2009-02-12 / News

Gardening 101: Growing in Containers

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

If you don't have a lot of garden space, you can grow plants in containers. A container can be a bucket, a hanging basket, a box, an old tire or just about anything else. It isn't difficult and you can tailor the soil to the needs of your plants.

For example, suppose you want to grow some of the new purple carrots. You'll need a deep container such as a 5-gallon pail. Make a mix of one-third compost, onethird sand and one-third screened loam, mix in some good quality fertilizer and you are good to go. If you want to grow very long high beta carotene carrots, increase the amount of sand and decrease the amount of loam to allow the roots to grow downwards.

You have a lot more control over your plants when grown in a container and can move them to shade to slow down ripening or put them in sun to speed up ripening. The biggest drawback to container growing is that most small containers run out of water very quickly and you will need to water almost every day and twice on hot, dry days.

Consequently, your yield will depend on how diligent you are with watering and how large the pot is. The basic rule of container gardening is that small pots grow small plants, that's how they can grow bonsai trees, so if you want large plants you'll need a large container. Large pots are heavy and should be located where you want them before you fill them or put them on wheels.

Choosing the right container

If you decide to grow tomatoes, you'll need a container that can hold at least a gallon of potting soil. That needs a pot at least a foot across and a foot deep. If you want a larger plant, you might try a wider pot. Tomatoes have fairly shallow roots that spread widely so the wider the pot, the better the plant will grow.

For most plants a gallon container will do quite well. You can fit peppers, eggplants, cabbage and most other brassicas, artichokes, even potatoes and onions in a one-gallon container. However, I find two or three leeks or onions are about the limit for a gallon container. I prefer to use a long container, such as a window box for leeks and onions where they can be planted about four or five inches apart.

Hanging Basket Herbs

If you've never done it, try putting a couple parsley plants, and a single thyme, tarragon, oregano and sage plant in an 18-inch hanging basket. Keep it well watered and hanging next to the kitchen door. Whenever you want fresh herbs, simply snip them off with scissors. A hanging basket like this can be kept going year round by bringing it indoors and placing it in a sunny window. If you want to make two herbal hanging baskets, put perennials like mint, chives, sage, thyme, oregano, and tarragon in one and put dill, parsley, basil, and cilantro or chervil in the other. At the end of the season you can simply empty the annual basket or bring it indoors and use the entire plant.

Growing potatoes

There's nothing quite like boiled new potatoes with a little butter and parsley or chives and they're so easy to grow. For a container, use a 5-gallon pail with one or two holes drilled in the bottom. Buy some early seed potatoes and put an inch of soil in the bottom of your pot. Put three or four seed potatoes on the soil and cover them. Leave them to grow until the tops are about three or four inches high, then fill the pot with another two to three inches of potting soil and compost or straw and dead leaves mixed with compost. Do not use any manure. As the potatoes grow four or five inches high, top off with a little more soil until you have filled the container. Let the spuds flower. After they flower, you can start rooting around for new potatoes. Just dig down a few inches until you can feel potatoes about one to two inches in diameter. Take a few from each plant. Try not to disturb the plants too much. If you want larger potatoes you can leave the tops to die back and then tip the container into your garden and pick the potatoes. No backache, simply clean fresh potatoes ready to be washed and cooked.

You can use the same technique for asparagus too, but this will take two years to get stalks and the plant may last for 15 years or more so your container needs to be long lasting. Simply arrange the crown on two to three inches of two-thirds well rotted manure and one-third loam. As the plant grows, gradually fill the pot until you have 12 to 18 inches of soil over the root. Do not harvest for the first two years, and on the third year take a few stalks. By the fourth or fifth year you can harvest stalks for May and June and let the plant grow to store energy for the following year. You'll need to fertilize the plant each spring, and keep it watered, but beyond that it'll take care of itself.

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