Most people think of a garden as a large plot of ground with vegetables neatly arranged in rows. However, many people live in areas where a garden plot is not desirable or possible. With the increasing popularity of condominiums and apartments, some green thumbs get itchy without a place to grow. Others have adequate yards, but lack the time and interest required to tend a traditional garden plot.
Container gardening is becoming increasingly popular. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be produced with just a container, some soil-less potting mixture, seeds, fertilizer, sunshine, and water. Such a garden can provide just enough cucumbers, lettuce and radishes to keep those summer salads lively!
Containers are versatile and mobile. They can be placed just about anywhere and moved if necessary. The balcony of an apartment, a patio or a deck can be the setting for a container garden. Done correctly, a vegetable container garden can also be attractive and add a colorful touch or a focal point for a patio, balcony or deck. Some vegetables make attractive additions to colorful flowering containers. Container gardens are not limited to apartment patios or window boxes, although both make practical locations.
Choosing a container is mostly a matter of creativity. A wide variety of plastic, ceramic, and wood pots and boxes are available at nurseries or department stores. Just about anything that holds soil will work. Planters have been created from barrels, car tires, old shoes, coffee pots, pans, milk pails, old wheelbarrows, cement blocks, hanging baskets and the like. Whimsy can play a large part in choosing a planter that fits the gardener.
Since gardeners generally put potting soil into containers, any soil difficulties inherent to a backyard garden are avoided. Weeds are less of a problem. Potting soil is easy to work with because it is neither alkaline nor composed of heavy clay, which bakes hard in the sun.
While containers are easy to access and provide a growing area in a limited amount of space, there are special elements to consider to ensure success.
Since a container is above ground, hot sun, wind or even breezes dry soil out quickly. Because there is no subsoil to draw on, containers must be watered more often than ground plantings. In early spring, the new plants do not need as much water as they will later on because they are small and the weather is cooler. Later in the summer, more water will be required. Water your planters when the soil dries out to a depth of 1/2 inch. Apply water in a slow, even stream and watch for moisture to seep out the bottom of the planter box. Do not use a strong hose spray, this will wash soil away from the tender roots.
During hot, dry spells, be prepared to water containers daily or even twice a day. Water thoroughly so that water runs out of the holes in the pot. A pot must be large enough to accommodate rapidly growing plants, hold water well enough to provide for plants’ needs, and allow for good drainage to keep roots from getting water logged. Avoid plants that have massive root systems.
Ideally, container drainage holes should be located in the sides of the pot near the bottom rather than directly in the bottom of the pot. If the pot is sitting on the ground, bottom holes may not drain readily. If it is on a patio, or raised slightly above the ground, there should be no problem with bottom holes. Four holes in a large pot are ideal. More holes can be drilled if needed. Place a piece of broken clay pot, or wire ball over the holes to keep soil in the pot from packing around the holes and reducing drainage.
Remember, plants get heavier as they grow and water saturated soil further increases the weight of the container. Hanging baskets need to be attached to a substantial hanger in order to handle the extra weight of watering.
Mulch is suitable for containers and helps hold soil moisture in. Great organic mulches include an inch of sawdust, fine wood chips or peat moss. Lawn clippings will work if they are not spread too thickly and provided the lawn has not been treated recently for broadleaf weeds. Mulch shades the soil, keeping it cooler during the hot summer months. It also protects fruits that lay on the ground.
Soils, Fertilizers, and Weeds
Traditional gardens grow well in the ground in a wide range of soil conditions. However, when soil is placed in a container, soil conditions automatically change for the worse. Water does not drain well enough through garden soil in the confines of a pot. Regular garden soil can become too heavy, hard and compact for plants to grow well. Soil-less potting mixtures are lighter and provide better drainage than pure garden soil. Buy soil-less mixes at nurseries and garden centers. Look for a mix that is lightweight and well drained. Dark colored soil does not mean that the soil is necessarily better. If you are uncertain about which soil to choose, ask the nursery for some of whatever they use for their plants. Homemade mixtures are also effective. Mix together equal parts of loamy soil, perlite, and peat moss.
Soil-less mixtures have no inherent fertilizer. Mix in a complete fertilizer before planting and add fertilizer periodically or apply a slow-release product such as Osmocote. Dry fertilizers are not as effective as liquid mixes.
Even when clean soil mixes are used in containers, weeds will undoubtedly appear during the course of a season. If the weeds are growing so close to plants that pulling them might dislodge the plant roots, clip the weed off just below the crown.
For container gardens, choose vegetable varieties that stay small. Obviously, a giant squash or pumpkin plant may spread more than ten feet and may not be the best candidate for a patio planting. Smaller plants such as onions, lettuce, cabbage, carrots (short varieties), eggplants, peppers, radishes, or even summer squash make good options for patio gardens.
Many vegetables, like radishes, carrots, beans, and lettuce grow quickly. Consider succession planting for continuous production – after harvesting one vegetable, plant another in its place.
Some small winter squashes and melons will adapt to container growing. Certain vine crops can be found in a bush or a patio variety. To grow tomatoes or cucumbers, limit your planting to patio tomatoes and patio or bush cucumbers. If the tomatoes and cucumbers are trellised or trained to cages, larger vines may be used, although some hand pruning of excess foliage may be necessary to increase yields. Plants can also be tied to stakes using soft ties such as rags. Place ties just below the blooms for optimum support. You might try placing containers along a fence or rail that will provide support for cucumbers and other vine-type plants.
Strawberries adapt well to container growing. A barrel, strawberry pot, or large container is best for strawberries. Tall pots make excellent vertical gardens. Plant the strawberries through holes in the sides of the container, and provide them with adequate water and fertilizer.
If containers are not in a protected location, consider placing a support by them to keep them from tipping over in the wind.
All vegetables and fruits need a minimum of six hours of sunshine a day. Devoted gardeners may consider moving pots around to take best advantage of available sunlight.
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