You don’t have to give up on the idea of growing fresh vegetables just because you don’t have yard space for conventional gardening. Another viable option is container gardening. Container gardening allows you to plant your vegetables or herbs in containers that can be kept on your balcony, patio, roof, or any place they can get sunshine and warmth.
In some cases, container gardening is used for herbs in order to keep them contained in one space. Some herbs, like mint, spread out and could take over an entire garden if you allow it. Also, if you plant your herbs in containers, you can bring them indoors as winter approaches and enjoy fresh herbs throughout the winter.
Container planting is also advantageous because of the mobility of the containers. You can actually move the container to follow the sun. You can also situate the containers so that weeding and, eventually, harvesting is done at a comfortable level, rather than on your knees as in a traditional garden.
You can be very creative with container gardens. Not only can you plant an eye-catching combination of vegetables, herbs, or flowers in a single container, you can also create a plant tepee for your children. Simple fill four to six medium-size containers with soil, and then place a ½-inch PVC pipe about five to six feet long in each container. Space the containers a foot or so apart in a circle. Gather the tops of the pipes together and bind them with twine about four inches from their tops. Then plant a climbing plant, like a cucumber, in each container at the base of the pipe. Train the plants to grow up the pipes by tying the vines loosely to the PVC. In a few weeks, you will have a green tepee.
You can plant just about anything in containers; you just need to have a large enough container and the space to allow the plant to grow.
Make Your Plant Selections
Decide what you would like to grow months before your growing season starts. This way you will have plenty of time to select and order your seeds, gather your containers, and even start some seeds indoors. You should choose dwarf varieties, if available, for your container plants. You should also choose vertical or climbing plants rather than bush plants to save space. Vertical plants can be trained to grow on trellises or fences. If you place a vertical plant in a large enough pot, you can actually plant a companion plant, like herbs, alongside it.
Some plants, like pumpkins, watermelons, and winter squash, usually require quite a bit of space. If you choose the smaller varieties now available, you can plant them in containers. However, as the vines grow and develop fruit, it’s wise to hang small hammocks of netting from the trellis or fencing in order to support the weight of the fruit. Trellis or fencing should be installed when you plant the seeds.
Because some vegetables prefer the colder spring weather and some enjoy the warmer weather of summer, you can often plant one variety in your container early in the growing season, harvest it, and grow a different crop in the container months later.
You can be creative as you choose your containers. Clay or plastic gardening pots are fine, but you can also look around and see what options you have in your home. Containers have to be able to hold the soil, plant, and water; hold moisture and not deteriorate; drain water from the bottom; and be the appropriate size for the plant.
Many types of containers are appropriate for container gardening: planter boxes, pails, buckets, bushel baskets, wire baskets, wooden boxes, nursery flats, gallon cans, washtubs, strawberry pots, plastic bottles and bags, large food cans, or even an old discarded bathtub filled with soil after drain holes are drilled in the bottom.
The size of the container will vary according to the plant selection and space available. Keep in mind that the size, material, and shape of the container will make a difference to your plant’s health. Consider the following guidelines when choosing your container:
Try to avoid containers with narrow openings.
Hanging baskets can leak onto patio furniture or the floor.
Plastic containers are lighter weight, but they can deteriorate in sunlight or become brittle in lower temperatures. They keep water over a longer period, which can be an advantage in dry areas.
Terra-cotta containers are porous, but they are heavy and break easily.
Glazed ceramic pots require several drainage holes because moisture can’t evaporate through their glazed sides.
Wooden containers can be built to sizes and shapes suiting the location. However, you need to find wood that is not susceptible to rot, such as redwood or cedar.
Metal containers absorb heat from the sun and might cause root damage. If you are using a metal container, consider also using a clay or plastic pot as a liner.
Window boxes are usually made of wood or plastic.
Although stone containers create a natural effect, they are heavy and break easily.
In order to restrain a plant, you can “plant” the container in the ground.
Be sure to use containers with adequate capacity, according to the size and number of plants to be grown in them. Remember that small pots limit the root area and dry out very quickly. Deep-rooted vegetables require deeper containers. For larger vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants, use a five-gallon container for each plant.
Be sure you match the dimensions of the grown plant to the pot. Look in the seed catalog or on the back of the seed envelope to see how large the plant is going to get at maturity, then pick a pot that gives it plenty of room to grow.
Proper drainage is important because water caught in a container can stagnate, soil can become waterlogged, and the roots of the plant can rot. Any container you use should have holes at the base or in the bottom. Once you’ve made holes, you should line the base of the container with something that will prevent soil loss through the holes; a layer of newspaper or coarse gravel works very well. In order for the container to drain properly, especially if the drainage holes are on the bottom, you should raise the container up on “feet.” Bricks, two-by-four blocks, or any flat object will work. If you are concerned about the drainage damaging the surface below, place saucers under your pot to catch any excess water.
The color and shape of a container can have some bearing on what you plant in it and where you position it. Dark-colored containers absorb more heat; if you place them in full sun, especially if you live in a hot, arid climate, you can damage the plant roots and the plant itself. Your choices are to use light-colored containers in very sunny or hot areas, paint the dark containers a lighter color, or place them in the shade.
The size and shape of a container should be appropriate for the plant you want to grow. If you have a container, for example, that has a round shape (a small top, a larger middle, and a small bottom) and you decide to plant a root crop in it, harvesting could be problematic. Also, consider the mature size of the plant. You don’t want your pot to be tipped over by the weight, height, or length of the maturing plant.
Container gardening is an excellent way to control and maximize water usage, but pots and containers do require more frequent watering than a traditional garden because there is less soil around the plants to retain the water. Small pots and those made from porous materials, like clay, dry out especially quickly. Remember, too, that containers in an exposed area, subjected to wind or heat, will lose moisture more rapidly.
To water your plants while on vacation, save small, empty four-ounce plastic bottles. Cut the bottom off of each bottle, thoroughly water your plants, and then push the tops of the bottles with the caps off several inches into the soil. Fill the bottles with water. These tiny bottles will release water gradually as your plants need it. If you need more water, you can use sixteen-ounce water bottles for large plants, or big two-liter plastic bottles for outdoor plants.
You should also pay attention to the watering needs of your plants. Potatoes, for instance, like a moist soil, while other vegetables do better in drier conditions. Before you water your plants, allow the water to reach room temperature, especially for sensitive plants.
Your plants will of course need more water as they grow. As their root systems expand, their water needs expand too. When watering, you should pour the water directly on the soil. Watering from the top down, rather than wicking up the water from the bottom, is better for your plants. Applying mulch to the top of the soil will help retain the moisture.
You should use the best-quality organic potting soil you can afford. Good soil is what brings the nutrients to your vegetables, so excellent soil makes excellent produce. Regular garden soil does not work well for container gardening because it is heavy and does not drain as well as potting soil. You can also create your own mixture of soil that includes one part garden soil, one part peat moss or compost, and one part coarse sand. You should also add a slow-release fertilizer (such as 14-14-14), but add that just before you plant the seedling or seeds, so you can fine-tune the fertilizer amount to the needs of the specific plant.
You can use the same soil in your containers for two years, but if you had a plant that ended up diseased, replace the soil and thoroughly clean the container before you use it again.
When you fill your containers, leave at least a few inches between the top of the container and the top of the soil for mulch. For plants that need quite a bit of moisture, be sure you have at least four inches of soil in the container. Remember, once the soil has been watered, it will settle, so initially add more than you think you will need.
Take the seeds out of their container and select a few more than the number of plants you want to grow. To ensure you don’t plant a container with seeds that will never germinate, you can use an easy method to test their viability. Simply soak the seeds in water for a few hours; the ones that are viable will generally sink to the bottom, while those that are dead will float to the top.
Before you plant your seeds, check the information that came with them to determine their sowing needs. Most seeds should be covered with fine planting soil to a depth that is two times the diameter of the seed. This will help provide good germination. Very small seeds and those that require light for germination should just lie on the surface of the soil. To ensure that these seeds “connect” with the soil, use your fingers to gently tap down on the seeds and the soil.
To create a greenhouse effect as your seeds begin to germinate, you can place plastic wrap over the containers. This will keep the moisture level stable and allow you to leave the seeds undisturbed. If you do need to water your new seedlings, place the container in a basin of water and allow the water to be wicked up. Once the seeds germinate, the plastic wrap should be removed, because the seedlings can develop a fungal infection.
Your seeds should be started in a warm room with sufficient sunlight. Most seeds will germinate best if they can get twelve to sixteen hours of light each day. The best way to do this is to place seed containers in a south-facing location. Make sure you give the containers a quarter turn each day to prevent seedlings from overreaching toward the light. Before planting, seedlings will need to be hardened off or acclimated to direct sunlight and changing temperatures. You can easily do this by placing them outside in direct sunlight for a few hours only and then slowly increasing their exposure.
Diseases and Insects
Unfortunately, plants grown in containers can be attacked by the same kinds of insects and infected with the same kinds of diseases as the plants in a traditional garden. You need to inspect your plants for insects or any discoloration of the foliage. If you find insects, you can use organic insecticides to discourage them. You can also use companion planting practices to discourage pests.
You might think growing potatoes in a container is impossible, but, actually, even if you do have a lot of space, you might want to consider this method of growing potatoes. When you grow potatoes in a traditional garden, the most time-consuming part is “hilling” them. Potatoes are initially planted in a trench and then covered with soil as they grow, so the potatoes themselves are never exposed to sunlight. If you grow potatoes in a container, you are able to hill them in a more convenient manner.
For potatoes you’ll need a container that is at least two feet in diameter and several feet tall (even better is a container whose height can be increased when needed), potting soil, seed potatoes, and fertilizer. Make sure your container has good drainage. Cut your seed potatoes so there are at least two eyes on each piece of potato.
Place the potatoes about ten inches apart and a few inches from the outside of the container. For a container that is about two feet in diameter, you only need four to six seed potato pieces.
Put up to four inches of soil over the potatoes and water them well. Keep the soil moist, but not soaking wet. Check once a day to see if you need more water.
Once your potato plants have grown about six inches, you start the hilling process by adding a combination of compost and soil on top. You should cover about one-third of the new growth. As your plants continue to grow, you will need to continue to hill them. Potato plants grow quickly, so keep an eye on them.
The fun part is when you harvest the potatoes. Once the plant starts to dry out, you can pour the contents of your container onto a tarp and separate the potatoes from the dirt.
Here are some edible crops that are generally easy to grow in containers: beets, beans, peas, lemon cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, chard, zucchinis, radishes, spinach, kale, chili peppers, mint, oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, and strawberries.