Edibles in Containers
Growing Food and Loving it!
What surprised me about growing food for the first time? How FAST the plants grow, how much FUN they are to observe, and the happy conclusion that growing food has changed the way I eat.
Location – it’s all about sun
If your only sunny space – or your only outdoor space at all – is on a patio, a deck, or a balcony and you want to grow vegetables, don’t be discouraged because container vegetables are great! I’m a new vegetable gardener myself, having tried growing them in the garden in 2008, only to discover there wasn’t enough sun where I tried, and the other parts of my garden are critter heaven, so in 2009 I got bunches of containers for my deck and became a container veg far mer.
How much sun is needed? Ah, there’s the rub. For tomatoes, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers, full sun is required – 6 hours daily, and 8 to 10 is better. Herbs that need full sun include basil, borage, chives, dill, fennel, lavender, lemon verbena, mustard, oregano, rosemary, sage, and yarrow. (And do NOT assume anything! Most people overestimate the hours of sunlight they have, so measure it if there’s any doubt.) There ARE lots of greens and even fruiting vegetables that will perform with less sun – between 4 and 6 hours of sunlight every day. (T
hose fruiting vegetables being beets, carrots, onions, radishes, and turnips.) Movable containers (with casters) are handy for changing locations to maximize sunlight, or to protect plants during severe storms.
The Bigger the Better so that roots can have room to grow but most importantly, to require less frequent watering. Most vegetables need at least a 5-gallon pot, while herbs, lettuce and similar shallow-rooted plants can be grown in smaller pots.
Self-watering? Not really
First, “self-watering” containers don’t water themselves. Nothing happens automatically. It’s just that containers like these from Gardeners Supply (photo right) or Earth Boxes (top photo) have reservoirs below the soil that hold a lot of water, which then wicks up into the potting soil. I chose this type because on my deck there’s no water source closeby, but it turns out they require just as much carrying of water, only less often. But every other day versus every single day is still great in my book. I planted the thirstiest plants in them and filled my regular containers that dry out faster with less thirsty plants, like rosemary. (As between Earth Boxes and the Gardeners Supply containers, Earth Boxes are cheaper but less attractive, if that’s a consideration, as it was for me.)
Where weight is an issue (on balconies and rooftops especially) plastic or fiberglass (photo right) containers are great choices. More weight can be saved by filling the bottom one-third or so with crushed soda cans or those Styrofoam packing peanuts (as long as the pot’s big enough to still have 6″ of soil on top of that filler). Drawbacks? Plastic can deteriorate in the sun, though it holds water longer than more porous materials, like hypertufa or terra cotta. Glazed terra cotta (clay) pots, if cold-hardy, are worth paying more for – they’ll hold moisture better and last indefinitely.
Where weight’s not an issue – on a patio perhaps – heavy pots are fine. Again, the bigger the better. If you live where there’s freezing temps in the winter, don’t spend your hard-earned money on non-hardy pots that are too heavy to bring indoors for winter. (They DO make hardy types like this lovely turquoise pot that has stayed outdoors all winter for years now.)
Pairing Plants with Pots
I once assumed that all herbs were Mediterranean in origin and liked it hot and dry. Well, not all. These herbs like those conditions, so I grow them in more porous pots that dry out faster: oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, bay, marjoram and lavender. But these herbs like it wetter, so they’re happier in pots that hold the moisture better – like plastic or the self-watering kind: basil, cilantro, tarragon and parsley.
Drainage is a must
Don’t even think about planting in a pot that doesn’t have a drainage hole.
Here’s another thought to put out of your mind – using regular garden soil in containers. It won’t drain well enough and it’ll be full of weed seeds. Instead, buy packaged potting soil – there are lots of great local brands – or make your own. Then do it again next year – don’t re-use the potting soil. Why? I’d never understood this advice until Renee explained that after a whole season, the potting medium has become too compacted – thus the ubiquitous advice against re-using. Okay, so now we know.
Seeds v. Starts
A “start” is a little plant all ready to go in the ground, grown from seed by somebody else. That’s what I grew my first year as a veg gardener, because it seemed easier (though obviously more expensive). But guess what – most vegetables are actually easier to grow from seed sown outdoors. Might as well, because they don’t grow much til the soil really gets warm in late spring, so buying starts is kind of a waste of money. And if you’re growing from seed, you’re not dependent on what your local growers are providing; you can buy from anywhere.
But there ARE three important veggies that should be started early indoors – tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. So either buy starts (which will surely be full-sized plants) or grow a few seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before evening temperatures are in the 50s. Contributor Renee Shepherd offers How to Start Seeds Indoors, or check this version with photos. But there’s more – Growing Tomatoes from Seed and What to Plant When.
Edibles can become pretty big plant by mid-summer, so the key to growing them in containers is buying plants that are the right size. Available in just the right size are tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, eggplant, even sunflowers! Here’s Renee’s container-size vegetables, and I found container-sized plants at Burpee’s by putting “container” in their search engine. Parks Seeds compiles their vegetables recommended for containers. The only supports you’ll need are those 3-foot cage for the tomatoes.
Edibles for beginners
Good edibles for beginners include beans, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, chard, zucchini, radish, spinach, kale, peppers, mint, oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary and strawberries.
And why not mix lovely flowers into the same containers or nearby containers to create a lovelier garden AND to attract beneficial insect?