Even if you have no outdoor space, you can still grow a tasty, nourishing crop, albeit a mini one. Microgreens are seedlings of vegetables and herbs that are harvested (well, snipped with scissors) when their first leaves appear. They may be tiny, but their flavour is mighty. They also look pretty scattered over salads and soups.
Most veg can be grown as microgreens; simply sprinkle seeds thickly on a seed tray filled with multi-purpose compost. Lightly sieve more compost over them to keep in place (a tea strainer tapped vigorously works well), then dampen the surface with a mister. Try beetroot, red cabbage and radish for vivid colour, and herbs like coriander and basil for big flavours. Otter Farm sells a mixed pack of microleaf seeds, which includes cress, chives, amaranth, rocket, leek and radish for £2.
Aquascaping is the art of creating submerged landscapes in a tank. Fish are relegated to extras darting about among the ferns, mosses and pieces of twisted wood (known as hardscape). Enthusiasts take it to great lengths, recreating replicas of natural habitats – a riverbed in Borneo, say – which are called “biotopes”. Beginners can try a 30-litre Nano cube starter kit that includes an LED light, substrate layer and soil base (£114.99 Aquariumgardens.co.uk); plants, hardscape and fish are extra. The UK Aquatic Plant Society sells a variety of plants and kit. Aquascaping guru George Farmer has plenty of advice on his website and YouTube channel.
For a mess-free way to grow veg indoors, hydroponics – growing in water, rather than soil – could be the answer. Many hydroponic kits, basically souped-up gardening trays with LED lamps and watering systems, are available and come in compact designs that suit modern kitchens. Plants are grown in an inert growing medium (one that contains no nutrients) and nutrients are delivered to the roots via fertiliser dissolved in water. Growth is boosted by artificial light, making the plant concentrate on growing leaves, rather than root systems.
Leafy veg, such as lettuce and herbs, give the best results, although chillies and cherry tomatoes are worth a go. The Akarina 01 Starter Pack (£169.99) has an inbuilt light and timer and comes with seeds and liquid nutrients. It also looks pretty snazzy. The Bottle Farm Kit (£24.99) repurposes empty plastic bottles into mini gardens. It doesn’t have a light but comes with seeds, growing medium and suction pads to stick it on to the window.
Once spurned as suburban, rockeries have made a welcome return to contemporary gardens. Miniature versions add alpine glamour to front gardens when positioned either directly on the soil or in a good-sized planter. A few stones or rocks (sourced locally or salvaged where possible), arranged in a container, make a naturalistic setting for pretty little plants. Put your chosen vessel on bricks (to allow drainage) in a sunny spot, then fill with peat-free, sandy compost. Position the stones, then plant in between before topping off with horticultural grit. Most garden centres have an alpine section where a huge variety of dainty delights await. Many alpines will attract butterflies, bees and other insects. The Alpine Society website has a list of specialist growers.
A shady part of the front garden, below the canopy of a tree perhaps, is the ideal spot for a stumpery. You don’t need actual tree stumps (although they’re great if you can find some), a few logs of differing heights and widths will do the job. Bury them halfway into soil in an attractive grouping, firm the earth around them, top dress with wood chippings, then plant with shade-loving plants like ferns. (Fernatix has a good selection) You have now created a sanctuary for insects, reptiles and, hopefully, small mammals, including the hedgehog. As the logs settle and rot, moss and lichen and fungi will make an appearance and add to the mini forest-floor vibe.
A hive buzzing with bees is a cheerful thing and need not be restricted to a rural setting: bees in urban gardens near pollen-rich flowers thrive. Maintaining a hive does take application, time and knowledge, however, so allowing an established beekeeper to set up their hives in your front garden could be the answer. First, see if your garden is suitable. Send a photo and description to the British Beekeepers Association. The beekeeper needs to be able to visit their hive at all times (an advantage of a front garden), and you must consider the sensitivities of neighbours and pedestrians passing by. (Bees will tolerate anyone within a few metres of the hive.) Plant flowers that attract honey bees – cosmos, verbena, lavender, borage and salvias are good ones to start with, try Higgledy Garden for seeds. Then a share of the joys of bee-keeping, and the honey, will be yours.
A sunny balcony sheltered from wind can be a productive veg-growing patch. Remember to plant in a few good-sized containers, rather than lots of little pots that dry out quickly and lose nutrients: the RHS recommends a container at least 45cm deep and wide. Make sure the pots have drainage holes and fill with a good quality, peat-free, multi-purpose compost. Feed once or twice a week (a diluted tomato feed is fine), keep well-watered, then prepare to harvest.
1 Dwarf French bean “Traviata” (seeds, £2.45, chilternseeds.co.uk). Nice and upright, so perfect for containers. Produces loads of beans per plant.
2 Mentha requienii (9cm pot, £5.99, crocus.co.uk): this tiny-leaved, low-lying herb is loved by bees and has spikes of mauve flowers in autumn.
3 Rondo carrot (seeds, £1.99 per packet, Suttons.co.uk): a bite-sized carrot that thrives in containers filled with free-draining soil.
4 Tomato “Micro Cherry” (seeds, £4.95, sarahraven.com): tiny explosions of flavour that grow happily in pots in a sunny, sheltered spot.
5 Summer salad mix (€2.80, brownenvelopeseeds.com): lettuce, leaf beet, orache and quinoa in one seed packet. Also suits window boxes.
6 Lettuce “Little Leprechaun” (seeds, £1.20 per packet, tamarorganics.co.uk): small lettuce with crinkly red leaves and a firm heart.
Jettison petunias and lobelia and plant hanging baskets with edibles instead. Then you can walk a few steps from the living room and pick fruit and veg dangling tantalisingly at nose height. Try blackberry “Black Cascade”, which is thornless and trails prettily (9cm plant £9.99, dobies.co.uk); strawberry “Toscana”, which also trails and has large pink flowers pre-fruiting (five plug plants, £6.99, brooksidenursery.co.uk); or tomato “Hundreds and Thousands”, which produces masses of cascading cherry tomatoes (10 seeds, £2.55, prettywildseeds.co.uk). Herbs also thrive in hanging baskets: three in one basket – parsley, sage, thyme, for example – will be productive, attractive and a stuffing mix in waiting.
Line the basket with sodden moss or a coconut liner, fill with nutrient-rich, peat-free compost, like Melcourt’s SylvaGrow (3×15-litre bags, £20.97, crocus.co.uk), plant it and keep well-watered and fed. This is essential as hanging baskets dry out quickly and nutrients drain away during watering.
Don’t neglect the balcony walls. Think vertically and fix a trellis, then plant veg that need support and height and are pleasing to look at. Pea “Blauwshokker” has pretty pink flowers followed by striking purple pods (£2.50 for a packet of seeds, sarahraven.com), and Ushiki Kuri squash produces small orange orbs in autumn (€2.80, brownenvelopeseeds.com). Alternatively,invest in a vertical planting kit and plant lettuce, herbs and cherry tomatoes in its pockets. Wonderwall (crocus.co.uk, £56.99) has a self-watering irrigation system that keeps plants going for two weeks.
If you have any outdoor space at all, you can grow fruit trees. All you need is a good-sized container, compost and the right plants.
It is said that five trees make an orchard, but a couple is all it takes to deliver blossom in spring and abundant fruit in autumn. When choosing apples, look for self-pollinating varieties grown on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock (otterfarm.co.uk has a good selection of semi-dwarfing varieties). Dwarfing rootstocks (on to which trees are grafted) reduces the size of the plants, which are often listed as patio trees. Small varieties to look out for include Red Falstaff, Greensleeves and Saturn (chrisbowers.co.uk has all three).
To plant, soak the rootball for at least 10 minutes then dig a hole twice the size of the rootball. Plant the tree, making sure the graft (where the trunk bulges) is above the surface of the soil, backfill and water well.
You don’t need to restrict your orchard to apples. Other to try are pears and quinces, plums and damsons, peaches, nectarines and apricots, all of which have varieties grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock which grow well in containers.
Small gardens tend to be flat, with any height introduced by plants or a sapling. Thinking in three-dimensions instead, and sculpting the surface with a mound or two, adds a whole new level of interest.
Heap up a pile of topsoil or earth from the garden (you could make a small pond in the process) into a pleasing hump, then cover it with wildflower turf. This can be bought by the metre and comes ready studded with native plants, such as red clover, scabious and ox-eye daisies (£23.10 per metre, thelawnstore.co.uk). Rake the soil removing any stones, tread over the surface to firm, then roll out the turf. It’s an easy, cheat’s way to create a mini flower meadow.
You could, of course, sow wildflower seeds for a more economical route to the same effect. Visit plantlife.org.uk for instructions and seeds.
Clare Gogerty is the author of 50 Things to do in the Urban Wild (published 22 March, HarperCollins)