The email jumped out at me from the hundred or so that slide into my inbox overnight: "How to I grow a Garden in Pots?"
It didn't literally jump, of course; I hadn't my first coffee of the day, but I wasn't hallucinating. But it did stand out from "wealthy widow leaves you $29 million for orphanages" and "our family of 25 is visiting from Transylvania and wants to see a wombat. May we have lunch at your place Friday?"
The answer to having an indoor potted paradise is simple. Plants need a container, food, water, drainage and sunlight, of various kinds and amounts. Put these together, and you've got a garden. Tend each plant according to its needs.
Basically anything can be grown in a pot, especially now there are so many miniature fruit tree varieties, though you don't necessarily need dwarf ones for success. A friend bonsaied a 1.5 metre orange tree in a 90cm patio pot for 24 years. It even fruited. He then left his mum to mind it while he went to Europe for a year. She proudly showed him how his poor stunted rootbound tree was now three metres high in her garden, and his little pot-bellied fig was even bigger...
My potted kentia palms are as tall as I am, and their roots must occupy almost their entire pot. They need feeding every month or so (usually coffee grounds) and weekly watering to look their best. The less room your plant has, the more tucker and more regular watering it will need. As for the kind of tucker and amount of sun - every plant had its own needs. Study how each one will thrive.
Growing plants in pots is simple. Books on potted gardens are basically encyclopaedias of exterior decorating: what to grow in an old tea pot (watercress or mint as there's no drainage unless you hang it spout down) or how to paint big empty cans to become elegant plant pots. (Punch holes in base. Use a paint that sticks to metal. Add patterns if you wish. Acquire potting mix and plant.)
You are really only bound by the amount of sunlight and space. You can buy "grow lamps", but investigate them first, as some are designed for low-growing plants and may not be suitable for the miniature red banana tree you'd like to grow in the bathroom.
"Green walls" are fashionable, but make sure the wall will take not just the weight of soil and plants and structure, but also the weight of water - roughly 1kg of water for every saturated litre of soil. There have been some sad and messy accidents with collapsing balconies, as well as drainage problems from apartments on the lower floors whose inhabitants have objected to brown trickles of plant soil and fertiliser trickling through their ceiling, especially the smellier hen-manure based kinds.
But it is amazing how much room you can find. Hang hanging baskets at different heights from the eaves or (sturdy) window rods. Place narrow tables or shelves by sunny windows. Use mirrors to move the light from the window to the plant. Beware: in rare circumstances mirror-focussed light can start a fire, or scorch your plant's leaves. Check quite how hot the spot is getting before you leave the mirror in place - and remember the earth moves, and so the angle of sunlight will move too, and you'll need to accommodate it.
Ask a men's shed to design you a hanging tree trunk to hang from the ceiling with "branches" from which you can hang many small or a few large pots or baskets. Once again, make sure the ceiling and branches withstand the weight. Buy a "plant tepee" that holds a triangle of plants that you can turn so each gets a day's worth of sunlight every three days.
Nail pots to door jambs or consider treating yourself to a glasshouse on the roof, or turn your largest window into a glasshouse. Buy a "potato bag" for an instant garden of home grown spuds or sweet potatoes. Accept you lack of enough light and go for mushrooms in the linen cupboard, one or two of the dozens of kinds now commercially available.
You too can grow almost every kind of vegetable fruit, including bananas and dwarf or bonsaied avocadoes in pots, though you may have to do the pollinating with a small paint brush if there are no birds, beds, wasps, micro bats and other pollinators indoors. A dwarf mango was even introduced a year ago, and the dwarf red bananas are a delight. My dwarf macadamia has fruit on it already at about 1.5 metres high, as has the red finger lime, at only 90cm high. Think of the ornamental hanging gardens pottery strawberry pots, or grape or kiwi vines dangling over the railings, though don't try this with chokoes or melons or pumpkins, unless you live on the ground floor, or your neighbours may be in danger of falling fruit.
Mostly, focus on the kind of feeding and water and amount of warmth that particular plant needs. A one-bedroom apartment can become quite a nice small farm, if you don't mind passionfruit obscuring the TV screen. Choose the plants you love best; give them what they love best, and have enormous fun working out exactly how much greenery, fruit, flowers, herbs and spices you can fit in even the smallest home.
MORE JACKIE FRENCH:
This week I am:
- Rejoicing at the first crop of red finger limes! They are fatter than the green ones, and their skins are a deep purple green red. I'll wait a week to pick them;
- Closely observing the growth of our newly emerging bunch of bananas. They may even ripen and be truly sweet instead of floury this year
- Wishing roos and wallabies weren't quite so fussy and ate the weeds in our lawn, not just the grass. There may not be grass to mow yet, but there are a lot of weed seed heads looking messy;
- Guzzling the first raspberry crop, all three raspberries;
- Carefully encouraging the emerging cucumbers, already about the size of my finger nail, with lavish food, and watering only their roots, not the leaves;
- Waiting for the basil to have "snappable" stems, which means it can be harvested without setting back its growth.
- Muttering at the tomatoes who have gone on strike again - as soon as I said the fruit were getting bigger, they stopped growing. Tomatoes like to keep life interesting.