Archive for the 'container gardening' Category

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.