No soil, seeds or space? No problem! A beginner’s guide to growing vegetables

Fears of coronavirus-induced shortages have sparked a desire to grow our own food, but getting hold of supplies isn’t easy when popping to the garden centre is out of the question. Here’s how to overcome some of the common obstacles to harvesting your first crop.

You haven’t got a clue
Being on hand at home to care for your plants’ needs means you will quickly learn what makes them thrive. But you must set out with the right mindset. Treat everything you grow as an experiment: if you manage a small harvest, that’s a perk rather than the goal.

Don’t assume that you can plant seeds of 20 different veg now, and within a month be able to spurn supermarket produce. Although a few crops can be ready in just a few weeks, such as radishes and salad leaves, most take months to reach maturity, and even the most seasoned gardeners experience failures because of pests (slugs: I mean you), late frosts that kill fruit-tree blossom or a bad batch of seed.

It’s the process of growing that is your reward: you’ll soon become addicted to the thrill of spying your very first flash of green leaf against compost as your seeds sprout. If there are children in your household, get them involved. They are much more likely to eat something they helped to cultivate, and every aspect of growing involves some kind of home-schooling activity, from counting out seeds and writing labels for younger children to learning about photosynthesis and transpiration for older ones.

Reach back in your mind to school biology lessons, and you will remember that all plants have the same basic needs: water and nutrients for the roots, and light, air and warmth for the leaves. Beyond that, every vegetable has its own ideal growing conditions. Some – such as tomatoes, chillies, courgettes and aubergines – need a long season to mature, so these need to be sown now if you want any chance of a crop. Others, such as lettuce, mature more quickly and can be sown in small amounts throughout the growing season.

The internet is awash with advice, a great deal of it misleading – so ignore those viral videos about sowing herbs in glass jars; it won’t work. However, you can’t go far wrong starting with the Royal Horticultural Society website, while the charity Garden Organic has plenty of guides to growing organically.

You haven’t got any seeds
If the panic-buying run on vegetable seeds has left your local shops lacking, and you can’t face yet another online order, have a rummage. If you locate some packets, unopened or opened, at the back of a drawer, it’s worth sowing them, as many seeds remain viable long after the “best before” date.

Even if you draw a blank on that, your kitchen is full of other possibilities: there’s no harm in sowing seeds plucked from the inside of a pepper or strained from the pulp of a tomato, although the results may be less predictable than those from a packet. If you have whole seeds of coriander, dill, fennel or fenugreek, you can sprout them as microgreens (see “No outdoor space”, below). You can also regrow the bases of celery, onions and lettuce by placing them in a shallow dish of water. And you can raise pea shoots from dried peas. Growers are discouraged from planting sprouted spuds from the veg rack – certified disease-free seed potatoes specially produced for the grow-your-own market are safer – but many people report great harvests from discarded potatoes. For more ideas, get hold of the book No-Waste Kitchen Gardening by Katie Elzer-Peters.

If you have your own outside space, there may be things already thriving there that you can eat: some plants maligned as weeds are useful edibles, while there are ornamentals that are tasty, too. The young, tender leaves of the lime tree (Tilia) and the ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile) can both be used in salads. But for safety’s sake, make sure no one has been spraying weedkiller around, stick to your own space and remember many plants are highly toxic, such as giant hogweed and foxglove.

Start with plants you can identify without a shadow of doubt, such as dandelions and nettles, and expand your knowledge using the Plants for a Future website or Adele Nozedar’s book The Garden Forager. Stick a bucket over a patch of dandelions and within a few days you will have blanched bitter leaves with many uses in the kitchen, from salads and sauteed greens to soups and pasta dishes. Soaking greens in a large bowl of heavily salted water then rinsing thoroughly removes dirt and unwanted hitchhikers, such as aphids.

You haven’t got any soil
Like seeds, compost is harder to source right now. Many of the DIY sheds are offering click-and-collect services for compost, however, while some garden centres will deliver to your door; Dalefoot and Fertile Fibre, two high quality peat-free compost brands, offer a mail-order service. If none of these is an option for you, all is not lost.

If you have some lawn, cut away the turf using a spade (stack it into black plastic sacks and it will rot down into crumbly soil in about a year) and prepare a veg bed. Those with compost heaps already on the go are at an advantage, as good compost takes a few months to make: scrape off the top layer of uncomposted material, and you may find treasure below – it’s ready when the worms have moved on to leave black, crumbly compost the consistency of a wrung-out sponge behind. Homemade compost isn’t suitable for seed sowing, but you can add it as a layer of mulch to the top of veg beds and pots or dig it into the soil to add vital nutrients and organic matter.

If you have flowerbeds with perennials, plant up bare patches with perennial vegetables such as welsh onions, rhubarb, perennial kale and sorrel, as well as perennial herbs, such as rosemary, chives, sage and thyme. You can also sow nasturtium seeds direct – the leaves and flowers are edible – or, beyond the end of May, when all danger of frost is past, plant out tender veg, such as tomatoes and courgettes. Just make sure you provide these hungry plants with extra nutrients through a liquid or granular feed.

Tempting though it may be, don’t fill pots with garden soil, as it’s almost always too heavy to drain properly, and may well be full of eggs of slugs and other pests. Pots containing compost used for growing in previous years can be reused: tip it out and remove any weeds and any white C-shaped grubs, which are the larvae of the vine weevil. Add slow-release fertiliser such as Chase Seaweed Meal and your revived compost is ready to go.

If you have regular compost, but no seed compost, run what you have through an old sieve to remove the lumpy bits – it doesn’t matter for larger seeds, such as courgettes and beans.

You haven’t got a garden
A balcony, a set of steps, a tiny patio or a couple of window boxes will still serve as growing spaces: just scale your range of crops accordingly. Watch where the sun rises to work out the aspect of your patch, as this will dictate what you can grow. South-facing sunny spots are ideal for growing most things, particularly tomatoes, herbs, chillies and french beans, while shady north-facing patches offer more limited options, including salad leaves, swiss chard, mint, sorrel and coriander. Don’t forget to grow upwards: any vertical can be covered with trellis or wires to act as climbing frames for beans, peas, climbing squash or nasturtiums. Check out Vertical Veg’s website for more tips and advice on small-space growing.

You haven’t got any outdoor space
Windowsills and ledges won’t produce a huge harvest, but you can have the satisfaction of watching your plants grow up close. Your main limitation is lack of light: scope out your sunniest windowsill and requisition it for growing. If you are an impatient type, sprouting seeds and microgreens are your answer: you can sprout dried lentils, chickpeas and many other pulses and seeds by soaking them overnight then placing in a glass jar with a piece of fine muslin secured across the opening so that you can regularly rinse them with water as they grow, but a tray sprouter will allow you to up production. Microgreens take sprouting one step further, allowing seeds such as mustard, coriander and fenugreek to grow to 3-5cm tall before they are snipped. The Speedy Vegetable Garden by Mark Diacono and Lia Leendertz explains both techniques in detail.

You haven’t got any pots
Fashion containers out of whatever you have to hand: an old kitchen bin or builder’s bucket makes a great container for potatoes or a single tomato or chilli plant. You’ll need to add drainage holes to the bottom of any container, so that excess water can run out – without that, plants’ roots will rot. Remember that plants in containers will need regular feeding and daily watering in hot weather.

On a smaller scale, plastic food trays for fruit and meat – and yoghurt pots of all sizes – are perfect for growing microgreens and starting off vegetable seeds.