Thursday, May 23, 2013

Patio and Container gardens

I LOVE veggies. And fruit. And salad.

Luckily, I'm blessed with kids that love all this stuff too. What we haven't always been blessed with is the space to grow a decent-sized garden. Several years ago, I started doing container gardens, loaded with enough plants to produce either a full serving of veggies or a salad (or a fruit addition) for at least one meal a day for the whole growing season. It started as an experiment, and ended up being one of my favorite, and most successful, projects ever. All you have to do is follow a couple of really, really simple rules.

1) Start with the right tools- plants need food, sunlight and water to grow. Use the best soil and container possible. I use cow manure and half-casks (available cheaply at most Wal-Marts or gardening centers), since my containers are outside, mixed with perlite and some generic potting soil. All told, it might cost me about $4 a container to fill them up with a good blend. Most importantly- find the right spot. Ideally, you want somewhere with morning sun, but anywhere that gets good sun/light for at least 6 hours a day will usually produce plenty of goodies.

2) Only plant what you know you'll eat. If you hate peas, don't bother with them.

3) Plan a meal around your container. It's not hard. If you like spaghetti with salad on the side, plant an Italian garden with a heirloom tomato (Silver Palates, Old Man in The Sea, Black Krim, or any of the yellow/pink tomatoes), a green bell pepper plant, basil, rosemary, parsley, oregano, thyme, green bunch onions, lettuce and a bush-type cherry tomato. Yes, all that will fit in a container that fits into a 2x2 square space. I even tuck in nasturtium seeds.

That's it, that's all the rules. Now I'll explain how I plant these suckers, and why they work for me.

First, go get your pot. You can use something smaller than a half-cask sized pot if you like, and you can do as many pots as you can creatively arrange in your space. Make sure there's a good drainage hole. If not, you can dump some small landscaping rocks, broken chunks of brick, or whatever stone you have at hand in the bottom for a couple of inches to make a place for the water to escape to. Once you've handled drainage, fill your pot to within six inches of the top with your soil mixture.

Now you're ready for plants. For the fastest yield, you can start with seedling plants from a garden center. I do a mixture of seedlings and seeds, because certain plants I prefer to grow from seed, lettuce being one of the main ones. Remove your seedlings carefully from their nursery containers, keeping as much of the soil around the root ball as possible, unless they came in peat-pots that can be planted as they are. If you're growing plants that need supports, such as large-bush tomatoes, now is the time to go ahead and put your stakes in. Once that's done, you can arrange your plants in a classic container garden formation- tallest plants in the center, then fillers (such as herbs for an Italian-seasoning blend, edible flowers, lettuce), then spillers (thyme, vine plants such as squash, strawberries). This makes a classically attractive garden arrangement, and with the beautiful colors available in lettuce and other leafy greens, it can be as flamboyant as any flower bed. Give each seedling approximately 2.5" of space from it's neighbor. After planting the seedlings, fill in the soil around them to cover the nursery soil completely. Don't worry if you bury a bit of the stem- the plant will put out new roots along the buried part as it settles into its new home.

Alternatively, if you're a corner container person (which I am), you can arrange your plants with the tallest plants at the back (with an attractive stake or trellis arrangement against the backing walls), then mix in, your fillers, spillers, and even a few "pretties"- plants that have no purpose other than attracting bees and butterflies or adding fragrance to your patio. Fertilize well once every 10-14 days with a water-soluble all-purpose organic fertilizer.

Now, I've used my Italian dinner garden as an example throughout this post, but there are dozens of combinations available. Some of my favorites are:

Italian dinner- 1 large cooking tomato, 1 cherry tomato, 1 bell pepper, 1 basil, 1 oregano, 1 thyme, 1 rosemary, green bunching onions, 1 parsley, lettuce seeds (romaine, red and green leaf and butter are my favorites), nasturtium seeds. Plant seedlings, with stakes for the tomatoes and pepper plants. Cover the root balls with soil. Sprinkle lettuce seeds throughout the open areas, water well. (Lettuce may have to be resown periodically) Fertilize well once every 10-14 days with a water-soluble all-purpose organic fertilizer.

Super Salad- 1 yellow squash, 1 cucumber, chives, 1 cherry tomato, carrot seeds, lettuce seeds, radish seeds, dwarf sunflowers. Plant sunflowers and tomato as tallest point plants, cucumbers and squash as "spillers" (make sure they have ample room to the edge, and be prepared to prune them back if necessary). Sow carrot and radish seeds approximately 2 inches from edge of pot, harvest when young. Sow lettuce generously in open spots, harvest as baby lettuces, resow approximately every 2-3 weeks.

Fruity- 1 dwarf blueberry plant, 1 dwarf watermelon, strawberries, stevia. Plant blueberry bush closer to the edge/back. Plant watermelon approximately 4' from blueberry root ball, with a trellis. Train watermelon up the trellis as it grows. When fruit appears, "diaper" the young watermelons with cheesecloth or old pantyhose, allowing enough slack for fruit to develop without falling (this technique can be used with any fruiting vine, such as pumpkins, squash, cucumbers or eggplants) . Plant strawberries generously to the edge. Tuck a stevia plant or two into the pot to provide sweetness to any dish without sugar!

Herbs- Rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, lemon balm, parsley, chives, garlic and other herbs can be planted in any size or shape container to provide an attractive and useful addition to any windowsill, patio or deck. NOTE: Always plant mint in its own container. It is voracious, and will take over any garden, container or yard it makes contact with.

As an added benefit- there are many beautiful flowers that have both culinary and pest control uses. I sprinkle marigold seeds in every container I make, and sunflowers are always a favorite, not just because they are so pretty, but because they provide delicious seeds that can be added to salads or eaten raw, roasted or baked into bread. A few minutes on Google can always tell you which of the edible flowers are best suited to your growing area.