Thursday, May 14, 2009

Container Gardening

About 4 years ago, I decided I wanted to try gardening. The trouble, of course, is that I live in a third-floor condominium. However, I'm lucky enough to have an oversize third-story balcony and permission to have plants on it and hanging flower boxes. So naturally, like most apartment and condo dwellers, I turned to container gardening.

Container gardening is a fancy name for attempting to grow food-producing plants in pots--just like you would with house plants or flowers. If you do a little Googling, you'll find that just about anything can be grown in a container. However, some plants do better than others depending on their root, sun, and watering needs. Beans, peas, and sugar-snap peas, for example, grow quite well and very fast in pots if you buy the "bush" varieties. Lettuces, herbs, and leafy greens grow great too in the early spring when it's still cool out. Tomatoes are practically made for pots, but they require a lot of sun.

That brings me to the trouble. Sun. While I have a breathtaking view of the bay from my third-story deck, it has a huge overhang. That's great for shade and sitting around but not so much for growing things. None of those Google'd resources told me that. I had to learn it the hard way. If I had to guess, most of you apartment dwellers have the same problem. and so, I have the following list of advice:
  • If you've never gardened before, start small. Try an herb box. Buy yourself a nice two or three-foot window box and brackets to hang it on the outside of your balcony rail. To start, stick with basil, thyme, oregano or parsley. These are easy to grow and are handy in the kitchen.
  • Buy quality potting mix with organic or traditional fertalizer already in the mix and lots of non-dirt "organic matter" (usually peet moss). The lightness of the potting soil will help you out with watering because it acts kind of like a sponge. Potting soil also usually contains a month's supply of plant food.
  • Use seedlings. There's nothing more disappointing to beginning gardeners than planting seeds that don't sprout or that sprout and then subsequently die. It's also hard to do in containers due to watering and drainage inconsistencies. Most home or garden centers sell "flats" around late spring for $2 to $3 per 4 or 6 seedlings. Trust me, they're worth the expense.
  • If you have low sun most of the day, stick with things where you eat the green parts as opposed to plants with "fruits". Herbs, lettuces, beans, peas, etc. are pretty tolerant of low sun and you can often get two crops out of the summer (or continuous picking if you're careful how you pick). Peppers and tomatoes will grow fine but will produce a very low fruit yeild if they don't get a lot of sun during the fruiting process. Try thin-skinned peppers or chilis and small tomatoes like cherry or grape. I'm trying both this year--I'll let you know how it works out.
  • Water when the soil is almost dry. Over-watering is not good.
  • Feed your plants regularly (ever 4 or so waterings) with a standard plant fertilizer, compost, or compost tea.
  • Don't get frustrated. Enjoy the act of gardening even if you don't end up eating much out of your garden. Part of gardening is the fun of doing it. It's a challenge, a craft like anything else. You don't always get it right the first time.

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