Archive for May, 2011

Dave Hamilton, author of Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost)

Dave Hamilton photo: JP Hedge Photography

I had the pleasure of meeting Dave Hamilton yesterday in Totnes, at the launch of his new book Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost).  Dave co-founded the website selfsufficientish.com and he grows and forages for most of his own food.

Here’s his advice on container growing:

Container growing has become more popular in recent years and seed companies have cottoned on to this by selling ‘patio’ varieties of our favourite vegetables. Some of these, such as the patio salads, can be a bit of a false economy, as most plants only grow to the size they are allowed to. I’ve found that conventional varieties of salads actually do better in containers than specific container seed, usually for half the price.

Tomatoes spilling from a hanging basket

A hanging basket doesn't just have to be for flowers

There are exceptions to this rule, and growing compact dwarf beans as opposed to climbing French beans makes perfect sense if space is limited. Consider each seed on its own merits and go for specialist ‘container’ varieties only if they really do look like they are worth the money.


Large ‘tonne’ or ‘dumpy’ bags (builder’s bags) make perfect planters for potatoes and are near-identical to bags on sale doing exactly the same job! Alternatively, a large plant pot will work just as well. Plant three to four seed potatoes in each dumpy bag or pot and cover with soil. As the plant grows, cover the foliage with soil, leaving some of the leaves to poke out from the surface. Keep repeating this step as the potatoes grow until the bag is full. To harvest, roll the bag down.

What type of container?

The choice of container is really limited only by what you can find. They need to be big enough to accommodate the plant and its roots, so a 5-litre (1-gallon) tub is never going to be big enough for a courgette plant but a chilli plant will be perfectly at home in one.

Suitable containers and where to get them

Suitable containers and where to get them

Tired advice

For some time tyres have been recommended by some to grow potatoes in, but this is no longer advised, as there are issues with toxic compounds leaching from the tyres into your potatoes.

A sack can make an attractive container for plants

Make the most of limited space by growing in a sack

Plants in a sack

The rooftops of urban Kenya show signs of the innovation of the gardenless occupants. In order to have a supply of fresh vegetables, many of the women of Nairobi have taken to growing much of their daily vegetables in hessian sacks. The sacks are filled with earth and seedlings are slotted in through holes cut into the sack. If you wish to try this method on your patio or on a flat rooftop, a mix of leaf mould, compost and topsoil is an ideal growing medium, with additional nutrition supplied from liquid feeds. Cabbages naturally grow on cliff tops and cliff faces and are perfectly adapted to growing this way; other suitable plants could include salad greens, strawberries and tomatoes.

Eden Project

The Eden Project

Tony Kendle, Foundation Director, Eden Project gives his advice on soils for pots and containers

Plants in pots have to get all of their water and nutrient needs from soil that is tens or even hundreds of times smaller in volume than their roots would reach if planted out. The containers have to be watered on such a regular basis that it puts the structure of the soil under great pressure and this structure can start to break down. A normal soil maintains a healthy structure thanks to natural activity such as worms burrowing, which isn’t as effective in containers. All of this means that for best results you have to be careful what soils to use – any old stuff won’t do.

To get the best yields you need container soils with the right pH, the right fertility and the right structure. But pH and nutrition can be fixed if you need to, while structure is something you need to get right at the beginning.

Clay-rich soils can be very fertile in the garden but they rely on worm channels and the formation of clods and airways to stay healthy. In containers this structure collapses and they can become airless and toxic.

Sandy soils have a totally different structure; they are more uniform and not dependent on clods and pores. These work best in containers.

You can make heavy soils more sandy but you need lots of sand to do it – maybe twice the volume of the clay. If you scrounge sand to do this you have to rinse it thoroughly before using it, in case it’s coated in lime or salt or something else the roots won’t like.

Organic matter is great to add to pots because it helps hold water and nutrients. But not all compost is the same. Compost made from soft material such as leaves will break down quickly and before you know it the pot will be half empty – this is a useful material for containers for annuals or short-lived crops. For perennials you need a proportion of tougher material such as composted bark and twigs. This can last for years but won’t release many nutrients, so will need more feeding.

Containers don’t need drainage layers such as broken pots at the bottom. You will never find these in the millions of plants grown in pots in commercial nurseries. But it is crucial that they drain well or the root zone will become stagnant and the roots will die. Roughly speaking, soils hold water in micropores and air in the larger pores that drain freely. Think of a bathroom sponge – when you lift it out of the water the big holes drain quickly, but the whole thing remains damp. But do the sponge test for real and look more carefully. You will see a saturated layer at the bottom that doesn’t drain. This is where water is held even in large pores, by capillary action.

What you will find is that, whatever way up you hold the sponge, this layer is the same depth. This is how it works in containers too. The soils will have a layer of a few centimetres at the bottom that doesn’t drain well and will risk being stagnant. This means that the shape of pots really matters – wide shallow pots hold more water and drain less well than tall narrow pots of the same volume. Matching the right pots, the right soils and the right plants gets the best results, but it matters most for plants that will be in the pot for a long time and where good rooting is needed.

Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost) by Dave Hamilton

Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost)

Watch Dave Hamilton describe the perfect book launch audience here

Dave Hamilton’s Grow Your Food for Free (well, almost) is available from Green Books at £14.95.


Read Full Post »

“For many would-be novelists, finding ideas isn’t the problem – the hard part is turning them into a full-length novel of publishable quality.” – Caroline Taggart

All the tools you need for writing and publishing a successful novel

The Novel-Writer's Toolkit, edited by Caroline Taggart

The Novel-Writer’s Toolkit is unique among guides for creative writers, as it combines clear practical advice and insider information on fiction-writing skills from successful authors and publishing professionals, with comprehensive listings of who to contact at publishers, professional organizations, courses and competitions.
The result is the next-best thing to a direct line to many of the top names and most useful contacts in publishing – a truly invaluable resource for both would-be and practising novel writers.

Advice on the Realities of Being a Novelist, Outlining and Plotting, Creating your Characters, Setting, Dialogue, Telling the Story, Structure and Style, The Final Edit
Insider’s Information from authors including Simon Brett, Sophie Hannah and Caroline Taggart, and publishing experts such as Penelope Hoare, Jane Friedman and Jonathan Pegg. Includes tips on submitting proposals, negotiating contracts, sales and marketing, ebooks, legal issues and the publishing process.
Directory including UK & Irish Book Publishers, Agencies & Consultancies, Literary Consultants & Editorial Services, Useful Organizations, Online Resources, Bursaries, Fellowships & Grants, Writing & Publishing Courses, Competitions & Prizes, and Festivals & Conferences. Find out which publishers specialize in which subjects, email addresses of specific contacts, submission guidelines, online links to further information and more.

Editor Caroline Taggart is the author of the bestselling I Used to Know That and co-author of My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’?). Her Book of English Place Names has just been published. She has worked in publishing for over 30 years, is a regular speaker at literary festivals, and is frequently invited to appear on radio and television. She lives in London.
The Novel-Writer’s Toolkit edited by Caroline Taggart is published by David & Charles on 26 May 2011 in paperback at £9.99

For a review copy, more information, request for an interview with Caroline Taggart or to set up a discounted reader offer, contact Susie Hallam Marketing and PR

susiehallam1@gmail.com T: 07761 836782

Read Full Post »

I went along today to meet someone at The Tagore Festival, being held at Dartington Hall this week to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore. This is a little video I made of the atmosphere in the gardens (excuse the wobbly camera).

Tagore was the visionary poet who was the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913, for his book of poems Gitanjali.

As the programme says, the festival is “A feast for heart and mind, featuring inspirational speakers and artists. It features poetry, dance, music, film, workshops, networking, craft and food, with inspiring discourse on a new vision for humanity in harmony with planet Earth.”

The authors, poets and speakers at the event include artisitic director Satish Kumar, Sir Andrew Motion, Vandana Shiva, Benjamin Zephaniah, Saskia Sassien, Michael Morpurgo, Deepak Chopra, Tim Smit, Jonathan Porritt, Matt Harvey and many more.

A Taste of Tagore, compiled by Meron Shapland

A Taste of Tagore, compiled by Meron Shapland

Meron Shapland has compiled an introduction to the poetry and prose of Rabindranath Tagore, A Taste of Tagore, published by Green Books.

Full details of the Festival here.

Read Full Post »