Judging from the sales of vegetable seeds and seedlings at local garden centers the past two years, the urge to grow one’s own food is a strong one. I don’t know how long that impulse will last once we get past the worst of the pandemic and as consistent hot weather of summer saps our energy.
Nevertheless, at present the urge persists. Unfortunately for some folks, the availability of space for a vegetable garden can be very limited or not exist at all. Participation in community gardens, such as those at Mass Audubon's Canoe Meadows in Pittsfield (https://www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/canoe-meadows/about) and the Pittsfield's Community Garden Program (firstname.lastname@example.org), is one option.
Another is to grow vegetables in containers. Here’s how:
Containers: Basically, any type of container which will hold soil may be used. These could include metal or wooden buckets, bushel baskets, tubs, laundry baskets, and recycled plastic or clay pots. Use your imagination. Once I saw an herb growing in an old leather boot; so, nothing surprises me. If necessary, drill or cut holes at the bottom or along the sides of the container to allow excess water to drain. A piece of paper towel or fabric over large drainage holes may be needed to keep soil from escaping.
The size of containers used will determine what vegetables are to be grown. Pots holding 2 quarts of soil or less are okay for herbs, but too small for other vegetables. Beets, radishes, leafy greens, and scallions should be grown in containers with at least 1- or 2-gallon capacity. Use 4-gallon, or larger, containers for most other vegetables.
Soil: A commercial potting mix is preferred because it is less likely to harbor pests or diseases, and it holds nutrients and moisture yet drains well. Straight garden soil should be avoided since it tends to become compacted. If it is used, amend it by adding equal amounts of peat moss and coarse sand. I concoct my own potting mix by combining equal parts of screened compost (from our compost pile, of course), peat moss, and coarse sand or perlite or poultry grit. For each bushel, a cup of organic fertilizer (e.g. fish meal, cow or chicken manure) and a cup of ground limestone. Whatever mix is used, soak it with water a day before using to ensure adequate moisture absorption.
Care: Containers should be placed where plants will receive a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight each day. Leafy crops can get by with less, but fruiting crops, i.e. tomatoes, peppers and squash, perform best with the minimum 6 hours. Soil in containers tends to dry quickly. Therefore, frequent watering is critical. During hot, dry weather, it may be necessary to water twice daily.
Because of frequent watering, plant nutrients tend to leach from the potting mix. Applications of fish emulsion, dried blood, cottonseed meal, or other organic nitrogen based fertilizer must be made about every 3 to 4 weeks, depending on how the plants are growing.
The bottom line is: don’t let a lack of space refrain you from raising some of your own food. Go with containers.
MORE TASKS ARE WAITING
Don’t refrain nor contain your enthusiasm for these fun gardening tasks:
- Start each gardening day by making a to-do list. I find keeping to this list helps me to avoid distractions such as counting the number of crows it takes to dig up and devour recently planted corn.
- Plant pollinator-attracting annual flowers among your vine crops. Squash, melons, and cucumbers require insect pollination in order to produce their fruit. Some pollinator friendly annuals include agastache, bachelor’s button, bee balm, borage, calendula, cosmos, marigold,
- nasturtium, snapdragon and sunflower.
- Apply diatomaceous earth, ground up eggshells or coffee grounds around the base of vegetables where cutworms have been active. Cutworm collars placed around plant stems may be more effective, but doing so now will be a little difficult. These gritty irritants are an easier option, as is the application of an organic insecticide containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).
- Plant slips (rooted stems) of sweet potatoes. Though traditionally a southern crop, there are some varieties which will grow well in our climate. ‘Beauregard’ and ‘Georgia Jet’ are two varieties with which I have had success. It is not too late to plant sweet potatoes as they require soil temperatures of at least 65 degrees. They may not be available at local garden centers but can be purchased online from a variety of sources. Generally, I try to avoid use of plastics in our garden, but research at UMass showed that sweet potatoes grow best “by using raised beds covered with black plastic mulch. In New England, it is difficult to obtain good yields on bare soil.”
- Keep an eye or two out for gypsy moth. Now there is a pest we have not heard much about in recent years, but I have been seeing a lot of them, especially on our blueberry bushes. They have also been dining on the foliage of crabapple, oaks and birch trees. I’m not about to spray tall trees, but am applying the organic pesticide containing Bt to the blueberries.
- Don’t get in a rut … or cause a rut for that matter. Vary the direction along which the lawn is mowed. Keeping to the same pattern of mowing can cause ruts in the lawn.
- Grow up! I’ve heard that command many times from family and friends. After some introspection, I came to the conclusion that I must do that. As such, I will be planting a few annual vines on trellises. One of my favorite vines is cup and saucer (Cobaea scandens). Other options are black-eyed Susan vine, purple hyacinth bean, morning glory and moonflower. It’s nice to know that family and friends are so into vines as I am.