Container Vegetable Gardens
by Vicki Johnson
Do you live in an apartment and have no garden for a tomato to call home? Or maybe you are a homeowner with a lovely yard but tilling and amending the soil for a vegetable patch simply doesn't fit into your demanding schedule. Container gardening opens up all sorts of options and can be the solution for many gardening dilemmas. If you have access to a sunny balcony, porch, or deck, you can grow and harvest your own luscious tomatoes, crispy greens, and sweet peppers.
Window boxes are a perfect place for growing a variety of "cut and come again" salad greens mixed with edible flowers like nasturtiums or lemon gem marigolds. "Bush¬type" zucchini and cucumbers will grow and produce happily in five gallon buckets or pots. But when you go shopping for plants, don't feel limited to the smaller vegetable varieties, full size vegetable plants can be container grown. Those with a wide base, like a whiskey half-barrel, will support bamboo teepees or small metal or wooden trellises, making it possible to grow climbing plants like snap peas, pole beans, or even three large heirloom tomato plants.
Any container that is weather resistant and will allow for good drainage can be used for growing vegetables. Wooden boxes made of raw cedar or redwood are great, and terra cotta pots are classic. However, while wood and clay are beautiful they do dry out quickly. On hot, windy days, the soil in a wooden window box can dry out in an hour or two. Even large whiskey barrels cannot keep soil moist when temperatures soar, so purchase plastic liners to place inside the more attractive planters.
Metal buckets and cans make unusual but attractive "pots" except for galvanized metal ¬ the anti-rust treatment could be toxic. The 3 to 5 gallon decorative tins that brought cookies or popcorn in the mail can be used too. Just punch holes in the bottom for drainage and they are ready.
How about an herb garden grown in a collection of brightly painted tomato and olive oil cans?
When preparing to plant your pots do not use regular garden soil. No matter how good your soil is it will not provide adequate drainage, and over time it will become compacted, robbing plant roots of essential oxygen and interfering with the absorption of nutrients.
You can buy specially prepared potting soils or you can mix your own.
Here's a basic recipe: equal parts (a gallon bucket) of a bagged potting soil that contains humus, peat moss, compost and perlite or vermiculite, and equal parts builder's sand. This is a good, basic mix for most plants.
For heavy feeders such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes, add the following to your mixture before you plant: 1/2 cup each of garden lime, fish meal, bonemeal and, if available, kelp meal. Yes, you can use animal manure, just make sure it is very well aged and labeled "non-burning."
Whiskey barrels and other large pots sometimes have large drain holes. Placing a square of window screen or uneven sections of broken pot over the holes before you add soil will keep it from falling out the bottom. Just make sure not to cover the holes completely so that water can still drain out of the pot. It is also a good idea to put trays or saucers under each pot to protect wooden decks or porches from stains. Even if you plan to place them on the ground be sure to use trays underneath, decorative pot "feet" or bricks to lift them above the ground. This will keep plant roots from growing out the drainage holes and into the ground.
When gardening in containers, even with the very biggest pots, plants will use up soil moisture and nutrients quickly. This means you must water and fertilize often. But don't water without checking the soil first. It is possible to water plants to death.
To check soil moisture, insert a slender pencil, smooth dowel, or wooden chop stick into the soil, two inches for small pots, several inches for large ones. If it comes out clean the soil is dry and it's time to water, if soil clings to the pencil when you pull it out, wait and test again later.
Plants in containers need small, regular feedings. Liquid fertilizers make it easy to feed at the same time you water. Fish emulsion and liquid seaweed are good organic fertilizers, but smelly, too. Whether you choose these or chemical mixes like Peter's or Miracle Gro, use them at half-strength every seventh time you water. In other words, if you water once a day, fertilize once a week. If you water twice a day, fertilize twice a week.
A small balcony can turn into a delightful, productive little kitchen garden, where you can harvest fragrant herbs, tasty little lettuce leaves, and sun-ripened tomatoes. Bon Appetit!
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published June 01, 2003