I had more conversations with neighbours and people passing by the front of my flat in London during the two years that I used the small space outside the front door to grow in than I did in the rest of the 19 years I lived there. Even if you only have space for one or two containers, you can still grow something exciting and eye-catching that will make a statement in your neighbourhood. And with the wide choice of seeds now available, you might also choose to grow something exotic to create a little local intrigue or even a bit of a giggle.
This week I look at three climbing crops – tromba squash, fat baby achocha and runner beans – that will add height and interest, as well as an excuse to chat to neighbours. All three do brilliantly in containers and will give you lashings of tasty, fresh veg (unlike some container projects where pickings can be slender) if well fed and watered.
Climbers make very efficient use of small spaces, giving more plant for the same floor space. By climbing they also often reach more sun, ripening better and producing more. At the same time, they escape the reach of those slugs and snails with less ambition and climbing skills.
All three do need plenty of sun – runner beans will cope with five to six hours but the achocha and squash need six hours or more.
They are also “tender” which means they cannot be grown outside until all threat of frost has passed (late April in London, early May in Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle). You can either sow them inside now in small pots or wait a week or two (depending on where you live) and sow in their final container outside.
Fat baby achocha
Fat baby achocha is a South American crop, reputedly eaten by the Incas. It tastes like a cross between cucumber and green pepper with a dash of lemon. It can be eaten raw in salads or cooked like peppers.
Fat baby achocha. Photograph: Mark Ridsdill Smith
It’s easy to grow in a container and prolific. The spiky, alien looking fruits are eye catching and funny looking (in a good way, I like to think!).
Place three to four plants in a pot at least 12in (30cm) in diameter and 10in (25cm) deep. A container with a water reservoir is good but not essential.
Marketed as “fast and vigorous” climbers (and it’s true, they really are), they need something secure to climb up. A trellis or netting (like pea netting) is perfect, or a wigwam.
Once flowering, feed them with a liquid tomato feed – follow the directions for tomatoes.
Either pick the fruits small, the size of a marshmallow, and eat whole. Or let them grow to about conker size, and cut in half to remove the seeds (saving a few to grow next year).
Mark’s son with a home-grown tromba squash. Photograph: Mark Ridsdill Smith
Courgette plants tend to grow big and bushy, and are often too dominating in a small space. Tromba squash, as a climber, is better.
It’s more rewarding and amusing to grow, too.
It produces a succession of long, thin fruits that you can eat small like courgettes. Or you can let a few grow into extraordinary, firm fleshed, fine tasting phallic squash, up to several feet long, guaranteed to raise a smile.
How to grow:
These beasts need lots of space – no more than one plant in a 16in by 16in pot. If you want really huge squash, grow them in a bigger pot, 24in or so.
Secure a string (or a trellis) for the squash to climb up. I usually screw eyes into a wall to attach strings. Wind the string round the squash to support it as it grows.
Feed weekly with tomato feed once they start flowering.
Harvest the squash when about 6-8in long. Or leave one or two to mature into large squash.
The flowers are edible, too – just like courgette flowers, and equally yummy, too.
Runner beans are a very productive container crop. If you feed and water them well, you’ll get several kilos of beans from one big pot.
Originally grown in the UK as an ornamental, their bright orange flowers will brighten your street – and your life.
Runners like lots of water. Large pots are easier to keep well watered – so choose one at least 16 inches in diameter, or a container with a water reservoir.
You can grow up to eight plants in a 16in x 16in pot.
Slugs adore runner bean seedlings. Protect them with empty plastic bottles with the bottom cut off.
Runners have either orange or white flowers. You can mix the two for a pretty display.
Have fun making a strong, tall (ideally 8ft wigwam for the beans to climb up. You can use bamboo canes, or any long thin sticks.
When the runners reach the top of the canes, pinch out the tops (this means cutting the very tip off). This will encourage the plant to send out more shoots – and beans – below.
Pick, pick, pick. Keep picking running beans – as this encourages the plant to be even more productive. Pick them small for a delicious, tender treat – which will be all the tastier for knowing it will encourage the plant to grow more.
Feed with liquid tomato food once every two or three weeks after the plant starts flowering.
Where to get the seeds
Franchi sell tromba squash seeds, Real Seeds sell fat baby achocha. Runner beans can be bought just about anywhere.
Next time we’ll look at how to be self sufficient in salads with just a few pots.