Whether you have already begun your container gardening adventure or are just getting started, you’ve probably realized that container gardening presents many advantages over traditional in-ground gardening. Aside from being a great way to grow some of your own food in small spaces, as a container gardener you can exert more control over a number of variables that can sabotage an in-ground garden, like weather, pests, and soil quality. I covered these and other matters in last month’s post on container gardening. This post addresses some of the practical matters involved in not only starting your container garden, but helping it to thrive. Here are 8 things you should be doing to keep your container garden healthy, happy, and productive well into the fall season.
First, you need to find a suitable location for your container garden. This can be a deck, backyard or front yard. A container garden can also be a nice complement to an in-ground or raised bed garden. The most important thing to remember is that vegetable and fruit plants typically need lots of sunlight, so aim to keep your containers in a spot that gets at least 4-5 hours of direct sunlight each day, or 6 for plants that need full sun. To determine the amount of light in any given spot, just observe it at different times of the day. Pop outside for half a minute every few hours and look at the light. Do you have any obstructions that block the sunlight during part of the day (like trees, bushes, or buildings)?
Figuring out how much light you have to work with will narrow down the kinds of plants you can grow – trying to grow sun-loving veggies like tomatoes in spaces that get less than 6 hours of light each day is only going to lead to constant battles with pests and diseases, a poor harvest, and lots of frustration for you. If you’re only growing a few herbs in pots, you can use a sunny window to grow your harvest. Indoor grow lights can work, too, but these require a lot more know-how and may not be suitable for the novice gardener. If your garden doesn’t have much light, you can still grow a healthy variety of leafy green plants like Swiss Chard that will keep producing well into the cool season.
Clay or plastic container garden?
The answer to this is – at least in part – dependent on your aesthetic preference. Unglazed clay pots are more attractive, and their color matches almost every garden palette. They also make a healthy environment for most plants, enabling plants to better withstand rapid changes in temperature, which plastic can’t do. Because they are porous, clay pots allow air and light to easily penetrate and escape the pot. This may also be a disadvantage to some gardeners, since it means that they dry out a lot faster than plastic pots. Plastic is also lighter and thus easier to move around. However, if you use casters on the bottom of your pots, moving them around your space won’t be much of an issue. If you tend to overwater your plants, clay may be a better choice for you, since the material wicks away moisture. For the best of both worlds, you can insert plastic post into a clay pot and reap some of the advantages of both materials.
Grow sensibly for a thriving harvest
I generally recommend that novice gardeners start out small, with a narrow range of plants. That way, it’s easier to develop an understanding of what each plant likes and how to help it thrive. Some plants are also more prone to problems that can easily frustrate the beginner gardener, so I suggest that if you’re just beginning your growing adventures, you start out with something that is fairly easy to maintain, like leafy green veggies (in summer, grown only those that can tolerate some heat, like chard and kale) and herbs. Carrots are also easy to grow in pots, and tomatoes can be too, although they are prone to a few problems, especially from weather-related events (for example, too much moisture can cause blossom-end rot) or pests like tomato hornworms (which can be hard to spot on the plant until they’ve grown very large). Strawberries are prolific growers and don’t need much space. Blueberries can be great producers, but you need two plants to get a decent harvest. Eggplants are also easy for the novice gardener to grow. Finally, basil, green beans, oregano, radishes, potatoes, and bell peppers are fairly easy.
Of course, the ease or challenge of growing veggies, fruits, and herbs are going to depend on the particular conditions in your area and on your willingness or ability to deal with the inevitable challenges of weather, pests, and animals that can spoil or pilfer your harvest. One of my first attempts to grow vegetables was with cabbage plants, when I lived in Seattle. The first season was a struggle, and hardly produced enough for a meal. By the second season, though, I had gotten to know a bit more about cabbage, and my tiny plot produced so much cabbage I had to constantly give it away. With a little practice, you’ll be able to overcome most obstacles and grow your way to a bountiful harvest.
Planting from seeds vs transplants
If you’re getting a late start on your garden, transplants are the way to go, though there will be fewer options at your local nursery the longer you wait. It’s a lot cheaper to grow from seeds, and you can get greater variety, especially if you shop from seed catalogs, trade or barter seeds with other growers, or harvest seeds from your own garden each year, but first you have to make sure your seeds are viable and will grow healthy. Once you get them germinated, there are a few things you should do to make sure they stay healthy until you transplant them into a larger pot, which you can read about in this post by The Spruce.
If you’re transplanting from smaller to larger pots, you may find that the roots of your plants have become root-bound. In other words, when the roots have nowhere else to go in a pot that they’ve outgrown, they grow around and around each other, becoming a tangled mess. There are two ways to deal with this, because just planting a root-bound plant in the soil with no prep beforehand will mean stunted growth and a poorer harvest. You can gently untangle the roots with your fingers before transplanting them in the soil. Even better, gently untangle the roots as best you can, then let the roots soak in a tub of water (and liquid nutrients, if possible) before transplanting them. This ensures that the roots are able to get their fill and expand before they are packed into soil.
Get the dirt on soil choice and care
Speaking of soil, choosing and prepping the planting medium is one of the most important elements of getting an abundant and long-producing harvest from your container garden. Unfortunately, it’s also something that a lot of gardeners, whether novice or experienced, neglect. I covered this topic in detail in a previous post, so I’ll keep it short here. The most important things to remember are one, you should always use a potting soil mix (not soil from the ground!), as potting mixes are formulated specifically for container plants; two, don’t reuse soil, as it may contain pests and will no longer contain the nutrients your plant needs to thrive; and three, you may need to add things like perlite or vermiculite to the mix (for drainage) or compost or earthworm castings (for enrichment) to improve the quality of your soil before planting.
Maximize space in your container garden
Small-space gardening for a truly abundant harvest is an art and a skill that takes time to develop. However, any gardener can maximize his or her space by using a few key tools that allow your plants to grow up and spread vertically. Plants like tomatoes will need to be staked once they begin growing in earnest. A simple wooden, bamboo, or plastic stake or pole will do the trick, and you can bind the plant to the stake using garden Velcro, clips, or even string in a pinch (tied very loosely and in a bow for easy adjustment so it doesn’t cut into the stem of the plant as it grows). Store-bought tomato cages are expensive and, in most cases unnecessary, but you can easily make your own tomato cage using one of these DIY plans. (Cages can also make it easier to keep animals out of your tomato plant, as squirrels and birds will happily help themselves to your harvest otherwise).
To prune or not to prune?
Some gardeners swear by heavily pruning certain plants that you buy as seedlings in order to get a bigger harvest. I’ve had mixed results with this technique, so only hesitatingly recommend it. In my opinion, pruning transplants works best with certain kinds of plants: (indeterminate) tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and hot peppers. You can also prune leafy green vegetables like kale and chard in order to keep them producing well into the fall. Most experts say that otherwise, you should prune selectively, using your fingers, and only prune damaged or discolored leaves. Personally, I do minimal pruning and use specially formulated fertilizers and enzymes to add good bacteria to the soil.
Finally, don’t forget to invite some friends
If there is one gospel of companion planting I am eager to preach, it is that the plants in your garden will perform their best when they are surrounded by their friends. Companion planting – grouping plants together that benefit each other – is a great way to maximize the space in your containers, crowd out weeds, help prevent pests from taking over, and add nutrients to the soil to help your plants grow (and taste) better. For example, tomatoes grow sweeter when they are planted alongside basil. Carrots like to be near peas. Peppers thrive when planted near parsley, chives, or tomatoes. Eggplants benefit from the nitrogen that peas or beans leach into the soil. And did you know that potatos can help fertilize your roses (see gardening hack #16)? Adding marigolds around the border of all your containers attracts the beneficial insects that will help pollinate your produce and also make your harvest more abundant.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Green and Prosperous is developing a new course on summer through fall container gardening, which will be launching in a few short weeks! Sign up to the mailing list to get notified about course updates and for access to members-only discount pricing. In the meantime, by signing up, you’ll also be able to access our free resource library, which contains planting guides and recipes for all those delicious dishes you’ll be able to make with your homegrown veggies!
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