In Praise of Tiny Potted Kitchen Gardens

Containers of herbs and veggies, inspired by one of England’s most famous gardens, yield abundant flavor

Photo: Andrew Montgomery

When the gardener Aaron Bertelsen needs a snip of parsley or a sprig of mint, he steps out from his kitchen in East Sussex, England, and gathers them from one of dozens of terracotta pots sitting in sunlight. “Herbs do very well in containers,” he says, “and if you’ve got some mint at the back door, make yourself a mojito and then start cooking.” At Great Dixter, the estate-turned-public property where Bertelsen is the resident vegetable gardener and cook, the brick-lined kitchen garden overflows with pots of peas, beans, spring onions, cucumbers, carrots, greens, and edible flowers such as nasturtiums and violas.

Great Dixter opens to the public late March through October and was the home of the late gardener and writer Christopher Lloyd. Bertelsen has a diploma in horticulture from Kew Gardens in London, and today, pilgrims the world over visit Great Dixter to honor Lloyd’s legacy and learn from Bertelsen. The kitchen garden inspired Bertelsen’s latest book, Grow Fruit & Vegetables in Pots: Planting Advice & Recipes from Great Dixter, a beautiful guide to container gardening with advice that’s relevant to gardeners all over.

“The message of this book is that everyone can grow something,” Bertelsen says. “I’m not telling you to go out there and get six hundred pots—start slowly. And pots are a great starting point because you can move them around. If you get bored, fiddle them around and suddenly you have a whole new garden.” 

photo: Andrew Montgomery
Aaron Bertelsen.

Bertelsen’s tips span choosing a pot, how to mix soil and compost, and types of plants that do well in a container. Blueberries are one example. “For me, blueberries alone are reason enough to have a container garden,” Bertelsen says. The acid-loving plants sometimes struggle in clay-rich soils. “By growing them in a pot I am able to control their environment and give them exactly what they need.” In this case, potting soil and acidic compost. Radishes, he says, are also brilliant container crops that can be seeded among other plants like lettuce. And tomatoes, he explains, are perfect in pots because a gardener can move them around to “catch the best of the heat and the sun.”

photo: Andrew Montgomery

Because a pot is a tiny contained ecosystem, fledgling gardeners can get a lot of value out of mere square inches. “A single trough with say, sorrel, some cut-and-come-again salad leaves, and a few of your favorite herbs will be easy to look after and give you so much pleasure,” he says. He recommends terracotta pots for their classic look, but also suggests newbies try out fabric growing bags because they’re easy to move and they drain well. For those worried about a late frost, he recommends metal pots lined with a layer of bubble wrap to protect roots from temperature changes in the early spring.

His general rule of thumb: “Think about what you want to eat and work backwards. There’s no point on growing crops you won’t eat.” To that end, Bertelsen shares fifty recipes for cooking from the garden. He gathered many of the recipes—organized from breakfast to mains and sides to cocktail hour—on his trips to visit gardening friends around the world, including in the Southern United States. A hearty lentil soup that a friend made him in Memphis incorporates greens stirred in after she picked them fresh from her Tennessee garden. A Texas friend cooked a batch of risotto and then topped it with pea shoots from her container garden in Fort Worth. And in a creative twist on a crop many Southerners know well—figs—Bertelsen shares the tip of toasting the fig leaves, adding a layer of fruity nuance to sweet cream.

Just as he shares do-as-you-please advice in the garden, Bertelsen recommends tweaking the recipes each season. “Do the recipe once, and then make it your own,” he says. “Crops are ready at different times, and if you’ve got a glut of potatoes or greens, make those your focus. Eat when things are ready in your garden.” Even if that garden is just one humble terracotta pot.

Get the recipes:

> Fig Leaf Ice Cream (opens in a new tab)”>>> Fig Leaf Ice Cream

> Pea Shoot Risotto (opens in a new tab)”>>> Pea Shoot Risotto

> Oven-Baked Lentil Soup with Greens (opens in a new tab)”>>> Oven-Baked Lentil Soup with Greens