Victory gardens part II: Growing veggies in containers
I’m writing this column for those who e-mailed me to say they read last month’s column on victory gardens and want to know more about how to grow veggies in containers. I’m happy to say that there are plenty of edibles that can be grown in containers right on a patio, front stoop or even a balcony. But there are a few good tips to know if you want to be successful.
Because these pots will be part of your outdoor living space for the whole season, you may want to take some time to choose some you’d really enjoy looking at every day. As you shop, keep in mind that small pots will dry out very quickly in the hot summer sun. Even if you are home and can water a couple of times a day, your plants are likely to wind up stressed out if they’re constantly drying out and being water over and over again. That’s why I’d recommend going with pots no smaller than 14–16 inches in diameter and at least a foot deep. Bigger is even better, but they’ll be hard to move — even with one of those rolling plants stands from IKEA that I mentioned last month. (Don’t use any container that doesn’t have a good drainage hole.)
Tips on filling containers
When you fill your containers, use potting mix rather than garden soil because the latter tends to be too heavy and winds up turning into something akin to wet cement. You can buy potting mix or make it yourself by mixing equal parts of garden soil with compost and vermiculite or peat moss (these boost water retention and aeration) and a little sand. I usually mix my potting soil in a wheelbarrow, turning it over and over with a shovel. When I’m finished mixing, I just roll the whole thing over to where I plan to fill my pots. If you’re filling very large containers, you can fill the bottom third of the container with twigs and branches since you really won’t need the whole thing to be filled with dirt. (I’ve never tried it, but a longtime, and very successful, tomato enthusiast I know fills the bottom of his pots with empty plastic water and pop bottles.)
As I said earlier, containers do require a lot of watering. Though I haven’t tried this, it is possible to line up your pots in such a way that you can make some kind of drip watering system work. But I actually enjoy the Zen-like act of watering my pots by hand. There are a lot of different products on the market now that claim to help soil hold water, like those moisture-retaining crystals and gels people are always talking about. But these things always get mixed reviews. If you try them, watch your plants closely to see whether the soil really is staying moist or if you need to jump in there with the hose. You want soil to be moist but not soggy.
Don’t forget to fertilize
And, remember, all plants grown in containers need to be fertilized regularly in order to thrive because potting mixes don’t retain nutrients very well. Look for complete, balanced fertilizers such as 10-10-10. It’s good to start out the growing season with a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote, which can be mixed into the soil according to package directions at planting time. About mid-season, once plants begin to produce and your nutrients are running low, you can switch to a water-soluble fertilizer, which should be mixed at a slightly weaker rate than you’ll find on the label. Fertilize every week or two when you’re watering your plants. (If you want to use something other than traditional fertilizers, you can also use fish emulsion on this same schedule by following the directions on the container.)
Pick the right plants
When choosing your plants, keep an eye out for varieties described as “bush” or “compact,” as well as any that are described as being specifically bred for container growing. Good options for very large containers, say, about 16 to 20 inches wide and 20 inches deep include: carrots, celery, cucumbers (especially bush varieties like ‘Space Master’ and ‘Fanfare’), eggplants, greens (kale, collards, chard), summer squash (‘Eight Ball’ and ‘Space Miser’). Try beans (bush or runner), beets, broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers and spinach in slightly smaller containers, 16 inches wide and about 16 inches deep.
If you’ve got very little space and want to plant in smaller pots, around 8 to 10 inches wide and 10 inches to a foot deep, you can try broccoli raab, compact eggplants (‘Bambino’ and ‘Slim Jim,’) herbs, lettuce and compact peppers (‘Habanero,’ ‘Prairie Fire’ and ‘Hungarian Yellow Wax’).
Read package directions to find out how each of your veggies grows so you can incorporate the appropriate stakes and cages into your pots to support them. If you like, you can add a little bit of color to your vegetable containers by planting a few undemanding annuals, such as nasturtiums (the petals of which add a peppery taste to salads), petunias and phlox. You can also plant veggies with herbs.
Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to [email protected]