Contain those vegetables

If you don’t have room for vegetable garden, or your soil is of poor quality, you can still raise your own vegetables! A window sill, patio, balcony, or doorstep can house containers full of home-grown goodness. Here are some tips to get you started.

Space, sun, water

Obviously a container is limited in size and space. Choose vegetables that grow in small areas such as carrots, radishes, lettuce, and kale. Or you can choose a plant that bears its fruit over time, like tomatoes and peppers. Limited space does lend itself to dwarf or miniature varieties, but as these do not produce as well as standard varieties, so you may want to try both. Also some companies are beginning to produce varieties specifically bred for container gardening (particularly cherry tomatoes), so have a look at your local gardening centre.

If you are growing vegetables for their fruits, you will need at least 5 hours of direct sun everyday (and 8-10 is better). One of the nice things about containers is that you can position them in the sunniest spots (rooftops are one example for urban dwellers). You can also help to enhance light in the area by surrounding your container with reflective materials – aluminum foil or white-tinted rocks. If you don’t have a site with that much light, root crops and leaf crops can perform well in partial shade.

Watering is particularly important with container plants. Because there is not all that much soil, containers can dry out quickly, especially on a concrete surface in full sun. Small pots dry out more quickly than larger ones, as well.

You may need to water every day or even twice a day. Water until it runs out of the drainage holes – obviously, if you are gardening on a balcony you will need to have trays under the plants to ensure you aren’t dripping on someone’s chairs! In cooler weather, you will need to watch for over-watering as roots can rot. Clay pot or other porous material are helpful to avoid rot, but may require additional water.

Which containers?

Container gardening can make an attractive addition to your property, jazzing up a dull patio, or providing a lush feel to an apartment balcony. Containers need to be big enough to support fully grown plants, contain soil with adequate drainage (holes in the bottom, in most cases), and contain no toxic elements. Most plants need containers at least 6 to 8 inches deep for adequate rooting.

Once you’ve met the basic requirements, you’re really only limited by your imagination, space, and budget. When choosing containers consider the following: Besides window boxes and pots, common containers include barrels, empty jugs and other large plastic containers (that have never contained toxic materials), and discarded home materials like sinks and bathtubs.

You can also build your own – just don’t use pressure-treated lumber; it leeches chemicals into the soil. Be sure containers are either large enough or well situated enough that they will not tip over. Another tip: add castors or use a dolly to make it easy to move containers, especially if you intend to move them from shady to sunny spots every day.

Soils and planting

A fairly lightweight potting mix is the best for container vegetable gardening. In most cases soil straight from the garden is too heavy for container gardening, as it will not drain adequately. Packaged potting soil is relatively lightweight and may make a good container medium. You’ll probably want to avoid soil-less mixes (such as peat-lite mix) as they don’t offer enough support for the plant, and making the container more vulnerable to tipping over.

You should plant at the same time you would in a standard garden. Fill the container to within the top inch and then sow seeds or set seedlings according to instructions on the package or plant, and then lightly soak with water.

Labelling plants helps to avoid confusion. If planting by seed, you should thin out your seedlings for proper spacing after they have two or three leaves.

You will also want to put supports in your pot for taller plants as early as possible to avoid root damage.

Once your plants are set up, you can tend them as you would any vegetable garden – as well as harvest and enjoy!

Photo © roelofse

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