Weed-free gardening in containers
Ten years ago, my family moved from Manhattan to Maine. When we arrived, I dreamed of magazine-worthy perennial beds and of growing my own food in a kitchen garden that looked as fabulous as it was productive. After one summer, reality set in. I was not a very good gardener. I would come home from the nursery with a minivan full of plants, having spent way too much money, and watch as they disappeared into the landscape—without making the visual or culinary statement I was hoping for.
Then I discovered containers and quickly realized that I could create an entire world in a pot. While that first summer I killed a lot of plants—who knew you had to water all the time, and fertilizing was way out of my comfort zone—the joy and excitement I felt at actually being involved in the beauty and magic of growing things was transformative.
Fast-forward a few summers. By then I could keep most plants alive. Container gardening had become a passion, and growing edibles, in particular, was an obsession. Tomatoes, herbs, potatoes, edible flowers, greens, peas, and beans—I could grow them all successfully and beautifully in pots, and they were the best tasting food my family had ever eaten.
The following suggestions result from my container-gardening experiences, experiments, and many mistakes.
Advantages of Containers
Whether you have acres to spare or a slip of a yard, growing edibles in pots has some enormous advantages (a few disadvantages as well, but we will get to those later). To start with, if you live in New England, you are probably faced with all kinds of soil issues that make it difficult, if not impossible to garden without some serious intervention and soil improvement. One of the beauties of container gardening is that you are starting from scratch so you can get the best soil possible—light, fluffy, and sterile, which means no soil-borne diseases, and no rocks or clay. If that is not enough to convert you to containers, consider the idea of a virtually weed-free garden. Again, because you are buying your soil, it has no weed seeds in it, and while a few weeds might appear during the growing season, they are easily pulled.
Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping, points out an additional advantage, particularly important to cold-climate gardeners: “If you grow vegetables in containers, your plants’ roots will heat up, which increases your growing season. Also, if your edibles are in pots on your porch or patio, right next to the front door, you’ll be reminded of them, and even if it’s raining, you won’t hesitate to run out and pick them!”
Keys to Successful Edibles in Containers
Sun: Most vegetables and fruits need full sun, which means at least six hours of unobstructed, direct sun. Almost everyone overestimates sun exposure, so it is important to time and to observe carefully how the sun hits your yard or patio over the course of a day for an accurate measure.
Water: Almost all edibles need a consistent amount of water. Here we run into what is perhaps the biggest downside of gardening in containers: they can dry out very quickly, especially in the hot sun or on a windy day. Luckily, there are several ways to mitigate this issue. One of the most effective ways to keep your containers from drying out is to hook up an automatic irrigation system. You can either have one professionally installed, or do it yourself, which can be inexpensive and relatively easy to set up. Creasy says, “That way your plants will always be watered on time. And if you go away, it won’t forget to water, like your neighbor’s kid might.”
Another way to get around watering your containers all the time is to use self-watering containers. Some are gorgeously designed, while some are more functional than beautiful. Self-watering containers work with a reservoir system, which has two advantages. First, it supplies water directly to a plant’s roots, providing a consistent moisture level, which is important for most vegetables, particularly tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and bell peppers. Second, because these containers store water, you have to add water less often. Additionally, some self-watering systems, like the widely touted Earthbox, live up to their promise of huge vegetable yields from very small spaces.
Feeding: Most potting soil is a nutritional wasteland. Like all living things, plants need sustenance, which you have to add if your potting mix does not already have it. According to Creasy, organic is the way to go. “It’s my experience that vegetables grow better, and certainly it’s easier on the environment,” she says. “I would recommend an all-purpose organic fertilizer mixed into your potting soil and then to scratch some more in during the growing season.”
Choosing a Container: Although you can grow lettuce, salad greens, and some herbs in a teacup, when selecting a container for edibles, especially vegetables, bigger is almost always better. The more soil your container holds, the longer it will retain water, giving you a greater margin of error for watering your plants.
Sometimes the best pot is not even a pot. Almost anything can be turned into a container if it has enough drainage. Plastic reusable grocery bags, old baskets, buckets, even juice boxes or gelatin molds can all be turned into interesting, fun containers. Creasy favors large wooden containers. “I love planting in half barrels,” she says. “They come in many different sizes, are inexpensive, recycled, and will last for years. If I want to add a pop of color to my gardens, I paint the barrels with a bright latex paint.”
If your container does not have drainage built in, just make sure you can cut, punch, or drill holes—lots of them—into the bottom. While most plants are happiest with moist soil surrounding their roots, if they sit in water, they will die.
What to Grow: Here is where it gets really fun and a little complicated because the choices are so vast. You can grow almost anything in a container, and there are thousands of edibles to choose from. It might be helpful to ask yourself if you are growing mainly for consumption, or are your plants primarily decorative? While many plants will fulfill both of these criteria, some are more beautiful than they are productive, and vice versa.
There are also things you can do to improve the look of any edible. A large sprawling tomato plant can look pretty wild. However, it is possible to glam up almost any vegetable by using a handsome pot or large barrel and adding a stylish, strong trellis. Adding herbs and edible flowers can make any container planting more luscious and fragrant.
As the popularity of container gardening soars, there are more and more plants coming to the market bred to be small and compact. While these plants do well in containers and can be very pretty, they may not be prolific producers, nor taste as delicious as full-sized varieties. For instance, while some patio tomatoes look great, most will not give you the pounds of produce that a bigger plant can. If you have the room, you may want to grow a full-sized variety.
Just Do it: The latest studies on happiness will be no surprise to any gardener. It appears that memorable experiences make people happy. While growing anything can be amazing, growing edibles in the confines of a pot can be hugely gratifying. If you think about it, the only vegetable or herb you will ever remember is one you have grown yourself.