Pots and plans

Aaron Bertelsen has all the space in the world to garden. He has lengthy rows of heavy clay soil enriched by more than a century of cultivation, a large fruit cage, an orchard and three towering piles of compost that, come summer, form the perfect bed for pumpkins, squashes and gourds. In winter he has fleece-covered tunnels for carrots and woven-netting cages for brassicas. He has the use of a greenhouse and cold frames.

Terracotta pots teeming with produce in the Great Dixter courtyard.

Terracotta pots teeming with produce in the Great Dixter courtyard.Credit:Andrew Montgomery

You might think that Bertelsen, who has been the vegetable gardener and cook at Great Dixter in England for almost 15 years, might leave it at that. But no, he has also taken to keeping plants in pots in a paved, relatively confined courtyard just outside the kitchen door.

He started with tulips, moved onto herbs and then decided to "raise the stakes" with Australian butter beans. This container-strewn space that measures just a few metres square has become a "thriving kitchen garden in its own right" and Bertelsen has now written a book on growing small.

Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice & Recipes from Great Dixter makes pertinent reading for those of us currently bunkering down with windowsills, balconies and courtyards for gardens. Tending plants in such contained – and close – quarters is not only about cultivating food to eat but also about creating something nice to look at.

Pots outside the Great Dixter kitchen.

Pots outside the Great Dixter kitchen.Credit:Andrew Montgomery

While Bertelsen has a lovely, weathered, brick-lined space abutting a centuries-old manor house to play with, he does offer guidance for those of us with more inhospitable sites. He is not averse to apple trees in wheelie bins and herbs in suspended plastic bottles.

He discusses the merits of different containers, potting mixes and plant supports, and provides advice on care for a wide range of herbs, trees and other edibles. Even though nurseries are closed to the public under lockdown restrictions, many are offering mail-order and "click and collect" services making it possible to put at least some of this advice into action.

Bertelsen suggests that those new to gardening start small, such as with salad leaves and herbs. The easiest way is to buy seedlings that can be popped out and planted straight into pots. Mixing it up – lettuces with coriander and dill, say – can add interest and make the most of limited space.

But after that he suggests growing what you love to eat and thinking "in terms of quality rather than quantity".

Aaron Bertelsen harvesting his produce. 'Use it or lose it,' is his message.

Aaron Bertelsen harvesting his produce. 'Use it or lose it,' is his message.Credit:Andrew Montgomery

Look at your conditions, such as how much sun you get and how much wind. While many fruit and vegetables need at least six hours of sunlight a day, some plants will get by with less. Lettuce, silverbeet and spinach will grow in partial shade and, for those with exposed sites, rosemary and thyme will stand up to a good breeze. Getting plant placement right is often a matter of trial and error and one of the advantages of growing in containers is that you can move plants around.

Watering might not be front-of-mind for many of us at this time of year but plants in containers will always be more vulnerable to drying out than plants in the ground. How often you need to irrigate will depend on the size and type of container, the soil mix and the crop, as well as the weather.

While Bertelsen has a penchant for terracotta, it can be heavy and, particularly relevant in our hot, dry summers, dries out quickly. Bertelsen suggests filling the bottom part of any heavy pots with lightweight perlite rather than potting mix, and using relatively water-retentive plastic containers but hiding them inside more aesthetically pleasing ones.

He is also a "total convert" to fabric growing bags that can be big enough to work as portable raised beds and then folded up and stored when not in use. One of the crops Bertelsen grows in bags is potatoes, which can be planted in Victoria now. He uses knee-high sacks that he half-fills with a potting mix before pushing in the seed potatoes (leaving "a good handspan-and-a-bit" of space in between them). As they grow, he adds more potting mix on top, leaving a small amount of foliage exposed each time and, when they are ready to harvest, he simply upends the lot.

While spring is peak seed-sowing time, there are plenty that can currently be sown outdoors, including lettuces, radishes, cauliflowers and spring onions. Given a warm and sunny enough spot you can also get a head start by sowing the seeds of such heat lovers as tomatoes and capsicums.

Eggplants are both an edible and ornamental option for containers.

Eggplants are both an edible and ornamental option for containers.Credit:Andrew Montgomery

Bertelsen espouses the importance of weekly feeding (liquid seaweed is his preference) and, when it comes to trees and shrubs, regular repotting – every couple of years of so – even into the same container, to replenish soil.

As with all gardening there is also weeding, mulching, pruning and training to think about. "With a little effort and imagination," Bertelsen says, "even the tiniest space can become a place of wonder."

Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice & Recipes from Great Dixter, Phaidon, $49.95

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