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Container Gardening, Part 1

January 13, 2009
This Tiny Tom Tomato grew happily in a pot all season long.

This Tiny Tom Tomato grew happily in a pot all season long.

You would think that at this time of year, I would be all about the soup, given the name of my blog and the fact that my region is about to be plunged into the first subzero temps of the year (crikey!). I am still doing the soup thing (I’ll be posting about my mom’s Chicken Chili Soup in the next few days – one of my faves), but, if you could read my mind, you’d discover that most of my free-time thoughts are spent obsessing over my 2009 gardens.

It’s planning, designing, seed-buying and plant pre-ordering time (the only worthwhile part of January, imo), and from the arrival of the seed catalogs through the end of February, if you’re looking for me, you can just follow the trail of balled up pencil drawings to where I’m curled up with a cat and thumbing through said catalogs and/or favorite garden design books, sketching, erasing, and sketching some more.

I have gardens everywhere. And by gardens, I do mean vegetable gardens. (Rosalind Creasy, you’re my hero.) Any grassy swath in my yard that gets more than 4 hours of sunlight, and is not too terribly far away from a spigot, has been dug up and replaced with dirt. Next to go this year will be the west-facing side yard, spared thus far because it’s a tad too far from a water source for comfort (my back’s comfort, specifically – by the 4th trip, a 2-gallon watering can is heavy), but I’m eyeballing a nearby gutter pipe for conversion to a rain collector.

The realization that vegetable plants are beautiful – in many cases more beautiful than flowers – has been a revelation. Since that moment, my vision of gardening has changed, and I’ve never looked back. No more rectangular plots with tidy rows of mounded greenery. No, sir. There are curves, and layers, and flowers intermingling with rocks and rivulets and ferny carrots, bushy basil and spikey rosemary. Unruly vines chocked with juicy jewels in red and yellow and orange and green, climb wooden walls and wrought iron trellises.

There I go, getting all dreamy. And I’m digressing to boot, as this is a post about container gardening.

My vegetable growing jones is not limited to the ground. By the time June rolls around, every flat surface around my property sports a container with some kind of sumthin’ growing out of it. Container gardening is where I allow my garden center impulse purchases to run wild. (You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout, walking around those fully-stocked nurseries in May, eyes wide (wild-eyed, even), wanting one of this and that and that. That’s how I ended up with orange mint and a lemon-scented geranium last year. Not sure what the orange mint was all about [it was neither orangey nor particularly minty], but as for the scented geranium – my first – well, that’s (those, plural, those are) being figured into the ground-bound gardens this year. Oh, so lovely, I cannot tell you.) If I spot something I have to have, but don’t really know what to do with, I’ll stick it in a pot.

Okay, so, what will grow in containers?

Pretty much everything. Some plants grow better in containers than others, but, to make a sweeping statement, if you have a container large enough, you can grow anything in it. (You’ve seen those huge potted trees in the lobbies of swanky office buildings, right?) Now, pot-bound veggies are probably not going to produce as abundantly as they would in deep, rich, loamy earth, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make you happy.

Your only limitation is the space and sunlight you have available. I grew plants on a tiny, southeast-facing apartment balcony for years, and it’s where my love for peppers developed (my obsession with tomatoes was sown way back in my childhood, when my older brothers raised the most amazing tomatoes I’ve ever seen … or tasted). Of course, back then I didn’t think about vegetable-gardening-as-landscaping, just utilitarian stick-plants-in-pots-and-water-then-pick. If I had a balcony garden right now, I would go vertical and layered. More on this later, in a separate post.

So, what did I grow in containers last year? Lots of stuff. Here’s a little peek (click photos to view larger):

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Peppers – both sweet and hot – are happy to get all snuggly in their pots and bloom their little hearts out. The bells produced fruits just as big and juicy as their ground-bound counterparts, just fewer of them, and I ended up with more jalapeños (top, left and right) than I knew what to do with. This year, I’m going to pack my deck full of a dozen varieties of peppers (plus, I want to make some ristras, and I’m going to need a good quantity of cayennes and arbols).

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I even grew celery in a container (above, left). I was intrigued when I saw the seedlings at the local farmers’ market, and after researching them when I got home, soon discovered that celery will really not be happy in the ground in my zone. Too finicky. Thinks the hateful sun is too hot. Crazy thing. A big container was the key. Easy to relocate to the shade on hot afternoons, but plenty of room to hold rich soil and yummy fish emulsion nutrients (“yummy” is in the eye of the beholder … it stinks to high heaven, but the veggies do loves it). The plants were just beautiful, as you can see. Rather than harvesting entire stalks, I just clipped ribs as I needed them. They quickly regenerated. In fact, despite heavy soup production, I couldn’t keep up with the plants. The tightly clumped stalks you find in the grocery are the result of blanching – mounding dirt up against the plant as it grows – which keeps it both compact and the light green color you’re used to seeing. The four plants in this container were let to go unblanched, producing this pretty growth habit and very assertively flavored celery. I’m definitely doing this again in 2009. To the right is dark opal basil in a teeny tiny pot. Not recommended (the pot), but for some reason I can’t remember, it seemed a good idea at the time. Basil really prefers the ground, but, it will perform acceptably in a pot. I do both – in the gardens and in pots (same with rosemary, thyme, tarragon and cilantro). I loved my huge basil beds this year, but I also loved pots of basil right outside the kitchen door.

More on container gardening to come…. 🙂

  1. January 16, 2009 8:11 am

    OMG…thank you so much. This is great. I am going to follow what you say as close as I can. I just hope I can find the right soil since I am here in Germany. Oh I just cannot wait. I wonder how early I can start…hmm…

  2. January 20, 2009 4:29 am

    Okay. So I think my balacony faces north and west (L shaped)… I think I want to try tomatoes, peppers and herbs. Should I purchase plants from the gardening store or should I use seeds? I have already seen stores in the area selling seeds but I don’t know how early I would need to prep them.

    Thank you again for doing this!

  3. soupaddict permalink
    January 21, 2009 9:31 pm

    Hi Christy,

    I’ve got more info to come! But to answer your question, it really all depends on how much time you want to spend, pre-garden. Seedlings do require care, but the advantage is that you have more to choose from, since seeds are more readily available than plants. Plants from the gardening store, however, are ready to rock and roll 🙂 . I end up doing a mix of both.

    If you go with seedlings, you’ll need to know the last (spring) and first (fall) frost date in your region. Northern Germany will have a different growing climate than Southern Germany. Once you know the last frost date of the winter/spring, you can count the days backwards to determine when to start your seeds. In my US zone (6), I plant most of my seeds in early March (sometimes February, if I get too impatient), for a mid-May last frost date. If you start too early, your plants will be leggy and scraggly before they even get in the ground (or the pot!).

    For now, you can research planting times in your area so you know when that all-important last-frost-date is. I imagine it’s mid to late May for you, but you’ll want to know for sure. More soon! Tschüß!

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