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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Joys of the Container, or Why Lack of Soil Is No Barrier

I’m an avid container gardener. This may seem weird, given that I have literally acres of dirt on my farm, and yet, there are simply things that do better in containers for me than they do in the ground. Containers provide a way of dealing with a host of garden problems, and, IMHO, are useful to all gardeners, whether you’ve got a balcony and stone stoop or a vast farm.

Among the reasons I use containers:

1. To mimic soil conditions I don’t have - for example, I have a tough time growing any long carrots in my heavy soil - so I grow my carrots in containers which have just the perfect carrot soil. This would also work for those who don’t have acidic enough soil to grow blueberries or who need other specific conditions.

2. To heat up my plants more. Where I live, in upstate NY in the hills, overnight temperatures often fall into the 50s (and sometimes 40s) in the summer. Peppers, eggplant and melons just plain don’t like cool nights. Since containers heat up more in general, I find that I get better production from these plants. The heat stress also gives me hotter peppers. For those who don’t need more heat may not find this useful - at least in the summer. On the other hand, a sunny, warm spot might be just what you need to overwinter an especially tender plant.

3. Beause I can put plants in places I couldn’t. That means I can have morning glories twining up my mailbox (surrounded on three sides by concrete) and can pretty up my water barrels with snapdragons. You can take advantage of your best sun exposure, even if there’s no dirt there, or make a place that would be unproductive fertile. I also use containers to bring plants to my kids - putting cherry tomatoes and lambs ears where they play so they can nibble or pet. And scent - well that’s still another reason - really fragrant plants deserve to be where we’re most likely to get the benefit from them. And think about what could be done with all those city rooftops using containers?

4. To extend my season. In pots on a glassed in porch, parsley, arugula, winter lettuce, scallions and bok choy will begin producing in March. Nasturtiums seeded now on a sunny windowsill will start blooming by May, feeding both my need for color and my desire for peppery salads. On the other end, the potted peppers, cherry tomatoes and eggplants I bring in will produce into December. Sage, thyme, basil and mint will last all winter. For those in hot climates, greens can be moved from warm spots to shadier and cooler ones, making the salad season longer.

5. To allow me to plant tender plants. I have figs, bay and citrus trees and am mulling over a dwarf banana. Lemon Verbena, scented geraniums, aloe, gotu kola, bacopa, zaatar, and Vietnamese coriander fill my windowsills. And right now, my albutilon and begonias are flowering, brightening winter gloriously. I’ve promised the boys a garden of carnivorous plants to be overwintered indoors as well.

I also find container gardening psychologically so *manageable* - that is, when the garden is full of weeds and merely facing it seems overwhelming, well, there’s no reason you can’t attend to one pot. Deadheading one pot of flowers or planting herbs in a pot is a garden chore most of us can face, even on the hottest day.

Now what kills a lot of container gardening attempts is the problem of water - and on hot days, a plant might well need to be watered several times. The best solution to this is the self-watering container, also known as an “earthbox.” You can buy them or make them. The definitive book on the subject is Ed Smith’s _Incredible Vegetables From Self-Watering Containers_. It is worth looking at, because there are some specific strategies to be used.

Self-watering containers are essentially a pot within a reservoir pot, arranged so that nothing sits in water. They can be made or purchased, but since my friend Pat Meadows has written a very clear and useful post on the subject here: I won’t duplicate the information. The pots are not difficult to make at all, and you can play with the techniques a little.

Pat is one of the most knowledgeable people out there on the subject of container gardening - she used to sell seeds for container gardens, and she now moderates the Edible Container Gardening list, which has almost 2000 people on it. If you are interested in subscribing, you can do so by sending an email The group is an amazing resource.

If you live in a cooler place, or are prepared to water often, regular containers are great - in fact, some things do better in regular containers than the SWCs - herbs like thyme and oregano, nasturtiums and hot peppers (Smith says hot peppers do fine, but he doesn’t actually seem to like to eat them - since water stress makes peppers hotter, if you are an actual chile head, you won’t want to use SWCs). You can use anything that hasn’t been used for something toxic as a container - we grow plants in old boots, in cooking pots with holes - after a while, everything is a potential garden pot.

Here are some recipes for potting mixes: If you buy peat, make sure it is harvested from an area that is not under ecological stress. I don’t recommend vermiculite at all - breathing it in isn’t good for you.

For fertility, if you are using regular containers, you should remember that you’ll be washing out a lot more fertility than you would be with other plants, and fertilize often. My own personal fertility plan is to add plenty of worm compost, greensand and a good organic fertilizer mix (make your own or purchase - more on fertilizers later in the class), and to fertilize alternately with compost tea, and human urine diluted 1/10. To be safe, I don’t use urine within a week of harvest - although there’s very little risk unless you have leptospriosis (at which point you’ve got other problems: see my post “Free Nitrogen - Comes With Handy Dispenser!).

What can you grow in containers? Almost anything, if you have a big enough container, up to and including small trees. Realistically, smaller varieties are generally easier to grow. I’m a big fan of “Red Robin” tomatoes, “Fish” hot peppers and “Little Fingers” Eggplant in containers, but really you’d be stunned at what you can grow in a pot. I love to mix herbs and flowers and vegetables together - there is nothing like “bright lights” chard mixed with parsley and dianthus, or an artichoke underplanted with purple vining petunias spilling over the sides. The art of edible container gardening makes it a delight.

I’d encourage everyone to expand their growing space with containers whenever possible. It is easy to think that pots can only grow a little - but that little bit adds up.



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