May 10th, 2011
11:30 AM ET
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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.

The options are endless - big, small, plain, fancy, clay, plastic, metal. Each has advantages and disadvantages. First, you need to get the right size.

"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.

Potting Mix
I cannot stress this point enough: DO NOT use garden soil or top soil in containers. You must use a potting mix or potting soil. Garden soil is too dense and won't provide proper drainage.

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."

While a crucial element, potting mix does not actually contain very many nutrients for the plant; it's simply a way to keep the plant upright with room to grow. So, you'll also need fertilizer.

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.

None of this advice matters if you don't have great and sturdy plants to start. My advice: grow them from seed. It's much more rewarding.

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.

There's nothing sadder than seeing your red bell pepper plant snapped in half because the peppers got too heavy for the plant. Vegetable plants need support. Tomatoes need cages to grow through, peppers need stakes for support, and beans need a structure onto which they can latch their vines.

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.

Pest Prevention
The next suggestion is one that Peg Bier gave me, and may be the most beneficial advice of all. "Top it off with small gravel. Any small gravel with a good half-inch...the squirrels don't dig it in much," says Bier.

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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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Steve Boehme

    Aside from the benefits of supporting local, family-owned businesses in your community, you might want to point out to your readers that locally-grown garden plants are often better quality than the ones at mass merchants. It's also a fallacy that big box stores plants are cheaper, but price isn't always the most important thing when buying food or plants. Please check out this link on the subject of late blight on tomatoes from big-box stores:

    May 18, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  2. sidraisch

    Please remember that this soggy and cool spring is tough on everyone. Sooner or later we'll be able to get out in the garden and plant. It will be time to buy plants, containers, soil, plant supports, and mulches and while it is raining is a good time to get these things on hand for use when the weather improves.

    This year it is especially critical to support the independent garden centers such as Merrifield Garden Center and others who depend on only one category of business as opposed to the home improvement centers that can always sell paint and plumbing supplies throughout the year. You'll appreciate doing your part if you want the garden centers to be around for you later in the year and next spring.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  3. organicgardeninghometips

    SPRING IS HERE! I am having such a great year in my garden here in Canada. This post motivates me to jump back out there. Thanks ;)

    May 15, 2011 at 4:10 pm |
  4. Popeye

    Jeremy, again another fine article on gardening. Your interview with the Merrifield lady is super. I've seen some big tomatoes come out of small pots. A local grocery store in Merrifield charged me more than $2.00 for a bell pepper! So,I'm tossing a few of those plants my garden this year. $2.00 for a bell pepper, bah!

    May 11, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  5. Lorie

    If we in Las Vegas, NV, took the advice on the last slide, gravel at the base of each plant to keep the pests out,(lol)we would burn the hell out of any container plant, no matter what size or plant!

    You have to be better educated than this person is to be writing plant tips, thats for damn sure.

    May 10, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • Sinister Sister@Lorie

      Because your planting zone wasn't mentioned in this article, that equates to a poorly educated author? Wow.

      Maybe next time, post a constructive comment. That might spark someone to write an article that does mention or even focus on your planting zone. In the meantime, work on dumping that myopic baggage you seem to be carting around.

      May 11, 2011 at 7:48 am |
      • Shirley U Jest

        Sinister Sister – Who made you the blog police? This person merely states putting gravel on top of a potted plant would burn it in and you gotta go and get all up in her grill. If you are going to pick on someone, pick on someone your own size.

        Maybe you are a bit sensitive, rubbed raw while admiring yo fat self in the mirror, but the bottom line, when the author doesn't say where the heck he's planting stuff, that leaves a readers much to assume. Basic journalism – the where part. So assume the position. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen!

        May 11, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Shirley U Jest

      This is a very good point for most parts of the US. Direct sun in the summer can heat rocks easily to temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Seriously, who here has not tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk or bake a cake in their car in the middle of a summer afternoon just to see what happens? Don't believe me, I dare you to go barefoot in the street in the middle of a July day.

      Mulch is much nicer for the plants, you can get away with putting some gravel underneath I guess, but mulch acts as insulation and a vapor barrier of sorts and makes potted plants easier to maintain..

      May 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
      • Sir Biddle@Shirley U Jest

        Random question, but what's your take on sniffing a wine cork right after opening a bottle?

        May 11, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
      • Shirley U Jest

        @Sir Biddle – Odd question to ask here, seriously? Tough question too. By asking this I assume you know how a cork can impart flavors to a wine. First, I am the furthest away from being a wine snob. I know what I like and enjoy it well. So my answer to you is it depends upon the pomp and circumstance of the event. At the most wonderful restaurant of the moment it will be clearly obvious that cork sniffing has been deemed a kin to dogs saying hello in the park, so I'll hold back; I will examine the cork for its quality, texture and integrity, squeeze it and note the degree of its wine stain as that says a lot about a cork and the wine it soaked in.

        Where its acceptable, I do like to sniff a wine cork right after opening a bottle, Not so much to smell the wine, but to smell the cork with the wine, to see if it smells fresh and crisp or dry and pithy. It's an introduction to the bottle, how it has aged. I've been with friends where a sniff of the cork was all we had to guess the grape and type of wine. Great entertainment, but not as fun as the tasting, because that's why we opened that bottle of wine for in the first place; n'est-ce pas?

        It is interesting to see that some of the most famous vineyards are bottling some of their finest wines these days with screw-on caps. I don't know what I'll do when the maître d ’passes me one of these.
        Well I hope I passed that test.

        May 11, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
      • Patrick@Shirley U Jest

        I had the finest red wine while vacationing in Spain while eating a pimento cheese sandwich on wonderful wheat bread.

        May 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
      • Leslie Nielsen@Shirley

        He said, ".... VAPOR barrier ..." Interesting.

        May 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
  6. Jeff

    Thanks for squirrel solutions. I live in the city and therefore cannot "remove" them myself. Some years they reak havoc on my tomatoes. Do you have any ideas about the neighbors' cats?

    May 10, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • kathy griffin@Jeff

      hmm... a bullet?

      May 10, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • Shirley U Jest

      Squirrels from the city and burbs equate the smell of humans to food. They smell human hands in the soil and will try to dig up a tasty morsel. Gravel – I dunno, if it works then okay, but I prefer to top my potted plants with mulch and given them s splash of watered down Capsaicin, Tabasco sauce or Sriracha both work well. Since i started using this methods squirrels don't bother spring bulbs, annuals nor the garden transplants.
      I'm not sure but maybe cats don't like hot sauce on their paws either...

      May 11, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • JBJingles@Jeff

      We had a neighbor cat visiting a planter on the front porch and kicking out a bunch of dirt/mulch every morning...must have been using it as a litter box. Solution was wooden skewers inserted in the dirt, points up! No more cat!

      May 11, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  7. Snoop Dogg@Charlie Sheen

    Y'all be needin' some of this hoam groan o-ray-ga-no ta git yer stand-up gig on track.

    May 10, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  8. Mildred

    I'm growing herbs in my office (as well as parade roses). I'm slowly working up on different varieties. Right now I have basil and cilantro started, just put in some parsely, going for sage, chives, and mint next.

    May 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
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