Container gardening for the space-impaired — it’s so simple, you’ll cry over your first tomato

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Just because you don’t have a backyard or community garden plot or a whit of a clue about growing things doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the gardening fun of warm weather months. So, apartment-dwellers: let’s talk container gardening.

Now, I’m a DIY evangelist. I love nothing more than to yell from the mountaintops that projects are often WAY easier than they seem. They aren’t scary at all. And here’s the secret to gardening: Many, many plants are super-duper easy to grow. Just about any vegetable can be grown in a container, as long as you provide it with the proper nourishment, light conditions, and space.

The hardest part is getting started. Many of these plants have born fruit under the care of generations of people less smart than you. The truth is: basic veggies are dead fucking easy. If you can be a bit empathetic to them, you’ll go far.

Let’s get started.

Choose your plants

Start now! If you want to grow things like tomatoes and bell peppers from seeds, you’ll need to start them soon. Many seed packets instruct growers to “start indoors _____ weeks before last frost.” Here’s info on last frost dates in the US — I’m unable to find info on frost dates in the UK and Europe, but your local garden center should be able to help.

Start with these plants, and add other species as you see fit.

  • Herbs like basil, thyme, catnip, mint, rosemary, oregano and coriander are easy to sprout and maintain and are delicious additions to your diet — and they are SO MUCH CHEAPER to grow than to buy. In my neck of the woods, sprigs of cilantro sell at market for $3-$4 and only last a few days in my fridge. A packet of seeds can be as little as a buck. AND come early fall, you can dry and save them for winter use.
  • Tomatoes do well in containers, and often produce enough to share with friends. I prefer growing them from seedlings, not seeds — they’re a bit more expensive but worth the savings in time. You can buy seedlings in any nursery from about the end of March through the end of April. My friend recommends the Topsy Turvy planter — I’ll either buy or make one to save space this summer.
  • Bell and hot pepper plants are similarly easy to grow, tasty, and useful (and have you SEEN the price of bell peppers lately?!) Save time by purchasing these as seedlings as well.
  • RADISHES. So easy, so tasty, and so quick to mature. Start from seeds and rejoice in their speedy spicy goodness. You can even just pick the sprouts and use them on salads.

Gather the right supplies

To start you’ll need:

  • containers
  • potting soil
  • a watering can/container
  • a small spade
  • seeds/plants

Your potting soil should be a good mix containing peat, perlite or vermiculite for better drainage.

When buying containers, consider the following:

  • Choose a high-quality container over a cheap one — clay over plastic, for example. Crappier containers will break more easily, and you’ll soon spend more money to replace them.
  • A larger container will give the plant ample space and require less watering overall — great because over-watering drains away nutrients from your soil. When possible, go larger.
  • CHOOSE CONTAINERS WITH GOOD DRAINAGE. Holes in the bottom are a must.

Growing your vegetables

After you’ve planted according to packet instructions, you need to do just a little upkeep.

  • Most potting soils will keep your plants happy for 8-10 weeks. After that, use a water-soluble fertilizer as directed. I suck at this too. This is why my indoor plants never live past 8-10 weeks.
  • Mind your watering. I still suck at this. As my green-thumbed mother tells me over and over, you’re more likely to to kill a plant by over- or under-watering (watering often enough, but not with enough volume) than by exposing your plants to drought. The best way to water is to wait until your soil is barely moist about an inch below the surface, then pour water over the pot until it runs out the drainage holes.
  • Most veggies want full sun. HOWEVER: container gardening is a bit different, as containers heat up faster than the ground and this can damage the plants. Either arrange for your plants to have some shade, or arrange for them to be in a place out of direct sunlight, but where they still benefit from light reflecting from surfaces around them.
Late Spring / Early Summer 2007

Good luck, and good eating! You will have failures, but you should also have the giddy success of eating your own awesome food.

PLEASE share your expertise in the comments. I’ve only had the benefit of learning to garden in extremely fertile Iowa soil; I’m looking forward to learning more from you!

Comments on Container gardening for the space-impaired — it’s so simple, you’ll cry over your first tomato

  1. For those of you who have watering issues: I am totally in love with those Aqua Globe things–I got a set of the mini ones for Christmas and they’re perfect for my little pots of indoor herbs and the like.

    I also have tried starting plants in glass jars–might turn out to be a bad idea, but for now my seedlings are looking pretty good. The jar functions much like a terrarium, so I don’t have to do much watering.

    Hopefully sooner or later I’ll be able to move somewhere where I have a balcony or some outdoor space to put my plants. Until then, my little windowsill must accomodate all the little pots!

    PS: For all of you with indoor cats, I feel for you. My cat, who refuses to eat any and all people-food, killed my bean plants. He ate all the leaves over the course of a few days.

  2. After most of a decade of looking I finally found a definitive book on container gardening, “The Vegetable Gardener’s Container Bible” by Edward C. Smith. It’s clearly written, goes into depth about some of the questions coming up here (according to him, the way to keep water-hungry plants alive in arid climates is to use commercial or DIY pots that have extra water reservoirs so that the plants can evapotranspirate their little hearts out without drying out and croaking).

  3. See, my problem is that I live on Prince Edward Island. Which is very windy, rainy, and has a short growing season courtesy of being located the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I have no idea what I can grow outside on my balcony that fits in those parameters. I’d like to grow tomatos and herbs to start but I haven’t a clue where to begin.

    • Maybe you can make yourself a mini greenhouse? I haven’t tried it yet, but I keep thinking I could just make the fourth wall of the greenhouse the outside wall of our apt…

  4. Zoot! I can’t help you, but if you find out let me know because I live in Newfoundland and I know exactly what you’re going through! lol Actually NL may even be a bit worse.

  5. Anyone got hints or tips or whatever on indoor container gardening when you have pretty bad pollen allergies? I’m starting cilantro, chives, dill(just sprouted!), marigolds (also just sprouted!), and parsley, and have two tiny pots of grass, but I’m afraid to start anything else. I don’t particularly care for flowers, so it’s less of a worry, I just want to have some small indoor things to take care of that won’t make my eyes swell shut and my throat and nose unbearable.

    • The only thing I’ve heard is that rosemary is actually good for helping with allergies. If eating it helps, I’d think growing it might too. Worth a try.

  6. Although clay containers are far better looking than plastic, the soil in plain clay pots will dry out much faster than plastic…or glazed ceramic which is much more expensive…and require much more water. I only pant cactus , succulents and plants that like dry soil in plain ceramic…otherwise I have to water every day in the summer and run my water bill to counterproductive rates.

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