buy plants from nurseries for quick results, or, if you’re in Cape Town, call Urban Harvest (021-790-0217). They supply and deliver boxes, all ready-planted, to your balcony.
5. Pot plants At floor level you need to upscale with deep pots. A mix of tall, bushy and cascading plants works well. Classic houseplants such as Ficus, Yucca, Cissus and Chlorophytum varieties will do the trick, but if you have enough sun, a mix of herbs and ornamentals could be more fun. Add a climbing frame for a passionflower or a cherry tomato, teamed with chillies, chives, parsley and one or two super-fragrant herbs – mint, pineapple sage, lemon balm or rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), a fabulous perfume to have indoors.
6. Plant wall Living walls, such as those created by French botanist Patrick Blanc, have begun to green cities worldwide with lush curtains of foliage, often planted in striking patterns. In these large-scale projects the plants grow in fibrous panels that are irrigated automatically. Plants grow in two-litre cool drink bottles, cut down and slotted at an angle into a metal frame, which can be made to any size or shape you wish (also available from Urban Harvest). This is a great greening option when space is at a premium. Choose a sheltered, sunny wall and plants that don’t require much water; a mix of drought-resistant groundcovers and trailing succulents is ideal.
7. Garden in a glass For a tumbling cascade of almost instant and effortless green, simply place a sweet potato in a glass with its base just touching the water – a great idea for kids to try, too.
8. Clear containers Create a mini spring garden at a sunny window with spring bulbs and annuals – indigenous or cottage classics – one kind of plant per pot. On a windowsill, containers all the same shape and size work best and will unite a variety of plants. Conditions can swing from scorching heat to extreme cold, so choose your plants with care and don’t let them touch the glass. Line up a graphic collection of succulents – dwarf aloes or cacti for sun, haworthias or gasterias for a cooler aspect. Shade-loving Streptocarpus (Cape primrose) will also make a gorgeous display in a cool corner.
A healthy, well-draining organic soil mix will mean strong growth, but container plants also need regular feeding. Use earthworm tea or slow-release organic granules. Follow the instructions – overfeeding results in sappy growth, a magnet for pests. Nip those first mealy bugs, white flies or red spider mites in the bud with simple home remedies or organic sprays.
Overwatering kills more pot plants than drought does. A steady supply of water is important, especially for leaf and fruiting vegetables, but keep the soil just damp, not wet. Drip trays or containers with inner perforated liners are essential for tidy watering.
Most container plants have a limited lifespan. If they start to look tired, send them to the city compost heap and start again. THE INSTANT VEGETABLE GARDEN Many of the containers and plants in these photographs were supplied by Ben Getz of Urban Harvest, who will check out your potential growing space, select or make containers to fit, and deliver them ready-planted with suitable herbs or vegetables to your door. He uses only organic soil mix and worm casts, and supplies earthworm tea for feeding. Urban Harvest will also install and maintain kitchen gardens of any size from 10m2 to 100m2, the perfect way to start growing your own. It has also installed highly successful food gardens at a number of community projects in the Cape. Urban Harvest, 021-790-0217, urbanharvest.co.za. This article was originally featured in the March 2011 issue of House and Leisure.