Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast
Tips and Tricks for Container Gardening
Being sustainable often means providing a certain amount of things for yourself. Providing for yourself also has the added benefit of increasing your personal independence. A certain amount of independence also means more personal security. And few things provide more security than growing you own food.
With the majority of our population now living in urban areas, most people have the impression that they cannot have a garden because they do not have a lot of space. If you are one of those people then think again. It is possible to produce a significant amount of you own food in as little as 6 x 8 foot space by having what is called a container garden.
So stay with me for E162 which is called Tips and Tricks for Container Gardening.
Welcome back everyone to the Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast. This is your host Patrick and this is E162 which is called Tips and Tricks for Container Gardening.
But before we get along with this week’s episode, let’s first talk about the good news story of the week.
We all know how devastating forest fires can be. There have been multiple places around the globe that have been completely destroyed due to forest fires burning out of control, some of which have been related to climate change. Sometimes it is homes and businesses that get destroyed. Sometimes it is natural resources that will take hundreds of years to rejuvenate.
It was the same sort of scenario when a lightning strike started a forest fire in the Big Basin’s Redwood State Park. Some of these trees are over 2,000 years old and when a forest fire burned the entire area many scientist feared that the trees would never recover. Unknown to us, these ancient giants had a trick or two hidden up their trunks.
Despite their thick barks, which acts like a fireman’s coat, fire quickly spread up the trees and burned all the needles making it impossible for the trees to produce energy with photosynthesis. But within weeks of being charred, these trees utilized deep energy stores in their roots to sprout new growth.
It was also discovered that new buds lying dormant under the bark for many years utilized sugars produced from photosynthesis decades ago in order to sprout. Radiocarbon dating on the sugars revealed an average age of 21 years with many carbon molecules being three times older. So the great redwoods are using energy stored decades ago in order to power new growth. This proves that many older trees have evolved to survive fires and many other hazards.
These trees will not regrow in our lifetimes but at least we know they will be a joy to future generations.
And speaking of growing, let’s move onto to this weeks episode about tips and tricks for container gardening.
On a global basis approximately 55% of people live in urban areas. In the United States that is now 80%. Now these statistics have multiple implications but the one the gets my attention the most is that more and more people are now dependent on food that comes from a place they have never seen. We are not only disconnected from nature we are also disconnected from our food supply.
Fewer and fewer people make attempts to grow any of their own food. Consequently, fewer and fewer people are familiar with the fact that home grown food is not only more nutritious it also tastes better. I know from personal experience that there is absolutely no comparison between the taste of chicken eggs from our barn versus those purchased in the supermarket. The taste of store bought herbs in no way compares to the remarkable taste of home grown.
One of my best travel experiences ever was enjoying a meal in the restaurant in a small town in Bolivia. They had a garden behind the restaurant that supplied them with produce for their meals. When someone ordered something they would simply go out back and pick fresh produce and herbs that were then used to prepare the meal. The taste experience is one that I will never forget. There is truly nothing better than being able to walk outside and pick your own produce fresh from the garden.
You know one of my favorite things to do is to simply get creative and find different ways for us to take care of our own needs and be just a little bit more independent. That was one of the reasons for us building the sunroom. We needed more room to start seedlings early in the Spring because our growing season is so short. Now this room is only 200 square feet and is used for multiple things so we have to be efficient with our use of space.
So we decided to put in a shelving unit on one wall and experiment with growing vegetables over the winter. I purchased a shelf from a local big box hardware store it is 18 inches deep, 48 inch wide and 6 feet tall. So that is approximately 46 cm deep x 1.2 meters long and 1.8 meter high. In other words, there is limited space. But we now have over 30 plants on this shelving unit and it is presently only half full. Additionally I am installing a small hydroponics system and I will start up once the weather is a bit warmer.
Now I know this does not sound like much space. But you would be surprised at just how much food you can produce for yourself. With proper planning it is possible to produce around 200 pounds of vegetables over the course of one year, which is approximately 91 kg. Now to put some real value on that, the average person consumes around 400 pounds, or approximately 182 kgs of vegetables per year. So even in a space as small as 48 sq feet or 4.3 square meters, you can produce about 50% of the vegetables that you would consume over one year.
In my opinion, 50% self sufficiency for your own fruits and vegetables is an enormous accomplishment especially with the skyrocketing cost of food these days. If you consider that the average American spends approximately $9,340 USD per year on food, if half of that is fruits and vegetables then that is about $4,670 USD. If you are producing half of that at home then that is a savings of $2,335 per year just for having a tiny little garden.
Benefits of Container Gardening
Now besides the obvious monetary savings there are several other benefits of container gardens.
-Versatility: container gardens allow you to grow just about anywhere, a balcony, courtyard, rooftop, window sills, or even a room that simply has adequate light.
-Accessibility: plants in containers makes gardening accessible to almost anyone
-Mobility: if you live in an apartment or flat and you happen to move, you can take your garden with you.
-No equipment needed
-No weeding is necessary
-Fewer diseases: potted gardens tend to have fewer diseases and pests. And it is more difficult for local wildlife to invade and eat your produce.
-Watering and feeding the garden is more efficient. Container gardens tends to use a lot less water.
-Greater variety: Especially if you are growing indoors, you can produce a much greater variety of food.
-Extended harvest time: Container gardening is a great way to extend your growing season.
-Highly productive: And as I mentioned before, container gardens tend to be highly productive
-Greater control: Having a container garden also gives you greater control over environmental conditions. This is particular is a great advantage to us because we live in a relatively harsh environment that is not exactly garden friendly.
-Container gardening is also accessible for individuals with disabilities.
-Environmentally friendly: And if you want to do a little more for the planet, having a container garden means you are making fewer trips to the supermarket and driving fewer miles. And that is an additional way in which you will save money.
Disadvantages of Container Gardening
Now there are several disadvantages of container gardening.
-Need more frequent maintenance; This is the biggest drawback. Sometimes they have to be watered twice daily especially during the hottest time of the year.
-Longer live plants, such as trees, may not live as long.
-If growing on a balcony, even a small container garden can be very heavy. You may not notice this until you have to move. You can keep the weight down by using plastic containers.
-Container grown plants will need to be re-potted every two to three years.
-Depending on the type of plant, the pots may need to be protected from the cold over the winter.
-Growing plants in containers mean they have limited soil space. This means that eventually you are going to have to feed them.
Tips for Success
Pick the right pot
Most plants will grow well in almost any container. However, if you want to be successful at growing vegetables, it is important to pair up the right pot for the right plant. This is because vegetables generally require more water so there are some specific considerations.
A traditional pot is truly just anything that will hold soil, support the plant and allow some drainage. Soil in traditional pots will dry faster and stay too wet if over watered. This is why a self watering pot is a better option for vegetables. As a general rule vegetables do not do well with a constant cycle of wet-to-dry and back again. Additionally some vegetables require as much as a gallon of water a day for maximum production. This is difficult to do with a traditional pot.
The exception to this is herbs such as cilantro, dill, fennel, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. These plants do better with some rougher conditions and will do better in traditional pots where there tends to be a cycle of wet-to-dry-to-wet.
If you are growing nothing more than herbs, flowers or the occasional small vegetable plant, then any size of traditional plant will do. But if you are growing something larger, you are going to need bigger pots. And this typically means plastic pots because they are light weight.
It you want a little variety, then any old container will do. An old wheel barrow, an old plastic bucket, a plastic storage container, or food grade buckets you can get for free from the local bakery. All will do.
Keep in mind that root vegetables are going to require a much deeper pot. Think in terms of 40 to 50 quarts of soil for things such as carrots, beets, radishes and turnips. Hanging pots and window boxes work great for salad greens and herbs.
The next consideration of proper watering. Keep in mind that most vegetables are going to require a lot of water, some of them as much as one gallon per day.
That being said, another great option is to make a self watering container. I will provide a couple of links in the transcript on how to build a self watering planter. It is extremely easy and can be built mostly from materials that are available for free. This is a great way to keep the vegetables watered especially when you get busy with other things.
Another thing to consider when choosing a location for your mobile garden is sun requirements. Most vegetables are going to require at least 6 hours of sun per day. If you do not have sufficient sun, or if you are growing indoors, consider purchasing some grow lights. You can purchase full spectrum LED grow lights that look just like a standard light bulb. But you will have to also purchase some sort of socket to mount it in. This is one of the things that I did and fashioned grow lights for about $18 per light. You can also find them online but I found them to be less expensive at a larger hardware outlet.
Now as far as soil is concerned, it is important to use a potting mix. This type of soil will retain water longer and will not compact as easily. This allows the vegetable roots to easily grow and expand without using an excessive amount of energy. Depending on the size of your container garden it may be less expensive to make your own potting mix. I will provide a link in the transcript for a recipe.
You must also keep in mind that when growing vegetables in pots you are going to have to feed them regularly. I would recommend using a good organic fertilizer such as fish or sea weed emulsion, compost, cow manure, worm castings or worm tea from worm bins. You can also use coffee grounds, banana peels, fish tank water, or water that has been used to boil vegetables, potatoes, or pasta. Other options would be to purchase a commercially prepared liquid organic fertilizer.
Whatever you choose to use, be sure to feed your plants once weekly or follow the directions on the product that you decide to purchase.
Choice of Vegetables
Now the last thing to cover here is the right choice of vegetables. You will be happy to know that every vegetable that you can grow in a regular, earth garden can also be grown in containers. However, there are some varieties of vegetables that will grow in containers better than others. The right choice is important of course to maximize your success.
Keep in mind that containers limit the size of the roots and available water. Consequently some plant are better suited to grow in containers. When deciding just what plant to grow in your container garden, look for “dwarf”, “bush” or “compact” varieties of common vegetables. These are smaller version of the full-sized plant that would typically be in an earth garden but they will do better in containers.
Most varieties can be grown in containers but there are also some shorter or miniature versions that will do well in containers. Carrots tend to thrive on continual moisture which is why they will tend to be better in a self watering container. They also do not compete well with other vegetables so it is best to grow them only with other carrots. “Kinko” or “Parmex” are mini varieties of carrots and do well in containers.
Cauliflower will also do well in containers but needs to be planted in a medium pot my itself or in a large pot with several other plants. It does best in a self watering container. Keep in mind that cauliflower also comes in a variety of colors beside with “snow crowns” we typically see in the supermarket.
Celery is another vegetable that does well in containers. It grows tall and bushy and makes an attractive plant. Be sure to keep it well watered. If it gets stressed, the stalks will tend to be short and hollow. Home grown also has a much more robust taste relative to what you buy in the supermarket. Presently we have two large celery plants in our sunroom.
Chinese cabbage is also something you should try. Although it is called cabbage it looks more like a romaine lettuce with crinkled leaves. It has a very shallow root system and does well in containers.
If you want to grow cucumbers keep in mind that the compact varieties are still going to grow on vines. They will do better with a trellis.
There are several types of tomatoes that will do well in pots. Bush Early Girl, Window Box Roma, Patio Princess, and Bushsteak are all good choices.
Eggplant is also another vegetable that has numerous varieties that will do well in containers. If you can find started seedlings that will be easier. If you want to start from seed, egg plants love heat, at least 80 degrees F all the time in order to germinate You will have to start them early in the year if you expect a harvest. The “Fairy Tale” , “Bambino”, and “Orient Express” varieties do well in containers.
Garlic is another easy container garden project but you have to be patient. Garlic is typically planted in the Fall and needs a long dormant period of 6 to 8 weeks below 40 degree F in order to form properly. So plant in the Fall and harvest the following Summer.
There is an enormous variety of peppers that do well in containers. Be sure to provide good drainage.
Now in addition to these you can also grow potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, summer squash, okra, lettuce, kale, onions, Swiss chard, strawberries, numerous herbs, broccoli, corn, leeks, lemon grass, citrus trees and even pineapple. The possibilities are truly endless.
Now if you truly want to have a little bit of fun, you could also have theme pots. Things such as an Italian pot, the spicy pot, a pickles pot. But if you are going to do this it is best to pair plants with similar water and fertilizer requirements. For example, a lot of herbs like harsher conditions and would not do well being paired with tomatoes which need a lot of water. Plants that are in the same family, such as carrots, dill, and fennel, when planted together will compete for the same nutrients.
So consider the following:
Good combinations are:
Beans, carrots, and squash
Eggplant and beans
Tomatoes, basil, and onions
Lettuce and herbs
Spinach, chard, and onions,
Combinations to avoid:
Tomatoes or squash with potatoes
Onions with beans and peas
Beans with garlic
As you can see by now it is possible to grow a variety of vegetables and herbs in containers. The advantage to this is that it is possible to produce a lot of food in a small space. This makes container gardening possible even if you live in a high rise apartment or a small flat. This is also a good way to extend your growing season if you live in a colder climate as we do at the homestead.
Just remember that being sustainable often means providing a certain amount of things for yourself. Providing for yourself has the added benefit of increasing your personal independence. A certain amount of independence also means more personal security. And few things provide more security than growing you own food not to mention taking one more step toward sustainability.
It may require a little time, effort and experimentation depending on your particular situation. But something this simple is possible for almost everyone. Set a goal to become 5% or 10% independent for your food supply. You will be very surprised how doing such simple things will increase your confidence, resilience, and promote certain personal values that will make you want to learn more and push yourself a but further. You truly cannot put a price on the personal independence and security that is fostered by an attitude of creativity, ingenuity and sustainability. That is the very reason I do so many of the things I do.
Well folks, I think that is about it for this week. I hope you have enjoyed this episode and found the information to be useful. Don’t forget to take advantage of the links I have posted in the resources section. You will find considerable more information there.
And one final thought before I go. I want to leave you with the quote from Thor Heyerdahl, who was a Norwegian adventurer and ethnographer, said that
“Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity.”
Sustainability is truly not complicated. We just have to remember to keep our lives simple. Until next week, this is your host Patrick signing off. Always remember to live sustainably because this is how we build a better future.
Companion Planting Chart, Farmers Almanac
Containers Gardening with Vegetables, New Jersey Agricultural Experience Station
20 Vegetables for Container Gardening
Urban Vegetable Gardening