Grow Your Own -June 2013
by: Hilary Newell
Oh,this is going to be fun, I thought. My first question to some- one who wants to grow vegetables is, “What are your three favorite vegetables? That will give you a good starting point.” Recent breeding by seed companies has yielded an array of vegetables and greens that can be grown in containers. With compact form and heavy yields, these varieties are perfect for people who don’t have much time or space. It’s kind of surprising to discover how much you can grow in containers on your deck, or along a sunny wall outside. You can really grow anything in a container, the key being the size of the container. Large varieties require large containers while some of the newer hybrids are suited to slightly smaller containers. Whether you are growing in the ground or in a whiskey barrel, the plants’ requirements are the same. They need soil, water, fertilizer and a little attention from time to time.
But the benefits of growing in containers are many. First, there is almost no weeding. Fresh sterile soil ensures that few weed seeds hitchhike into your plantings. Second, there is less bending when growing in containers. Depending on your situation, you may be able to do all your garden chores from a standing position. Positioning containers on the edge of your deck or up on sturdy legs is good for your back and ensures you won’t have to kneel to weed or harvest.
But what about exposure? When most people think of vegetable gardening, they think of tomatoes, squash, corn or beans baking in the full sun. There are quite a few vegetables, however, that can grow in part shade. There’s an old rule of thumb that says if you’re growing for fruit or root, it needs full sun. That means leafy greens and cole crops like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts will do OK in four to six hours of sun or fairly constant dappled shade. Peppers, tomatoes, melons, beans, peas and squash all need a full day of sun. Wind can become a problem when your plants are fully grown, and a strong breeze can topple a top-heavy planter. Some wind protection is important, and you can help balance the weight of the plant by putting bricks in the bottom of the container before you plant. Of course, if you are growing root vegetables like carrots, beets, onions or potatoes, they aren’t going to get top-heavy, so exposure to wind is less important. Greens can be grown indoors in bright light all winter, giving you a steady supply of fresh salad through the dark months.
You shouldn’t use garden soil in your containers as it will be way too dense in the pot. A professional potting mix is going to work much better. I like to add one part compost to two parts potting mix, but if the potting mix already has lots of organic matter in it, the added compost isn’t really necessary. The vermiculite in the potting mix will help hold water and the perlite will help provide good drainage. A 12-inch pot will require about 3.5 gallons of soil, while a 20-inch pot will require 6.5 gallons.
What kind of container should you use? There are two rules. The first is that the container must be large enough to hold the fully-grown plant, and there must be adequate drainage. For a rustic look, you could use an old bushel basket lined with a plastic garbage bag. Punch a few holes in the bottom to let excess water out, and you could have a container for greens, head lettuce or herbs. A soft-sided container like this will be difficult to move, so be sure to place it in its final destination. Other containers could be decorative or purely functional. Plastic pots from one to five gallons and larger are great for a lot of different vegetables. Large clay pots are good for some of those top-heavy plants, while whiskey barrels, garbage cans and large tubs will allow for the growth of vegetables that are heavy on leaves, or are vining.
If you are a beginner at vegetable container-garden- ing, the bigger the container the better. The reason for this is watering. The more soil in the container, the less often you will have to water at the beginning. When the plant has reached maturity and the roots are all bound up around the bottom of the pot, it will require more water. Be sure to choose a container that you like. The type of container will not matter to the plant, as long as it is large enough and there is adequate drainage. Remember that terra cotta pots will require more water throughout the growing season due to the porous nature of the clay.
There are a couple different ways to get started once you’ve decided what you want to plant. Starting your own seeds requires consistent care and careful watch- ing. If you do choose to start your own, follow the directions on each seed packet for timing and temperature for germination. Tomatoes, squash, melons, pumpkins, peppers and eggplants will all benefit from getting started indoors. Young plants of these varieties are available in garden centers, so if you got a late start, or if your seeds didn’t germinate, you can always fall back on those.
Then there’s direct seeding right into the pot. This works best for leafy greens, lettuce, radishes, beets, scallions and carrots. Liberally scatter the seed on top of the soil and keep it moist until the seeds start to germinate. Now comes the tough part, but it’s really important. Thinning baby seedlings is the only way to be sure each of them has enough room to grow to full size. Use tweezers or your fingers to pull out excess seeds so the baby plants aren’t all crammed together. Only if you are planning on harvesting your greens at the baby stage can you get away without thinning. When it’s time to harvest that baby lettuce, the roots will stay in the soil and keep growing more greens. When you notice a slowdown in production, that’s when you ought to give your plants another shot of fertilizer.
When you choose to plant your veggie containers with already-started plants, you will have a head-start on growth. Plants that are grown in a greenhouse to start, and moved to the outdoors to grow and get acclimated to outside temperatures (a process called “hardening-off’) are ready to take root and thrive in your container. Before you plant anything, whether you are starting from seed or transplant, thoroughly water the container and allow it to sit for a few hours to drain excess water. After planting, water gently to help the seeds or transplants settle into their new home. Your vegetables will need to be fertilized through the growing season. It’s easy enough to mix a time-re- lease fertilizer in the soil when you plant, and this works especially well for short-term crops like lettuce and greens and for longer crops like tomatoes and melons, but those longer crops will probably need supple- mental fertilizer as the plants mature. About a month after you’ve planted, fertilize with an organic fertilizer that is labeled for vegetables. Fertilizer for flowers is not necessarily the best to use on vegetables as they have different requirements. The three numbers that appear on the front of the fertilizer package refer to the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the mix. Nitrogen is for foliage growth, phosphorous promotes root development and potassium is for fruit production. Follow the package directions and remember that if a little fertilizer works for your plants, a lot will not work better. Too much fertilizer can cause salt build-up in the soil and other problems that are difficult to overcome.
Vegetables grown in containers can suffer the same pest and disease issues as those grown in the ground. Check the leaves frequently and remove offending in- sects by hand. It’s so much easier to remove them from one or two containers than from an entire garden. Beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings are efficient destroyers of bad insects. It’s not necessary to spray chemicals as soon as you see one or two insects. Mother Nature often takes care of small populations. Preventative sprays with insecticidal soap and other organic products can keep the insect population down without harming any beneficials or pollinators.
Cucumbers are fun to grow in containers. Traditional varieties have long vines that trail along the ground, leaving the mature cukes lying in the dirt. Some growers like to use trellises for the vines to grow on, allowing the cukes to hang in mid-air to grow to the perfect shape. There are some new varieties that are very compact yet still allow for an abundance of full-size fruits. These hybrids grow very well in pots with no trailing vines and with a huge harvest. Bush Slicer, Bush Champion and Spacemaster are all good compact varieties. Don’t be afraid to plant the old favorite vining cukes in a container, but allow room for a trellis or wire mesh fence for them to travel. If you are using the compact varieties, you can plant two in a five-gallon container.
Beet greens and beets are super-easy to grow – choose varieties like Bull’s Blood and Ruby Queen for greens, and Ace or Golden for the roots. Seed these directly on the top of the soil, then thin (for beets) to about one every three inches. If you’re just growing for greens, don’t thin them.
The 2010 Bean of the Year was Molly, a dwarf bean that is well-suited for containers. It’s upright, heavy- yielding over a long period of time and has good disease-resistance. Pick green beans regularly to keep them producing. If the bean is left on the vine, the plant’s energy goes to maturing the seeds. If you pick the beans off, the energy goes toward making new flowers, and therefore, more beans. These beans would be easy to grow in a large, deep window box. Peas should be planted early in spring, and then again every two to three weeks for a continuous harvest. Most do not like the heat of summer, so start planting peas in March, as soon as the soil can be worked. A notable exception is Lincoln, a variety that tolerates summer heat and holds quality for a long time. It’s more un- wieldy though, and should have a trellis or net to grow on. More compact varieties include Karina, at 18-24 inches, and Waverex, a European favorite that is only 15-18 inches tall.
Direct-sow carrots right onto the top of a well-watered pot. Use a two- to five-gallon container and thin to about one seedling per inch. Little Finger, Short & Sweet, Thumbelina, and Parisian are just a few varieties that are suitable for containers. Parisian is about the size and shape of a golf ball, so it’s fun to harvest and eat raw or steamed.
Eggplants and peppers are similar in their growing needs. Plant one or two per five-gallon pot. Black Beauty eggplant and just about any bell pepper will work well. I’m partial to growing a few hot peppers, too. Long Thin Cayenne is a great performer, producing 60 to 70 peppers on a plant.
Grafted vegetables also make great container plants. A grafted vegetable is created when the top part of one plant is attached to the root stock of another plant. Grafting has been used for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that grafting vegetables became widespread. The rootstock is produced either from seed or by vegetative cutting at the same time as the top part is seeded. The top of the root stock is cut off, the roots of the top part are cut off, and they are joined by hand with a small clip and they are given special temperature and water treatment to make them grow together, forming one plant. The main benefit of grafting comes from using a root stock that is very vigorous and has disease-resistant qualities. Vigorous root systems also allow for better uptake of water and nutrients, result- ing in a heavier yield. Some swear that they produce more veggies and they are all bigger. This is ideal for many heirloom tomatoes that normally produce fewer than 10 tomatoes on a regular seed-grown plant. Choose a fairly large container if you are growing a grafted tomato, and be sure to put a cage around it to support the extra weight of the foliage and all that extra fruit.
A great advantage of growing your own vegetables is that you get to experience the flavor and freshness. The satisfaction of growing your own can’t be beat either. Imagine having friends over for dinner and going outside to pick fresh greens for your salad, or serving freshly-sliced cucumbers and tomatoes that you grew yourself. Or snacking on cherry tomatoes whenever you walk by that pot of Sungolds. But the greatest thing about growing vegetables, whether in the garden or in containers, is knowing exactly how they were grown – with care and love.
Hilary Newell is the director of marketing at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.