5 tips for easy edible container gardens
For 20 years, I had the luxury of garden sprawl. I was in Upstate New York, so the downside was a short growing season. The upside was 117 acres of fertile soil that allowed me to play with planting without worrying about how much space vegetable & herb crops occupied. Of course, much of the land was spoken for with other duties, but there was still plenty near the house to expand into.
With 1/3 of an acre in Roanoke now, planting requires more care and creativity.
Some of this small space experimentation has included container gardens. There have been as many fails as successes in six short months. You might as well avoid the trial and error expense by considering some easy tips for more likely success.
- Ensure ample drainage: Most kill indoor plants due to too much water without sufficient drainage. This is an easy issue to resolve if your planters are outdoors. Simply buy containers that come with drainage holes (some will also offer trays that clip on underneath for an additional cost) or drill them before you add soil. This way, if a thunderstorm rolls through or you have a few rainy weeks, you don’t have to worry about root rot.
- Water daily: Probably more common than root rot in outdoor containers is death by thirst. When you cram plant roots that generally like to reach into shallow containers, they need watering at least once a day, often twice during hotter or windier days. Of course the beauty of setting your planter up with good drainage before you start (see tip #1), is it’s almost impossible to over-water.
- Soil matters: This a critical factor, unless you plan on supplementing your plants with nutrients regularly. I tried about half a dozen different packaged soil products this spring with very different results. Anything with visible wood or bark does not work well for container gardens. Since results were so varied, I’ll be mixing my own medium for planters in the future. If you find yourself with wimpy plants early, fish emulsion works well as an organic option to perk them up and increase yield – particularly when applied in early spring.
Pick the right crops & containers: Some plants work better in containers than others. I had big fails experimenting with cucumbers, radishes & onions this year. I have also been challenged getting flat-leafed parsley started from seed (both in containers and direct to ground), which is an easy and prolific plant in the north. No idea yet what the issue is here as parsley is generally heat tolerant. Conversely, thyme, lavender, basil, dill and sage did great on the herb front. Generally, if you use deep pots without adding competition (I did a number of combination vegetable planters – none fared well) you can grow peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and other nightshades successfully. Potatoes can grow well in trash bags. Herbs will tolerate a shallow planter. Leafy vegetables (lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, spinach) do well in containers and can be crowded, but are not heat tolerant so are best started in early spring and moved indoors once heat hits.
- Plant at the right time: All seed packets will indicate when to sow and time to harvest. This is good information, particularly if you’re not well versed on what is cold & heat tolerant or are working with a new species. In Virginia, some crops that offer great spring into summer harvests in New York (such as spinach, lettuce, etc.) should be planted before last frost or reserved for fall. Herbs such as dill, cilantro and basil grow best when planted after the weather warms. Oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage can be started when it’s cool. All your nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, etc.), except potatoes, need warm soil, sun and longer days to be healthy, so in a Virginia climate, you can start from seed into June and still get results.
Fortunately, I have space and good soil for direct planting, so on most of the container fails, I simply transplanted the challenged seed starts into the ground for quick recovery and productive results. You might want to consider this fix if you decide to get creative with your container tries.