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No space for a garden? If you have a patio, doorstep or windowsill, you have plenty of room for a container garden!

Container Garden

Pot Luck is one of the tomato varieties well suited to growing in containers.

We are in the midst of an awakening — an awakening spurred to a large extent by the constraints imposed by the pandemic and perhaps to a larger extent by rising food prices. These factors have inspired a desire to demonstrate a greater sense of self-reliance. A manifestation of this desire is the growing number of vegetable gardens appearing in the landscape. Yet there are many people who are unable to fulfill their desire “to grow their own” due to limited space for a garden.

But, there is hope!

If you have a patio, a doorstep, or just a windowsill, you can have a vegetable garden. The solution is to grow vegetables in containers. All that is needed to get a garden underway are some containers, soil and seeds or transplants.

Despite having a large garden, I have at one time or another grown vegetables in bushel baskets, nursery pots, trash baskets, milk cartons, and wood boxes made from scrap lumber. Whatever the container, it must have holes drilled into the bottom or side to provide for drainage. The container must also be free of any toxic substance, e.g. creosote treated wood. Of course, there is always the option of using large clay or plastic flower pots.

Matching container size with the plant will depend on the vegetable to be grown. Herbs will grow nicely in a 6-inch pot or any container with about a 2-quart capacity. Radishes, scallions, and dwarf tomatoes (‘Tiny Tim’, ‘Toy Boy’, ‘Red Robin’, ‘Pixie’) can be grown in one-gallon pots. However, for most crops, 3- to 5-gallon containers such as half bushel or bushel baskets or large flower pots are best. Fortunately, plant breeders have developed quite a number of vegetable varieties particularly well-suited for container gardening. For example, there is: ‘Pot Luck’ and ‘Patio Pik’ cucumber, ‘Modern Midget’ eggplant, ‘Dwarf Yellow Straight’ squash.

It is wise to use a potting mix as opposed to garden soil, which tends to become compacted after multiple applications of water. Garden centers will have bags of potting soils and compost-based soil that are well-suited for container growing. Otherwise, there is the option of a homemade blend of peat moss, vermiculite or perlite or poultry grit or coarse sand, and a dose of organic fertilizer. Ideally, in lieu of peat moss, some homemade compost would make a very good container mix, but it is unlikely that someone lacking space for a backyard vegetable garden would have room for a compost pile.

As for care, most vegetables require at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight for optimal growth, though leafy greens and root crops can get by with less light. Frequent watering is critical as soil in containers tends to dry out quickly. As a rule of thumb, or perhaps your pinky finger, water thoroughly when soil feels dry to a depth of ¼ inch. Since frequent watering tends to flush plant nutrients from the soil, occasional applications of fertilizer will be necessary. Using organic fertilizer or slow-release fertilizer will extend the interval between applications.

Hopefully, container gardening will at least partially fulfill desires for self-reliance.

Awaken to these tasks for the week ahead:

  • Begin harvesting stalks of rhubarb as needed but do not remove all the stalks at once as the plant still needs leaves to support continued growth. The best way to harvest rhubarb is by grasping the stalk near the base and pulling down in a twisting motion. Keep in mind that the leaves of rhubarb are poisonous; they contain oxalic acid. Cut off the leaves and discard them or toss them onto the compost pile. Don’t worry about using the compost in the garden as plants are unable to take up oxalic acid from the soil.
  • Transplant or continue to transplant frost tolerant vegetables to the garden. This includes: onions, leeks, lettuce, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard and kohlrabi. Also, sow seeds of lettuce, spinach, radish, turnips, onions and peas.
  • Plant strawberries. There are three types of strawberries: June-bearing which produce a large crop in mid-June to early July, ever-bearing which yields somewhat lighter crops in late June and again in early fall, and day-neutral which continue to yield fruit through much of the growing season. Space the plants two feet apart in rows that are four feet apart. That means you’ll need 50 plants per 100 feet of row. Fifty plants should yield between 50 and 75 quarts of fruit. I’m drooling!
  • Protect transplanted vegetables from cutworms by placing collars of aluminum foil or cardboard around transplants. The bottom of the collars should be pushed a few inches into the soil and extend a few inches above the ground. Scattering crushed eggshells or diatomaceous earth over the soil around plants may help deter the cutworms. The worms tend to favor young plants in the cabbage family but will also sever the stem of other seedlings.
  • Dig up, divide, and replant ornamental grasses. This needs to be done every few years, especially when the center of the grass clump appears to be dead, a normal habit for many ornamental grass species.
  • Keep an eye out for Eastern tent caterpillars. They are now hatching and will soon be munching on the emerging leaves of apple, crabapple and cherry trees, including the ornamental varieties. Safe pesticides to spray onto caterpillar-infested foliage include products containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) or spinosad, a fermentation product.

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.

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