It’s official: gardening is the new punk rock. You don’t need to be Charlie Dimmock to do it, nor do you need acres of land. With a little bit of conscientiousness and creativity, ‘gardening’ can be for the indoors too. But whether you’ve got a garden proper, a teeny tiny paved patio area or a top floor flat, Running In Heels brings you its tips – from growing your own food to planting pretty flowers – on how you can get started with a very rewarding pastime…
Before You Begin
Because you wouldn’t dream of painting a ceiling wearing your best frock, or making pasta sauce with rotten tomatoes, here are a few tips to consider before you start to wield your trowel:
● Your hands can take a bit of a pasting when gardening, so ensure you’re stocked up with hand cream. Invest in a pair of gardening gloves to keep them unscathed and better still, apply a layer of moisturiser to them before slipping on gloves: the heat will help absorb it, kind of like an intensive conditioning session. If you don’t have gloves but dislike getting dirt under your nails, scrape them across a bar of dry soap. The soap-flakes underneath your fingernails will prevent difficult to remove soil getting trapped. Simply scrub away with warm water and a nail brush afterwards.
● In exactly the same way as the better quality food you eat, the more health benefits you will reap, so to plants. Try and buy good quality earth, especially for propagating seeds and young plants. If it’s practical for you, make your own compost (see Eco At Home in March’s issue). You’ll need to wait about a year before you have any hummus yield, but at least you can guarantee there will be no chemical additives in your mulch.
● Try and avoid shop-bought plant food, unless you can afford the organic kind. You can make your own brilliant, nitrogen laden plant food by steeping stinging nettles in water (enough so that they’re just covered) for around a week. This, ladies and gents, is not just gardening: it’s permaculture!
● Buy a few propagation trays or make your own out of old ice cream tubs: the are normally shallow trays with irrigation perforations punched in their bottoms, which should be filled with a couple of inches of good quality earth to bring seeds on.
● Instead of pulling the plug on your bath or dishwater (providing you haven’t used an army of products in it), use grey water to water your plants. In hotter months, never water your plants during the day. When hot sunshine hits moisture, it heats it up, which can literally boil vegetation’s roots. Remember the Early Evening Rule: dusk is the best time of day to hydrate thirsty plants.
● Talking to your plants is not a sign of madness. Plants need carbon dioxide in exactly the same way we need oxygen. Have a chat, man. Plants love sunshine and well lit areas, but frazzle if placed in the scorching high noon of the summer sun. Just like you.
● Again, just like you, keeping your plants hydrated is essential but over-watering them is equally as bad. You can gauge whether your plants need watering by feeling the soil: if it’s entirely moist, no need to water; if you can feel specks of dryness, give it a drink. A shower at dusk once a day should be plenty.
And so, trugs at the ready…
Getting Started with Herbs
Where flowers meet food, herbs are a good place to start. They are brilliant both in and out of doors. The same principles apply both on the outside and inside, with the exception of more exotic varieties, such as basil and coriander, which prefer warmer environments. So indoors only for the super aromatic kinds!
For a more instant approach, purchase yourself a selection of ready-potted living herbs from your local supermarket (organic is always, always best). Use the leaves as normal in your cooking, but once all the green foliage has gone, retain the stems and root system. Turn out the plant from its pot and divide the root system into four smaller clods. Plant as follows…
Indoors: A window box or a few medium-size terracotta pots on your kitchen window sill are perfect for growing herbs in. Fill the box or pots with earth leaving about an inch to spare from the lip. Using your index and middle fingers, bore holes about three inches deep, or as deep as required. Pop your divvied clods into a hole each and fill in with the spare earth. Press the earth around the stems semi-firmly so as not to choke your shoots. Water lightly and be patient.
Outdoors: Precisely the same method as above applies for planting your herbs, only use raised beds (a wooden orange crate lined with a polythene bin liner is great) or pop straight into a ready-made bed. Outside, herbs such as thyme and rosemary are brilliant as they’re sturdy.
Chives are very self-sufficient. Plant as above but don’t water too often: they prefer dry with the occasional swig of water. For all herbs, keep the soil moistened, but be very wary of over-watering. In fact, herbs prefer dryer, rockier soil, but you can tell if you need to water your herbs as they wilt and perk up quickly.
Be patient! In going with the root system method, it may take several weeks before you see any leaves. Stick with it and give Jamie Oliver a run for his money.
Give it a whirl: parsley, basil, coriander, oregano, rosemary, thyme, mint and dill.
The Vegetable Market
People are often intimidated by the idea of growing food, but it’s actually really quite easy. And yes, some vegetables can be grown indoors too. If you have the time to obtain pre-propagated plantlets, do so (farmer’s markets are great for this). If not, save the seeds from bell and chili peppers; squash and pumpkin; and tomatoes next time you’re cooking.
These probably fare better brought on indoors anyway, as young vines can be delicate. If you don’t have outside space to transfer young tomato shoots, worry not: they grow beautifully inside, providing you’re cool with having a large-ish pot stood against a sunny wall to do it. Cherry tomatoes are the best fruit to start with.
In a propagation tray, make two length-ways gullies about a centimetre deep with your index finger. Take about four over-ripe (but not mouldy) cherry tomatoes and literally squeeze the pips into the gullies. Cover lightly with earth and water gently. Place the tray in a warm, well lit area inside and sit back for a couple of weeks until you have shoots about two inches high.
Food for Thought: If you have more shoots than space for adult vines, pot up into small pots and bestow upon willing green fingered friends and family.
Gently pull up the shoots from their tray and transfer into bigger pots or an outdoor bed, preferably against a wall. Repeat the planting process in the bigger vessel and do nothing but water your plants and watch them grow.
When the infant vines reach about a foot in height, pop three bamboo canes per vine into the earth and tie at the top to make a wigwam shape. As the vines grow and become too heavy to stand up straight, train them to climb up the bamboo by tying them gently to the canes with string. Repeat this process each time the top of the vine drops its head under its own weight. After about two months, voilà: delicious, juicy cherry tomatoes will be yours to devour as desired.
Exactly the same propagation and transfer process applies to bell peppers as tomatoes. However, they tend not to be as fast growing as tomatoes, so a little more patience and nurturing is required. The plants will develop little flowers from which the centre, once the flower has wilted, tiny little peppers will grow.
Food for Thought: When the pepper plant yields fruit, its peppers will be green. These are perfectly dandy to pick and eat once the fruit is just smaller than your palm, although if left on the plant, they will continue to enlarge and turn yellow to orange to red – very much like you developing a tan. Whatever the colour, they are ready for harvesting, although the redder they are, the more vitamin C they contain. Yummers!
Ditto bell peppers, only smaller of course. Thus, they make excellent indoor-grown food!
Squash and Pumpkin
These babies are only practical for the outdoors, as they need crawling space to grow. They tend to grow close to the ground as opposed to growing upwards, although in some cases plants can be trained to climb.
Propagate as above and transfer to an outdoor bed with a good whack of sprawling room. A tillered plot within a grassy patch is perfect. Water as required and sit out the summer watching the leaves and tendrils grow. Squash and pumpkin are best harvested in late September/early October, although you can leave them to swell to Olympic sizes before they begin to rot, if you so wish. Ornamental gourds – which you can’t eat – are exactly the same, and perfect for quirky ornaments if hollowed out and dried in an airing cupboard. Good luck in the harvest festival competition!
Realistically, courgettes are better grown outside because of their potential sizes. It’s by far easier to buy yourself several infant courgette plants instead of coaxing them on from seed. Around late May and early June, scour your local farmer’s market for them. One or two plants will be enough to yield a fair few courgettes once they’re mature, so planting them in a raised bed around a cubic foot in volume is hunky dory.
Providing you keep your eye on how much moisture they receive, they’re relatively happy being left to their own devices. They don’t grow especially tall but rather their leaves – which are fairly large and a bit bristly – remain neat and strong. The plants will spew forth yellow flowers, which look a little like Datura flowers, through which your vegetables will appear, very much like peppers.
Courgettes can be picked and eaten when fairly small (around the length of your middle finger) or if left on the plant, they will swell quite rapidly. If left unpicked, they will turn into marrows, which are perfectly good for eating too. However, the bigger they get the less succulent and sweet they taste.
Once you’re feeling confident or a little more adventurous, why not try growing your own garlic? All you need is a normal shop-bought bulb of garlic (organic is always best, though) from which you put aside several cloves: three will do. Outside is the best place to plant them as they love the sun and don’t like soil that’s too waterlogged. Poke clove size holes in the soil around 2.5cm deep and insert your cloves.
It’s said that planting garlic cloves on the shortest day of the year is best – where this may well be folklore, it’s always nice to follow tradition! Be careful not to over-water your garlic patch, but rather feed it a few times a week with a light shower from a watering can or suchlike. Shoots will appear and continue to grow and once the leaves have browned and died away, dig the plants up: you should have yourself three brand new, healthy and organic bulbs of garlic.
Ensure that you don’t harvest your crop too soon or too late: the bulbs will either be too small and touch or have burst and split respectively. Enjoy!
Who doesn’t like flowers, huh? If you’re new to gardening, try the following from seed: buying packets of seeds for flowers is cheap as chips, and with these suggestions, you don’t need to do much except sow, water and pull up any loose weeds that settle nearby.
‘Annuals’ are the easiest to plant as they don’t require much attention and are the most rewarding flower-wise. However, they only live for one year. Repeat the sowing process the following year for even more of the good flowery stuff.
When they flower, these beauties smell like heaven. They fare best outdoors, although in a well lit area in a large pot indoors, they do just as well. Get yourself a packet of sweet pea seeds (they look a little like peppercorns) and scatter them in your designated plot in April. You don’t need to be precious about setting each seed apart or poking holes for them to take in, although don’t sow the seeds too densely: they’re climbers and abundant by nature. Cover the sown seeds lightly with soil.
The seeds will sprout pretty quickly. Train adolescent tendrils either up bamboo canes or a trellis about a metre in height. By July, you will have yourself a myriad of pastel coloured flowers. Pick handfuls of the flowers for your mum (because they’re annuals, they will flower furiously regardless of how many you pick) or for your kitchen table and enjoy. Towards the end of the summer, pinch off the little pods that appear – these look just like, yes, pea pods. Open up each pod and collect and save the seeds contained within for next year’s display.
These are truly awesome, azure blue plants which are edible as well as beautiful. However, they’re really only practical for the outdoors because of their haphazard growth. Seeds can be sown in the winter (colder weather toughens them up!) but sowing in spring will give you an explosion of summer flowers to enjoy also.
Choose a plot preferably with other shrubs growing in it. Because the cornflower’s stem is quite thin – it reaches around ten inches in height – it appreciates stilt-like support from other more robust plants. Loosen the soil and scatter seeds over the area. Cover lightly with soil, pat down gently and water. Keep the surrounding soil moist as the seedlings and plants continue to grow.
Once flowered, these plants are breathtaking to keep in the ground or pick as part of a rustic bouquet. You can garnish summer salads with the flower heads or, for the more cosmopolitan amongst you, why not pop a couple of the flower heads in a bottle of vodka to steep? The pigment from the flowers will tinge the vodka blue and add a peppery nip to the taste.
Newsflash: As annuals, your flowers will only survive one season, although they’re experts at scattering their own seeds (which will appear in small pods once the flowers have started to die off). You can either leave them to their own re-germination or collect the pods and seeds to sow elsewhere next year.
These are great for those of you who don’t have an outdoor space. Very much like primroses in appearance, primulas are vivid multi-coloured flowers which remain compact in size: ideal for your living room window sill.
It’s best to buy ready-grown plants from a garden centre or DIY shop (they’re very readily available). For aesthetic purposes, re-pot the pants into terracotta pots. Ensure you have as many plant pot dishes as you need to stand each pot in as primulas need to be kept moist. Apart from watering them, you don’t need to do anything but enjoy your technicolour wonders until they die off naturally.
If you fancy spicing up your house with a Mediterranean twist, geraniums are the flower for you. There are a few varieties: zonal, ivy and scented. The flowering zonal is best known. Like primulas, they make excellent houseplants and flourish outdoors too, so an exterior window box or place in a bed is brilliant too.
Buy a few young plants and pop into the soil and water often. They’re hardy and can stand much hotter weather, providing they’re hydrated well, and don’t need any special attention. The scented variety, with its sublime aroma when the plant is rustled or its leaves are crushed, deter most pests who tend to dislike highly aromatic plants. The scented geranium especially grows steadily but likes pruning to keep its foliage from ‘bolting’ (getting too stringy and tall).
Forget orchids. Although elegant and freely available to buy ready potted, orchids are expensive and require special attention.
Try scattering nasturtium and marigold seeds in the same way as sweet peas and cornflowers too. Nasturtiums are also edible and marigolds are great ‘guard dogs’ when growing other plants or vegetables, especially carrots.
When you’re feeling a little more adventurous, buy some lily bulbs. Tiger lilies are pretty tough and can be planted randomly in a garden without especial preparation, or brought on in a large pot inside.