Container gardening part deux: Beyond thunderdome

April 14 |
Flowering Tomatillo
Thanks to iLiveinmyLab for sharing this shot of a flowering tomatillo in the Flickr group.
After reading Container Gardening, Part I you might have already planted seeds and felt excited over the first sprouts — OR were completely bummed that you can't even get a seed to sprout. You might also still be sitting around, waiting for the right time to plant.

If your first attempts were a complete failure, it's okay. Get out there, Google the issue you had (or see if this Texas A&M horticulture doc fixes your problem), and start a new batch. If you need to give your plants more light so they can get along later in the season, all you need is a grow light.

Putting a few seeds in pots is simple enough. What can you do to make a bangin' container garden?

Make it a tiny oasis and add visual interest

  • Create levels. Leave some containers on the ground, sit some on low tables, and add taller plants to the mix.
  • Okra is EASY-PEASEY, tall, and has beautiful blooms. Bonus: edible.
  • There are varieties of bamboo which will grow in almost every climate. If you give it a big enough pot, it'll grow tall and you can even move it indoors for the winter.
  • Begonias and geraniums are small, colorful, low maintenance flowers which grow well in hanging baskets.
  • Wildflowers are generally easy to maintain (and inexpensive!). You can buy packets with a mix of flowers for increased variety in color and height.

Learn even more:

  • Look for gardening groups local to you. Some have seed swaps in the spring, some have online communities on which they share expertise, and some arrange real life get-togethers at community gardens. All are good ways to learn.
  • Get one close gardening buddy. You can grow tomatoes, he can grow the peppers and you can both trade.
  • Start planning for next year by looking at the maaaaany varieties of heirloom seeds out there. There are a surprising number of breeds available through heirloom varieties — some of which might be better suited to your climate, skill or palette than others.

If your seeds have already begun sprouting, give us a report and share photos in the Flickr group. Tell us what you've learned in the comments or let us know what problems you've had so far.

Join our community!

  1. With okra – harvest them small! We were so proud last year when our okra pods were growing nice and big. We didn't realize they were becoming tough and inedible. Doh. All well.

    Random tip of the day – I heard parsley germinates better if you leave the (planted) seeds in the dark for two weeks. I did it last year and they sprouted really well. I didn't do it this year and I got a lot of germination but it seemed to take longer. Take that advice with a whole shaker full of salt, though, I wasn't counting the days or anything.

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  2. We have a back yard in the house that we rent and have to use containers as it's just wall to wall concrete (depressing!!).

    We've found peas to be pretty easy – no need for trellis either if you're pushed for space/don't have anywhere you can attach it.

    We've used a cane stick at either end of the container (about 150cm high) with a string between them at the top, with an individual string down from the top string for each pea plant. Once they reach the top of the strings, you simply trail them down the other side 🙂

    We also have spinach, beetroot and small varieties of carrot and parsnips growing this year for the first time in addition to the garden herbs that we started last year – about to get our first potatoes and onions container planted this weekend too 😀

  3. I hate okra, but now that this prompted me to look it up, I find that I like the actual plant. I think I might grow it and give the produce away to those people who inexplicably like okra! 😉

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    • Love it – "inexplicably like okra"! I grew up on the boiled snot variety and I agree it's really strange, but living so close to Louisiana (in Houston TX), I really like gumbo which almost always has okra in it. Fried is good too (in the south we fry literally almost everything – the TX state fair served Fried Butter one year, ick). Good luck with your growing efforts.

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  4. Bamboo can grow really well, but if you think you might ever plant it in the ground, make sure you get the none-spreading variety. Bamboo can take over an ecosystem.

    I love the idea of planting okra in containers! Does anyone know how large the container needs to be? I love okra!!

    • This is a question I keep wanting to ask about all of these things: what size containers do container gardens need?!

      • That depends on the plants you use. I've been working on my container garden for about a year, using the plastic trays that gardening centers use. The plants are sedums, which have shallow root systems.

        http://ascuedesign.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/IMG_2956-e1302868212179-682×1024.jpg

        My experiment for this summer is to make a planter like this one with strawberries so I have a strawberry wall. I just have to build the rack, but I've got all my little plants ready to go. I haven't had the best luck starting from seed (bad light on my balcony), but the plants seem to be doing well.

      • It really depends on the finished product you want. We grew enough basil last year to feed the entire state pesto, and that was just in two of those rectangular window box planters you can get for $5 at Big Lots. We've also had good luck with tomatoes (small, cherry sized fruits) in 12-15 in planters and mint, omg, mint will grow anywhere. Actually, most herbs, like oregano, sage, and mint, are invasive little buggers, so they work BETTER in containers.

        The trick is the size of the root structure. Some plants, like succulents, cacti, and the like, have very shallow roots. Some, like tomatoes, need to have their roots very deep. So, as long as you have a large enough container to account for all the varying depths necessary for the roots, you can plant a lot of things together. I've seen very nice Italian herb gardens for sale in one container at local big box stores (in fact, I rip off a lot of their expensive container ideas) that has oregano, basil, maybe chives or sage or parsley together.

        Also, and my last comment about containers, is to read the instructions on your seed package or pot insert to see how large your finished product will be and get a container to fit accordingly. Remember that your plants will only grow as large as the confines of their environment, so beefsteak tomatoes will not do well in a 12 in pot, but lavender can grow outrageously well in the same sized pot.

        • " I’ve seen very nice Italian herb gardens for sale in one container at local big box stores (in fact, I rip off a lot of their expensive container ideas) that has oregano, basil, maybe chives or sage or parsley together."

          Growing up, my dad did a lot of container and herb gardening, and that was one that he did -tomatos, oregano, basil and a couple garlic bulbs. It was referred to as the pizza box -and made some VERY excellent pizza.

  5. Has anyone ever had success with those inverted tomato planters? I am thinking of doing two of them since we only have about 7 by 3.5 feet on our little "patio" (back stoop) and i want to hang the ones from walmart someone offered me that have a tomato in the bottom and room for a plant above, I would so plant basil there.

    • My cohorts and I are giving them a go this summer — the Topsy Turvy came highly recommended.

      • There are some great instructables about how to make your own version of the inverted planters, too. 🙂

      • We bought a topsy turby for Strawberries and a knock off for Peppers that we are using for basil.
        I think we plan to get a topsy turby for tomatoes too, we have very little space so I hope it works, i plan to fill a planter with Mint on the patio and grow chives indoor

    • I've found that hanging containers are often slightly smaller than other containers, and usually vertical, so they gather less rain on their own.

      To keep them wet enough, they need to be either big enough to hold moisture for a couple of days, or watered every day or so, or planted fairly lightly.

    • So I tried the topsy turvy planters on my tiny porch a few years ago and they were a HUGE epic fail for me at least. I'm not sure if it was because of our climate or because of issues with the wind but the tomatoes did absolutely nothing (they barely grew). The other big problem was when it got windy it would nearly tip over which was no fun. So now we stick to ground containers since I know I can at least get those to work.

    • I've done the topsy turvy and they worked well, except for the fact that they were so high up that I had a difficult time reaching them for watering, so they died. But that was my fault and not a design flaw. I wouldn't be opposed to doing it again…in fact, I'm thinking about having a swingset kind of A-frame thing made at eye-level height to suit that purpose, and I know just where to put it!

  6. I'm a big proponent of cultivating traditional open pollinated plant varieties; I use them exclusively in the 1890s kitchen garden at the living history farm where I work. However, it's good to keep in mind that the term "heirloom" is non-standard. Usually it means the seed or variety was available before 1951 when the first hybrid varieties came on the market, but comes with a whole host of other baggage. Hybrid varieties generally have characteristics that make them more productive, more tolerant of extreme heat or cold, or resistant to disease and pests, but they generally won't reproduce true to type (you can't save seed to plant next year).

    Check out your seed and the company you purchase from to be sure that the traits you think you're buying along with the heirloom label are actually what you're getting. Seed Savers (the company in the link) is one of the most responsible seed companies out there when it comes to clear labeling.

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  7. A friend gave us two large self-watering containers. Our tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and sunflowers are doing great, but I think mosquitoes are breeding in the reservoirs! I don't know what to do about that.

    • Close any part that's open to the air. Usually they're designed with the water reservoirs under the dirt, and a tube to pour water in. If you cover the tube with a cap, saran wrap, duct tape, or whatever else you have handy, adults won't be able to get in to lay eggs, and the babies won't be able to get out to nom you.

      You could also change the water. Cleaning out a reservoir is a lot like cleaning a fish tank.

      If you really need to buy something to kill them, there are bacteria that are pretty unfriendly to them, which can be bought online, and some cleansers that break down into food safe chemicals (vinegar, hydrogen peroxide…) but I'd prefer to avoid these approaches on food plants.

  8. Thanks for using my photo Cat! I should take more photos of the Tomatillo soon, it's literally taking over my porch! I have high hopes of home made salsa in my future….

  9. My sister in law wrote a book about urban homesteading that just came out and there is great information in it on container gardens. It's geared towards people who want to make sustainable gardens but don't have a lot of space or knowledge. The book is called "Modern Homestead" by Renee Wilkinson and her blog is http://www.hipchickdigs.com/
    if you wanted to see the garden information she has there. Check it out!

  10. I'm growing string beans in pots on my deck… they're winding their pretty vines all around the railings. Love. 🙂

  11. RE: the Topsy Turvy thing – we tried both TT's and containers for our tomatoes last year, and we had much better luck with plain ol' containers. The TT's didn't seem to do anything spectacular, and we even had a few problems with the plants breaking off at the base during high wind. (Luckily, the ones that broke off were able to be replanted in a container and continued to fruit for the rest of the season.) We're going to give them another shot this year, since it really did double our growing space on the balcony, but if we have similar results, this summer will probably be the last time we use them. The containers had higher yields for us. (YMMV, of course.) I read that you can grow eggplants in them, so we're going to try that, although I'm not super-confident in that plan. Has anyone tried this? It seems like a heavy eggplant would be even more prone to breakage than your standard tomato.

    • They are GREAT for space-saving, but yeah — I think it helps to choose a suitable plant that bears smaller fruit. My TT did well last year — not as good as my in-the-ground maters, but much much better than the ones I had in large containers.

      • Yeah, I think I'll abandon that plan, put the eggplant in a container, and use the TT for cherry tomatoes, if for no other reason than how angry my neighbors would be if an eggplant dive-bombed their cars parked beneath us!

  12. I recently picked up "The Edible Balcony: Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces" by Alex Mitchell. It has lots of good information and funky ideas for container gardening.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation – I added it to my "to read" shelf on goodreads. I'm always looking for more ways to maximize our balcony jungle! =)

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