Container Gardening: Background Info
To support America’s war effort and feed their families, people in the U.S. planted 20 million victory gardens during World War II, growing nearly 40 percent of all vegetables eaten across the country.
Victory gardeners quickly learned that they didn’t need a plot of land to grow food. If they couldn’t find a piece of land to till they grew their food in containers of all shapes and sizes, placing them on windowsills, doorsteps, patios, and rooftops.
Food quality and security motivate people to plant modern victory gardens of every imaginable size, shape, and design. The creative use of containers extends the victory garden concept to anyone who wants to grow some food, no matter where or how they live.
Plants to Grow in Containers
Most vegetables can adapt to life in containers, given the right care and conditions. Smaller varieties of your favorite vegetables are often best suited to growing in containers. The names of these space-saving plants hint at their size: space master, space miser, bush, dwarf, etc.
Planting in Containers
Whether you start with seeds or transplants depends on the crops. Direct seeding is fine for greens, beans, and root crops. For eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers plant seedlings. Planting time varies by type of vegetable, just as is does in the garden.
Types of Containers to Use
Plants will grow in just about anything as long as it’s big enough and has drainage. (Of course it’s best to avoid containers that have held anything toxic, such as oil drums and pesticide cans.) For sanitation purposes it’s a good idea to clean containers with a ten percent bleach solution before using them.
Creative gardeners find homes for their plants in old bathtubs and toilets, styrofoam coolers, and watering troughs. Hanging pots and window boxes are good solutions where there’s no surface to set a pot on.
Grow bags, which are basically sturdy plastic bags with holes, come in quart and gallon sizes. You don’t have to spend much, or even any, money on containers. The thriftiest of gardeners just rip open a bag of potting mix, poke a few holes in the bottom, and plant their tomatoes or cukes right in the bag. These Smart Pots work well, and the pot wraps around the soil keeping it moist.
Edible green walls are a new twist on space-saving container growing, like this Pocket Vertical Garden Planter.
If your containers don’t come with holes, drill or punch a few quarter-inch holes in the bottom, and cover the holes with wire or plastic mesh to keep the soil in and little critters out. Some growers like to put a layer of gravel on top of the mesh.
Don’t put your container in a saucer or solid outer container, or the water won’t be able to drain out, defeating the purpose of the holes.
You can grow one small-size tomato plant, two or three green bean plants, two cucumber plants, or one cabbage in a one-gallon (or larger) container. You’ll need a three-to-five-gallon container for one standard size tomato plant, one eggplant, or two sweet pepper plants. The bigger the pot the less time you will have to spend watering.
Container Gardening Planting Mix
Experts on container growing recommend against using garden soil in containers, because garden soil is heavy, slow to drain, and may contain disease and insect pests that can damage plants. Instead they suggest buying commercial potting mixes or making your own from equal parts of perlite, compost, and potting soil. Some gardeners, however, report success with using soil right from the garden, either by itself or as part of a mix. Whatever you use, make sure it’s light and well drained and has plenty of organic matter.
Growing Conditions for Container Gardening
Ideal growing conditions depend on the vegetables you are growing and where you are growing them. Most vegetables grow best in full sun, which means at least six hours a day of sunlight. Fruit-bearing crops such as tomatoes and peppers definitely need full sun. Radishes, beets, and other root crops can tolerate some shade, while leafy vegetables can manage with even less sun.
In hot, sunny climates you may have to protect your plants from too much sun. You can do that by moving them into the shade or erecting sunscreens above them. Strong winds can damage plants and desiccate leaves in short; again, protection may be needed.
Food and Water when Container Gardening
Because containers dry out more quickly than the ground, your plants will need daily water checks. Dried out soil can have a disastrous effect on container crops. Poke a finger an inch down into the soil, and water if the soil feels dry. Irrigate slowly and gently until the water runs out the drainage holes. Self-irrigating containers and drip irrigation systems make watering easier.
Fertilization needs vary according to the crops, and which advice you listen to. In general your plants will need frequent, light watering with a balanced soluble fertilizer. Organic gardeners can use manure tea, fish emulsion, or liquid kelp.
Container Gardening Support
Plants that need support in the garden need support in containers. You can use tomato cages, trellises, teepees, or string.
Container Gardening Problems
Container-grown plants are vulnerable to the same insect and disease pests as are their garden-grown counterparts. Keep a close eye on the plants so you can deal with any problems before they become serious. Poor drainage is a particular problem for container plants; the plants wilt even though they have plenty of water.
Container Gardening and Harvesting
Container growing makes harvesting easy. You don’t have to bend down so low and your vegetables will be cleaner because they are not sitting on the ground. Follow the recommended harvesting methods for the different crops. To keep your vegetables coming harvest when the crops are relatively small.
Want to learn more about container gardening?
Your local cooperative extension service can give you specific growing instructions for your location. The Internet has tons of great information for growing vegetables in containers.
The Iowas University Extension has a .pdf with great information related to Container Vegetable Gardening.
The College of Agriculture from The University of Arizona has a page dedicated to Vegetable Gardening: Container Garden.
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