Container gardening, what works?

March 15 2013 | offbeatbride
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Container garden with sweet potatoes by Marco BecerraCC BY 2.0
I keep trying to plant anything, but the only thing that has taken root in the soil around this house is a clematis and it is pretty and all, but I want to try and get some of our favorite produce from what we grow.

I have been poking around and growing sweet potatoes in containers looks to be easy enough. So, I would like to do a potato box, too. But should we put that on our deck? Or would the cement patio be better? What else grows well in containers? (In the Northern Mid-west?) I know we can't put anything out until near the end of May, but when should we start the sweet potatoes? Or… you know… any other suggestions?

With your advice, I'm really hoping we can be more sustainable this year. –Cat P.

First, have you read these posts?

Both were written by Cat Rocketship, who's also in the Midwest. It also might be worth trawling our entire container gardens archive. That said, perhaps Homies have some more specific suggestions about sweet potatoes…

  1. You can grow LOTS of things you can eat in containers! Lettuce is awesome, the leaf kind, not iceberg. You can eat ornamental kale! Your could trellis peas or climbing beans. I've heard rumors you can grow zucchini in a pot. I've grown tomatoes in a pot. Peppers work well. If you can eat it it's worth seeing if you can grow it in a pot.

    The big thing with growing veggies in a pot is quality soil, use fresh soil, preferably organic. With lots of organic mater in it, you are probably going to want to fertilize. And water, water, water. If your petunia gets dried out and drops all of it's blossoms it just looks kind of shitty for awhile. If your tomato plant gets dried out and drops all of it's blossoms there goes your crop.

    Good luck on this adventure. I'd recommend http://www.artichokesandzinnias.com for suggestions on plants, and because she's kind of awesome.

      • Yougrowgirl is AWESOME. She also has 3-4 illustrated books on vegetable and herb gardening that take you through selecting and starting seedlings to harvesting and recipes to use your harvest.

    • I've grown tomatoes in pots– particularly cherry tomatoes. They grow like crazy! I also had great success with green and red bell peppers, spaghetti squash, and a wide variety of herbs– particularly basil. I want to try lettuce this year!

      I will say, my cucumbers were DISGUSTING. I have no idea what I did wrong, but it was completely inedible. πŸ™

      • Inedible how? If they were tough with big, tough, woody seeds and very little flesh you may just been picking them too late.

        • The plants really only last a few months! If you want a fresher, longer harvest, you need to continually propagate your plants. As soon as you have a branch of basil with 5-7 leaves on it, and it doesn't take up more than 1/3 of the plant, cut it and put it in water on your windowsill. It will grow roots in a week or so, and then you can plant it in another spot. Basil is the easiest to root.
          This summer I am going to try the cutting method for cilantro, where you basically never let the plant mature by continually trimming it.
          It is important for all herbs to not let them flower, so keep pruning, even if you aren't using the trimmings! When you are done using the plant, it is ok for it to flower, and it might be able to re-seed itself in the same spot for next year!

  2. A few things – find your local extension office, a google search should do the trick. They'll have all kinds of *local* advice for you on conditions, varieties for your climate, and planting times. πŸ™‚

    I'm fond of gardenweb.com forums – there's SOOOO much info there, it's easily searchable through google (or other means), and really, there's a subforum for *everyone*. (I'm usually in Winter Sowing, myself. πŸ˜‰ )

    You might want to move potatoes to a patio, just due to water pooling on a deck; but that really does depend on how large a bin you're thinking. Herbs are often suggested to grow in containers, actually, as some of them spread very easily when planted directly (mint, I'm looking at you!). Spinach seeds you can just sprinkle on the snow and they'll settle when it melts, they're a very early cold crop. (So that end-of-May thought may not be accurate, depending on the crop. πŸ˜‰ ) Peas I usually sprout indoors with a damp coffee filter and a baggie, then plant when night temps are around 40-50F. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, swiss chard, are all good container crops. Rhubarb is an uncommon choice for some lately, but that would work well also, and it's a perennial, so if you like it, put it in the mix. πŸ™‚
    Let's see… beans, cukes, carrots, radishes also – carrots especially seem to do well in containers, and there's all kinds of crazy varieties you'd never see in a store.

    Really… there's TONS out there, I probably wouldn't try any kind of melon or gourd myself, but I know of folks who've tried corn and that's worked, even. πŸ˜€ The big difference in container gardening is a matter of space and effort – if you have the room, or large enough containers, there's no problem there; and even in some cases, there are miniature varieties. The effort comes of managing water and nutrients – a good mix and some care takes care of the second, and there's lots of ways people have worked around the first (drip watering, bottom watering, or the old standby watering can all come to mind here). Go make a wishlist and get your hands dirty! πŸ™‚

  3. With regards to location, put the containers wherever you get the best sun, especially for fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers. You need full sun for them to bear.

    Second, you need large containers. Five gallon buckets with holes poked in the bottom work well.

    Third, it takes a lot of watering. You need to water whenever they dry out which is typically at least once a day in sunny weather.

    For what to grow: tomatoes, pepper, assorted greens (generally need a little less sun), potato bins (excellent drainage is key), zucchini. In general, dwarfed varieties are better. What won't grow well in a containers is very large plants like vining winter squashes. There just isn't enough soil.

    • not for the original questioner's location, but note that if you live in the south the definition of "full sun" may need to be taken with a grain of "whoever wrote this book doesn't know about 100+ degree days".

      peppers and tomatoes do need a lot of sun to thrive, but they can also get "burned" if they're in full sun on *really* hot days. that's one of the advantages of a container garden, though – you can have full sun in the spring and move them to partial sun in the late summer, rather than having to rig up something with shadecloth.

  4. I had a lot of success with a little cinder block garden last summer (actually my herbs are still thriving). I live in Florida and although the weather is nice, the soil (read SAND) is pretty void of nutrients! This is what I did: http://sphotos-f.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/412730_10151388268375417_485165923_o.jpg

    Not sure if it would work for potatoes… but maybe if you stacked the blocks two high to give yourself more depth?

    Also, it was really cheep!

    Good luck!

    • Actually, I have a potato bin built from cinder block – it's 3 high, filled with a soil mixture of peat/topsoil/vermiculite, topped with straw. Easy to dig straight in with a bare hand, and pick baby potatoes right from the plant, while leaving others to grow.

      In the holes of the cinderblock I planted onions. πŸ™‚

      I LOVE this setup, and now wish I'd made it bigger. πŸ˜€

      Editing: it's not 3 high from ground level, actually, I dug it in a bit and lined the base with cardboard as a partial weed-block, over chicken wire to discourage digging pests. About 1 1/4 blocks are above regular ground level.

  5. I feel like the brain has this awful quirk where it thinks, "This is in a container, so it's TOTALLY DIFFERENT than growing something in the earth." But if you do a bit of research before planting, you'll find that it's not too much different–maybe even easier, considering that you don't have to weed the thing (I always hated weeding and putting straw around my strawberries as a kid. Imagine my delight when I figured out I could just grow 'em in a pot, not a weed in sight!)
    I suggest you err on the larger side with containers. Some plants just don't tolerate overcrowding and it will result in a lower quality end product. Also, be sure you have plenty of drainage.
    Second, understand what kind of sunlight your space gets and plant accordingly. Right now my "balcony" (I'm on the ground floor) gets pretty great morning sun, but very little for the rest of the day. Others in my complex get no sun at all, or full sun all day! Choosing to plant veggies that thrive in the kind of light you can offer will make the whole experience much easier.

    • I would argue that depending on where your containers are located you might still need to weed. I'm on the East Coast and in a condo complex with several trees around the perimeter. Last year I had a lovely, thriving container garden of Winter greens and seedlings for Spring. Then the trees bloomed and started seeding and the wind was blowing them all over… I spent all summer picking out random seedlings and pine needles.

  6. What will grow well in a container depends a lot on the size of the container. In general, things grow better in bigger containers, for two main reasons:
    1) A bigger container holds more water in the soil, so it's less likely to dry out, and
    2) Plants get a lot of nutrients from the soil; if they're in too small a container, they can run out.
    Ways to get around those are to water frequently, and add some form of fertilizer to the water occasionally. You can also use a slow-release fertilizer in the soil you put in the pots. However, you're best off to just get a big container to start with.

    If you're trying to grow tomatoes, you're best off either growing cherry tomatoes, or varieties that are intended to work well in containers. You're probably not going to have much luck with large tomatoes (e.g. Beefsteak), but Patio is a hybrid specifically designed to be grown in containers, and we've also had success with Silvery Fir Tree (yeah, that's a tomato variety), which is a Russian heirloom variety with really beautiful (and really distinctive) foliage. Both Patio and Silvery Fir Tree grow mid-sized ("salad") tomatoes, throughout the season.

    Herbs work well in containers in general β€” just do some research in what each plant likes (e.g. basil gets really sad if it goes below about 10ΒΊC, or doesn't get full sun… Mint is pretty resilient, and will do fine in part-shade, and will even over-winterβ€”and take over your whole garden, if you let it!). Sometimes it makes sense to do multiple plantings of an annual herb β€” that way you still have some when it goes to seed (basil, cilantro, and dill are particularly prone to going to seed mid-summer). If you grow parsley, though, you should be fine with one planting β€” it's biennial, and goes to seed in its second year. Oregano, thyme, and mint are all perennials. Rosemary is a tropical perennial, which means that it will probably die come winter in any cooler climate.

    As with any gardening, keep in mind what things do best in which seasons and growing conditions. Lettuce, spinach, and peas will do well in the spring, but come summer your lettuce will turn bitter. Broccoli also does better in the spring and fall. Kale will happily grow all summer, but a lot of people say that kale is best harvested after the first frost (yes, it will keep growing). Tomatoes and peppers, on the other hand, hate the cold, and love hot sunny days β€” so long as they get enough water. Tomatoes love a nutrient-rich soil, while sweet-potatoes are happiest in sandy soil with hardly any organic matter (and thus very few nutrients). Carrots (and most other root vegetables, for that matter) grow best in soil with more sand than clay β€” although they generally like a little more organic matter than sweet potatoes do!

  7. One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is growing things together that have different growing needs (for example, oregano hates "wet feet," and basil needs a lot of water). So whatever you choose, be sure everything in the same pot requires the same light, moisture, and soil type.

    I've grown greens (need partial shade in the hottest weeks, though), herbs, tomatoes, nasturtium and marigolds (as edible flowers), hibiscus and peppers in pots quite successfully in Minnesota.

    Happy gardening!!!

  8. I usually have pretty good luck with my plants at the beginning, but almost every single time, these teeny little fruit fly-like bugs invade and destroy everything! Anyone have any tips for getting rid of them?

    I mostly grow hot peppers and herbs, and would prefer not to use any sort of chemicals unless they're food-safe. I tried spraying them with capsaicin mixed with water thinking they'd be repelled by the burning, but NOPE. Even my indoor plants are getting attacked, so I'm willing to try almost anything at this point!

    • It depends on the particular kind of insects you have β€” you can sometimes get beneficial insects (insects that eat and/or parasitize the insects you're having trouble with) online, but that really depends on what you have a problem with. Neem oil repels a wide variety of insects, as well, and it is foodsafe (although bitter-tasting, so I'd avoid using it right before harvest if possible). Good luck!

      • Neem oil, eh? I've never heard of that but will definitely look into it in a few months when I can start putting my seedlings outdoors (in Manitoba, spring usually starts when other people are already enjoying summer weather, haha). Thanks for the tip! πŸ™‚

    • Try food grade diatomaceous earth. It is safe enough to eat (I take it every day for a couple different reasons), but will kill any bugs/snails that get near it as it slices through their protective shell.

  9. I am actually working on a social marketing campaign to encourage food gardening (primarily container gardening) for food security. The campaign, CultivateIowa.org will be launching in April and will contain tons of links about container gardening, and starting a garden in general. It's super intimidating to start! Even though I'm overseeing the campaign, I'm hoping to actually produce food in a container for the first time myself this summer. (last year I had 2 anemic herb plants that looked like they were going to die if I picked any leaves.)

    The campaign also contains a component about produce donation to food pantries. So when you're super successful at container gardening, visit ampleharvest.org to find out where you can donate extra produce in your community!

  10. As far as location, take a few days to watch each proposed spot. Log how much sun it gets, when sun hits, how hot it may get in certain spots. Plants do well with different conditions, so you may have "morning sun" plants or plants that can take the blast of the late afternoon sun. Veggies require the most sun to produce healthy yields, but some fruits might need shade netting for that awful mid-western afternoon sun. Herbs will require less sun than that even, and some want some shade all the time. Watering requirements will change, too. I prefer spots in my own (South Eastern) yard with southern exposure to get the most light throughout the day.

  11. Hello, Thanks so much for the interest in this topic. I got really inspired and started looking into it more tonight, I love that kiddie pool idea and posted to free-cycle to see if anyone has one (or several) laying around. I also stumbled upon http://www.burpee.com/ and the instructions they have for each seed variety is really helpful. I picked a few direct sow plants so I only have one I need to start indoors and those are the tomatoes. I looked into the last frost in the area and that is normally May 26th. So that gives me time to get some good soil and look into a way to keep the deer away from lettuce that I would love to get going. I have the idea to take photos and do a small journal on my computer and if the interest is there I might submit and update as I get it going. Thanks everyone, good luck on your endeavors too.

  12. For Australian gardeners I've found The Little Veggie Patch co to be pretty awesome, though of less help to Western Australians than those in the east.

  13. i have a large sun/laundry/dining room, and we've filled it with pots and boxes of plants in feb. i live in ohio. this helps us get a head start on our veggie garden and non veggies stay in the pots and go outside when the weather is nice. this keeps the dog out of it, and allows us to move plants around the yard as it suits us.

    we plan to move in a year or 2 and don't want all our hard work and money to stay in a house we are leaving, so the pots also let us get a head start on plants for when we move, we can transport and put in the ground.

  14. The veggies I've grown in containers do better than what I put in the ground. I love my earth boxes, or you can make DIY versions. Having a water resevoir is key if you don't want to water twice a day in July. Tomatoes do well (I like early girl and golden girl ), as do peppers, green onions, cucumbers and zucchini.

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