Container Gardening and Season Extension

Sharon July 28th, 2009

I love containers – you’d think that with 27 acres, I’d not bother with them, but the more I farm, the more I love container gardening. 

 All my first garden experiences were up on balconies 2, 3 or 4 stories above the street.  Let’s also note that none of these buildings had elevators, so I can remember precisely what it took to carry all the container soil mix I ever used up those stairs.  Still, it was worth it – I loved my balcony container gardens, and grew everything from strawberries and roses to zucchini and tomatoes.  I never got out of the habit, and right now there’s a jungle of containers growing everything from hen and chicks (which I grow just because I like it) to sungold tomatoes, from gotu kola, lemon verbena and rau rom and other tropical herbs to purple orach, jalapenos, eggplant, carrots and kale. 

I’ve also got self-watering containers that hold larger plants – tomatoes, okra and sweet potatoes.  When pots spring leaks or boots get worn out, I’m likely to stuff them with soil and let something grow in them.  I’ve got the habit of putting things into pots, and I couldn’t do without them – particularly because they are one of my best season extension tools.

I can get a significant jump on the season by planting out into containers, early, since the containers can so easily be covered up or brought into the house to avoid a late frost.  My first harvest of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant always come from pots, sometimes as early as the fourth of july for the tomatoes.  These same plants are often the last ones producing into the winter, as the potted cherry tomatoes are brought under cover for a few weeks of late harvest. 

I am fortunate to have a deep, sunny, south facing window in my living room, and that area is reserved for the most beloved of my indoor plants that provide me with food and flowers all winter long.  My house is extremely cold – that spot is often in the 50s, so precludes some heat lovers, but my citrus plants, a few overwintered tomatoes and peppers (which won’t produce anything over the winter, but which will get started very early in the spring), my rosemary, scented geraniums and a few other beloved plants get that precious spot. 

But you don’t have to have southern exposure to overwinter plants indoors – a surprisingly large number of plants will take eastern or western exposures – my lemon verbena, for example, does rather well in a partly occluded western exposure, and I can overwinter begonias and my beloved “Hidcote Beauty” fuschia with northern exposures (I know, they aren’t food, but flowers in winter have value too!).  Food plants that will tolerate lower light conditions include many greens (which produce happily on my very cold, east facing sunporch), turnips and beets (which can be forced to produce greens even in north facing windows – just put them in a pot of mixed sand with a a little compost, and keep harvesting leaves all winter), and peas, which won’t produce any peas, but will produce delicious pea shoots in an eastern or western exposure indoors in pots.

Any shelter at all – even being backed up against a sunny wall – will extend your season somewhat most years.  Cold tolerant parsley, mache and arugula often over winter for me in my mudroom, set on top of the piles of firewood and taken in to be watered occasionally.  This is by no means draft proof or warm, but they are not fussy creatures.

With container plants, I can have my first tomatoes in July and my first hot peppers a week or so later – early season salsa.  I can keep African Basil going all winter long, and drink lemon vebena tea, picked that morning.  I can place flowers on my sabbath table.  I can harvest greens until January, and then start again in March from my unheated porch.  I can overwinter tender plants – from the fig that lives on my unheated porch to the citrus plants that would rather have warmer, but who grumpily give me lemons to enjoy all winter.

It does take some experimentation to learn to overwinter plants in containers – one needs to harden off plants coming into the house, just as one hardens off plants outside – the plants have been used to moister air and more sun, so gradually shift them indoors.  Selecting varieties for container growing is an art in itself – some plants respond very well, others not so much.  Often plants bred for containers do better, but it is always worth trying new things.  Look for “dwarf” “space saving” and “suited to container growing” in descriptions in catalogs.

I’ll write about greenhouses next, but it is important to realize that you don’t have to have a greenhouse – even an apartment with an east/north exposure can have window boxes with plants that are protected to extend their season by a few weeks or a month.  Even a north facing window can grow some food plants, and some beauty.  We are going to have to adapt our houses to help provide us food in cold and dry times of year if we want fresh things – beginning the process of adaptation by bringing in some things for winter is one way to take a step forward.

 Sharon

6 Responses to “Container Gardening and Season Extension”

  1. Devin Quince says:

    This year we had some many extra seedlings that we did not sell we started using containers for these. Some of them are normal plant pots, but we have also used concrete blocks for radishes, painting buckets for tomatoes, tires for potatoes, and other things. It is often an overlooked way to expand the harvest.

  2. WNC Observer says:

    Western NC is a great place, and I love all our trees. Unfortunately, trees do have the drawback of sometimes casting shade where you don’t want it. That is the major bane of most aspiring gardeners around here – trying to find a place with enough sunlight to actually grow anything besides impatiens.

    In my case, the sunniest spot on our property happens to be the deck along the south side of the house. I have therefore gotten into container gardening big time, and there is where I grow most of our fruiting vegetables: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, and summer squash. I am also experimenting with Minnesota Midget melons this year, and so far they seem to be doing well. The melons and squash are grown in large tubs. I’ve invested in a couple of those “Earth Box” planters with the built-in trellis for my cukes; very expensive, but I hope to get many years of service out of them. For my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, I have built self-watering containers using pairs of 5-gal buckets. All of this is working out very well; the only problem I’ve found is that the summer squash don’t seem to produce very long. I’m using several containers and planting a succession to get around that.

    I am also growing all of my herbs in containers up on the deck. Herbs do very well in containers, for the most part.

    One failure I’ve had is strawberries. I’ve tried both everbearing and alpine varieties in strawberry pots, but both yielded poorly and died after one season. I guess some people have luck with these, but I haven’t.

    I’m also experimenting with potatoes in containers this year, on the ground rather than on the deck. This looks promising, waiting to see what kind of yield I get.

  3. EcoYogini says:

    We planted our first container garden this year from seed. Our balcony is TINY
    and we’ve squished organic carrots, garlic and peas along with strawberries from plants. So far our plants haven’t been affected by the slugs or bugs that the wet summer other gardens have had to deal with- which is one bonus to container gardening. Also- our balcony has this ugly netting so that the birds can’T make nests. Initially I hated this net, but it has been a blessing as the birds also couldn’t eat our flowers or fruit! The netting is JUST big enough to allow bumblebees to come in a pollinate :)
    I LOVE my urban garden!

  4. Claire says:

    I don’t do a lot of container gardening because my windows are small and my lot is large (1 acre). But I do keep some fruiting and/or flowering plants in containers that I bring in over the winter that otherwise would not survive my borderline Zone 6/7 conditions. These include a fig tree, 4 citrus trees, 2 species of moringa (new last year, so far doing OK), rosemary, and flowering plants like geraniums, clivia, agapanthus, and so forth.

    Finding the right spot for each of them has taken some experimentation, and unfortunately plant deaths have occurred in the process. I console myself by saying the plants died for a good cause. :)

  5. Diane says:

    After killing rosemary for several years in a row both indoors and out I got some great advice at a University of Rhode Island plant sale. Put it in a pot that’s way too big. It sounded unlikely but we tried with 3 plants and four (or five?) years later they are going strong and have provided lots of fresh rosemary all year long. Now they probably should be repotted, maybe just root pruned and returned to the same pots with fresh soil. I didn’t think to ask about that.

  6. [...] have 27 acres, and I still use containers for a substantial number of plants. I began as a container garden, growing on balconies in third and fourth floor walk-up apartments, wh…. My housemates, husband and I ate a lot of food from those containers. I know what can be done in [...]

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