Balcony gardening – what I have learnt

When I last wrote about my balcony gardening, I promised an update. Here it is, a little late. The inaugural Fort Picklecombe potato growing competition was judged on Sunday – two neutral judges, several different classes, and a very precise weighing machine. These were ours:

They weighed about 620 g, and we came second! Logically enough, we were also second in the largest potato class, and won a bottle of wine. We will be eating them tonight. Except for the fun of the competition though, I won’t be growing any more potatoes. They are greedy for space, water and fertiliser, and the retail value is about 40 pence…though the bottle of wine is worth rather more.

Another waste of space, time and money were my broad beans. These are my favourite vegetable and I was looking forward to at least a starter size helping of beans from my dozens of pods. I picked them all a couple of weeks ago and almost all the pods were empty. I ended up with about eight beans. I am of course blaming B&Q’s cheap seeds rather than my gardening, and have bought some Aquadulce to see if I can repeat the trick which worked every year in Greece, planting in the autumn and eating in April or May.

Radishes were not a great success either. We had a handful, but they took up a lot of space and despite being sown in quite a deep box, mostly didn’t develop well. Nor were the French beans, also from B&Q. Only one germinated, so there won’t be a massive crop whatever happens!

Next year I will focus on herbs, which have been a roaring success! We have basil and parsley, chives, mint, oregano and coriander:

The mint has been doing so well that it is in a giant pot and this morning I decided to give it a haircut and turn it into mint sauce.

It loses its beautiful fresh greenness but should last us for months. I found a really simple recipe – 100g sugar, 200g wine vinegar and a sterilised jar full of chopped mint (about 75g), well washed and dried. Make the sugar and vinegar into a syrup, bring to the boil, pour into jar. In a similar mode my sister made a fantastically delicious herb dressing the other week, and I’ve made a quantity of that too. Take 50g of soft herbs*, 1.5 tbsp capers, 0.5tsp Dijon mustard, juice of 1 lemon, 2 cloves of garlic, 7tbsp olive oil. Whizz together and enjoy. Like pesto, it keeps in the fridge well as long as it’s got oil to cover. *I used parsley, basil, chives and a little mint. Would have added oregano but it’s still struggling to establish itself.

A success which I won’t repeat was courgettes. We must have had at least twenty from the plant before I got fed up with it and stuffed it into the composter, but I had never properly observed its growth habit, and once I realised that it was a triffid which would cover the entire balcony with its enormous but slightly poxy leaves, shading everything else, it had to go. Other reasons are the propensity of Riverford to shower its customers with courgettes, and the fact that I have to go to absurd lengths to conceal them in cooking, like grating them into almost anything. Mine were fine – small and very fresh, and I was happy to eat them all myself, but not combined with a couple of monsters from my veg box!

Chard has also been a success. Like courgettes, it was not the most sensible choice as it’s another of so many vegetables that I need to sneak into my cooking! But it grows quickly and tastes very good if it’s fresh.

I’ve had variable success with other salads. The lettuces were slow to grow but delicious, though I ran out of space for a second sowing. I may try another when I get a suitable container. Rocket is a stand out success and I have just sown another packet. Interestingly, baby mixed leaves (I can recommend Johnson’s Suffolk Punch) also work brilliantly. Whether you can go back for more as many times as you can for rocket I have yet to find out.

We had the first cut for lunch yesterday and they were delicious. So yes to (some) salads and herbs. By the way, if any-one reading this has successfully grown dill, I should love to know how. Most of my successful herbs came from supermarket plants, but I can’t get dill in that form, at least not from my current online grocer. It’s odd that the plants are cheap compared with a packet of seeds, and they work so much better. Yes, I did try both! All the survivors are from plants.

The jury’s out on tomatoes. You can get such delicious tomatoes both from Riverford and Waitrose that I’m not sure they’re worth the fiddle faddle. Expensive to buy as plants, slow to raise from seed, needing specialist fertiliser – presumably not the brown gunge from the composter, of which more later – I’m just not sure. They do taste lovely though!

The other undisputed success has been chillies. The mild green chilli plant has produced several dozen already, which are a good size and flavour. I took a large bag of them to Theodora a couple of weeks ago, but here are a few I’ve just picked.

The tiny red ones are very hot and also very prolific. I think I will be drying lots of these, and possibly even grinding them. Some of them dry on the plant and they are good to throw whole into sauces or soups.

I did mention the composter, and meant to write more about it. But this has grown to be nearly as long as some of Victor’s blogs, and the composter is not photogenic. But I am so pleased to have it, and hope I won’t need to buy much compost next year. It needs care with its feeding, but the stuff seems to be rotting down fast, and we have markedly less in our rubbish bin as a result, to say nothing of the idea that I will get free compost (perhaps). That’s if you don’t count the initial outlay, of course. And one more thing I’ve learnt – growbags are not for me. They aren’t deep enough, they’re awkward to water, they’re basically uglier than pots. Pots, even plastic ones, work so much better.

2 thoughts on “Balcony gardening – what I have learnt

  1. What a soothing blog in the middle of all the carnage. I think you should definitely plant things Victor eats next year (although that does rather limit you)….


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