We all have pictures in our minds of how a garden should look with it's weed free rows growing this winters produce or maybe it is just a small backyard garden where we go to get the salad fixings for supper. But what if you can't garden in that manner? What if your backyard is too shady or you live in an apartment with a balcony, or you have really bad dirt and you can't get enough amendments in it to make soil. It is maybe time to look at how to container garden.
What is container gardening?
Simply put, container gardening is growing vegetables and/or flowers in a container containing some sort of soil medium. Many people put flowers in planters to decorate the deck or the front step and although the beauty of flowers is important, what if a person incorporated some vegetables in those planters. You are now container gardening.
What kind of container to use?
Simply put, whatever you have access to. It could be plant pots, old rusting canning pots, 5 gallon buckets, old kiddy pool, water troughs, water tanks or something you build like a raised bed. It just needs to be able to hold soil and it need not be new, the plants don't care. As long as they have good soil in which to grow, some sunshine, and some water they will turn that maybe not so pretty container into a thing of beauty. After all, we just want to grow food. And okay, maybe some flowers for the sheer enjoyment and benefits to the pollinators.
But if you don't want to have these used items all over your yard, there are some nice containers that you can purchase such as grow bags, green stalk vertical planters, or metal raised beds such as the Birdies Raised Beds. .
Living in town I had many a container with plants in them. But even here living My Boreal Homestead Life, where I have a very sizeable in ground garden, I still grow in containers...
I grow herbs in pots and bring them in in the fall for use during the winter months. I have been bringing this potted parsley in for about 5 years now.
I had a water tank land on its head at 40 below and crack. In the spring I cut it in half, filled it with top soil and some good compost and planted it. I have grown everything like lettuce, carrots, radish, and basil in these containers. And the nice thing is you can start things a little earlier because the soil warms sooner. They may not be pretty, but they are effective. I also use the bigger pot in the back for planting some herbs and flowers in to give the boost of color.
But once you get them seeded and things start to grow, they change the whole appearance to one of beauty and high food production. This was in July of 2021.
On the east edge of my in ground garden, I have struggled with growing anything because of tree roots and quack grass. I struggled with it for years and in June, 2021 I decided that I was going to build myself some raised beds. They are 4' X 8' and are 11 inches deep. I used non treated 2x6 because I did not want the treatment in contact with the soil. Prior to constructing the beds, I cut up some used mini bulk bags I had gotten feed in and laid them on the leveled ground to act as a woven weed fabric. The mini bulk bags are constructed of the same material as woven weed fabric and so they allow for air and water movement, but I am hopeful that they will stop the quack grass from getting established.
After the beds were built, I filled them with good composted horse manure and some top soil. Then I planted them with all sorts of greens, two varieties of strawberries and some perennial herbs.And yet again, once things grow up, the not so nice looking raised beds turn into a thing of beauty and high food production. This was in August, 2021.
In the fall, I then planted my hard necked garlic. In the spring of 2022, I discovered that although the strawberries and garlic did fine, all but one of my six perennial herbs winter killed. I will have to replant those elsewhere or plant it deeper into the beds to give more winter protection. They may not be the nicest thing around but they sure produce a lot of food. Cost of each bed was about 30.00 CDN - 40.00 CDN, plus the effort. But the amount of food each bed produced more than covered that cost. Granted, I had the composted manure so if you had to buy it, it would cost a bit more. However, most farmers have manure you can get very reasonable.
What kind of soil do I use in my container?
There are many schools of thought on this. Some people will only use a commercial potting mix containing water retention beads whilst others use soil from their garden mixed with some compost. Is there a right or wrong answer? In my opinion, not really. You use what you have. I have used all types of soil and quite honestly, usually it is a combination of all of the above including soil from past container gardens - I will put my garden soil in the bottom of the container and mix it with some compost if I have it and then on top I will add some commercial potting mix (organic if I can get it). I mix it as best as I can and plant my plants. I find that doing so gives the benefit of all soil types for such things as soil biology and water retention. As an added bonus (or maybe not) it makes the container heavier so that it is less likely to blow over once the plants get bigger.
What to plant in your containers?
You can plant almost anything in a container that you would plant in an in ground garden.
The type of plant that you will plant into a specific container is an important factor to consider as planting something that gets to big for its container will mean having to water multiple times a day, smaller production and possible death due to lack of moisture and nutrients. Knowing how big the root system will get and how big the plant will get is what decides the success of the container garden. As an example you would not plant a bush beef stake tomato in a 10 " plant pot. The plant will quickly outgrow the pot and will eventually die and in the process take your enthusiasm for container gardening with it.
Researching the growth habits of the plants you want to grow will aid you with deciding this. Paying attention to varieties can make a difference as well. Growth characteristics like lettuce is shallow rooted and grows to only maybe 10 inches tall, but it likes water; Or that carrots need to be able to have about a foot of dirt to be able to actually grow the carrot; Or, that tomatoes can grow 5' tall and have a very large root system. All these growth characteristics will help to dictate the type and size of container to use. For the lettuce, a pot that is about 12 - 16" deep would work nicely to help retain moisture during hot periods if you drop the seed density back and maybe use soil that contains more water retention beads. For the carrots a 5 gallon bucket or a kids paddling pool would work nicely to grow the carrots in. And if you want to grow a bush beef stake tomato, a muck bucket or a 5 gallon pail will be needed to allow the weight to hold it upright, with staking, but also allow for moisture retention when it reaches maturity. But that said, if you are growing a cherry tomato variety, a 10 - 12" plant pot would work nicely.
Do I need to fertilize?
It is a good idea. As your container garden is not dissimilar to a house plant, over time the plants use up the nutrients that are contained within the soil and they need to be replaced. This can be done by topdressing the soil with some good rich compost or by using a granular fertilizer or by using a liquid fertilizer. Personally, I like to use fish emulsion when the plants are small which has a Nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 2-3-0. Once the plants are planted into the containers I typically fertilize with a 1/4 strength solution of ProMix Premium Organic based Multi-purpose garden fertilizer which has a Nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium ratio of 20-8-8.
Can you container garden?
I really believe that anyone can container garden and by doing so, put food on the table. It doesn't have to be this elaborate set up and you don't have to grow a year's worth of food. It can be just a pot of lettuce, or a pot of parley you bring in as a house plant or a tiny tim tomato or even just a few onions in a plant pot on you deck. The container garden can and will reward you in more ways than you can imagine.
I really hope you feel encouraged to give container gardening a try with whatever you have available to you. With a little experimentation, some research and some care you can be producing food to grace your table with little input costs.