Jeremy Harlan is a CNN photojournalist. Read his previous gardening installment Getting started in your garden
"So, when are you planning to take the plants out of our closet?"
Forget last average frost date or the size of my new tomato plants. When my wife utters those words each spring, I know it's time to move the seedling plants from their warm, sunny spot in our bedroom closet window to the big plastic containers outside.
I wish we lived in a not-so-little house on the prairie atop several green acres. But, like thousands out there, my gardening is relegated to the tiny backyard of our townhouse. I should feel fortunate, really - some city dwellers have to moonlight as Old McDonald on the rooftops of their high-rise apartment buildings.
Now in my fourth year of container gardening, I've found that every year is a fun adventure and a new learning experience. Some past years have yielded great crops like Clemson spineless okra, New Mexico chiles, and even a cantaloupe or two. But, I've also had some epic fails with strawberries, acorn squash, and beets.
Container gardening is not particularly difficult. In fact, it could be easier than gardening in the ground, for one simple reason: control. You control the dirt, the nutrients, the amount of sunlight, and the elimination of certain pests. Too much shade in a certain corner come July? Just slide the container over to another sunny spot.
If you want to grow veggies, herbs, and flowers in pots for the first time, or need some new ideas for old containers, Peg Bier at Merrifield Garden Center has some ideas.
"Too many people do not realize that small pot needs a lot of maintenance," says Bier. "It does not have enough room for the roots of a lot of plants, particularly vegetables. It also requires more watering."
Bier prefers clay pots for their earthiness and their ability to breathe well. But they do require more watering than other pots, and can break down over time. I prefer plastic containers simply because they are cheaper and easier to move, especially when dealing with larger pots.
Also, not all potting mixes are created equally. For her part, Peg Bier has an ideal mix in mind. "I don't want too much bark. Some bark is fine. I enjoy having some of the peat moss in it. Perlite and vermiculites help air and soil move through."
The beauty of potting mix is that it can be used year to year, with one significant exception - tomatoes. Bier stresses, "It's only important to change that soil totally out if you're growing tomatoes, because tomatoes can build up diseases."
The three key ingredients in fertilizer are nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. Nitrogen provides chlorophyll for the plant to grow healthy and green. Phosphorous is important for root development, and potassium helps with plant growth and disease resistance. The key is knowing that not all plants need the same fertilizer. For example, herbs do not need as much nitrogen as vegetables. Bier suggests using half the amount of dry fertilizer, or diluting liquid fertilizer, when growing herbs.
Many of today's urban gardeners want to grow "organically" by using homemade compost or recycled leaves to fertilize the plants. Bier says this can be done in containers, but growers using this method should look out for uninvited guests.
"Just watch for weeds. Be sure that you haven't put any weeds into your compost, although they are going to blow in to some degree. And it compost would need to be rotted down quite a bit to be useful," Bier advises.
Growers using public compost, such as that found in their municipality, should exert extra caution. Bier cautions, "Bear in mind that you are getting a potpourri of things in there. You could be getting weed seeds. You could be getting poison ivy roots."
Despite the extra caution, Bier says compost is a wonderful and natural thing for the garden. If you do plan to use it in containers, she suggests mixing only a third into your potting mix.
If you buy them, consider a local garden center. You get to support a neighborhood business, and the plants are often of higher quality. Wherever you buy them, avoid vegetable plants that have already developed fruit; it’s better if they still have a chance to grow more.
Your home improvement center is a great resource for these sorts of supplies. Typically it's cheaper and you don't need anything fancy. In my garden, I've planted a couple of tall wooden stakes next to my peppers, placed metal cones around my tomatoes, and constructed a frame for the beans and peas.
The key to supporting the plants is to do it when you initially plant them. If you wait, odds are you'll damage roots and branches trying to jam stakes into the soil around the mature plant.
Putting it all together is not as difficult as it may seem. First, make sure your containers have proper drainage (i.e., holes in the bottom). You can add some landscape cloth and/or small rocks to the bottom of your pot to help keep your dirt from escaping through the holes during watering.
Next, add potting mix until your container is approximately two-thirds full. Add the appropriate amount of fertilizer, and then create a space for the plant. Break the root ball up a little bit so that the roots will grow out. With the exception of tomatoes, do not plant the seedlings too deep in the mix. But because tomatoes grow roots up their stems, you should bury those deep, so that the plant has room to grow a prolific root system.
Last year, I was at wit's end when those little snatchers ruined the crop I was most looking forward to eating (beets). I've tried so many things to solve the squirrel problem, all with little to no success. But Peg's idea to add a layer of gravel has worked wonders so far. As far as I'm concerned, our neighbor who feeds peanuts to these furry little monsters can keep on doing it - although I swear she does it as retaliation for my not shoveling out her car two blizzards ago.
In addition to keeping pesky critters away, adding gravel also helps to reduce the amount of watering needed.
And with those pieces of advice, you're all set to start a container garden. I know the initial season can sound pretty pricey, and I won't sugar coat it - it is. Think of it as an initial investment that will pay off in future summers, when you won't need to buy new pots, stakes, or creative vermin solutions.
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