My Urban Garden | Organic Container Gardening 101
First, let me say that I am by no means an expert at this. However, I do have several years of container gardening under my belt, and I ask my farmer friends lots of questions. I have some knowledge to share, even if some of it is knowledge gained from failure. So, if you’re thinking about starting a container garden of your own, here are some good things to consider:
Which direction does my patio/balcony/window face? How many hours of direct sun do I get?
This is an important place to start because light is essential to almost all plant growth. The direction your plants face greatly affects how much sun they will receive, which, in turn, affects which plants are best for you to grow. If you’re growing inside or on a covered balcony/patio, the direct sun will be more limited. An open and uncovered surface without shade trees will get the most sun.
East–facing gardens get morning to midday sun.
West-facing gardens get afternoon to evening sun.
South-facing gardens get the most light.
North-facing gardens get the least light.
Keep in mind that a lot of fruits and vegetables need “full sun,” meaning at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day. If you aren’t lucky enough to receive that much light, there are still plenty of options. Some “full sun” plants will still grow in partial light but produce less and/or take longer to grow. Plants and seeds sold in nurseries or home improvement stores should indicate the necessary amount of light on their tags or containers. If you buy seeds or seedlings from a farmer, ask about the light conditions needed for a particular plant.
If you aren’t sure about how many hours of direct sun you get, the best way to find out is the old fashioned way. Try to take note of the approximate time that the sun enters your planting area and what time it leaves. Do a little bit of easy math, and voila! There’s your answer. (Note that this amount will change a good bit based on the time of year.)
Which USDA Plant Hardiness Zone am I in? (Affects outdoor plants only.)
You can check your zone on the USDA’s interactive map here.
Now what? Most plants you buy at a nursery or home improvement store will indicate the appropriate zones on the tag or container. Make sure you fall within the acceptable areas before purchasing. If you’re buying seedlings from a local farmer, presumably the plants they offer should work in your area, but you can always ask!
What kind of containers should I use?
There are a lot of factors that contribute to this answer, but budget certainly plays a big part in it. Whatever type you decide on, make sure you have drainage holes in the bottom. Here are a few different options, though certainly not a comprehensive list:
Terra cotta ($):
If you’re just starting out and don’t want to invest a lot of money, simple terra cotta pots are a classic choice. The main drawback is that terra cotta tends to crack if left outside in below freezing temperatures, which is most problematic if you are planting perennials or edible plants that you plan to overwinter (such as strawberries or garlic). The good news is that they’re not expensive to replace each year. Terra cotta is also more breathable than its glazed and plastic counterparts, which can be a pro or con. If you tend to overwater your plants, the breathability can help save your plants from drowning! If you are more inclined to skip days watering and/or live in an especially hot region, you might want to consider one of the other options that retains more moisture.
Plastic containers can range from buckets with holes drilled into the bottom to pots with faux wood, concrete, or terra cotta finishes to sub-irrigated gardening systems. Plastic can be another inexpensive option if you’re not interested investing a lot into your garden or just starting out. You can even ask your local nursery if they have any extra buckets that they’re willing to give to you. I’ve gotten a number of free five-gallon buckets this way!
On the more expensive end of the plastic spectrum are gardening kits that can take some of the guesswork out of watering, fertilizing, and supporting plants. I’ve used EarthBox, which is a sub-irrigated or “self-watering” system, meaning that there is a water reservoir below the plants that waters them automatically. There are also plenty of Pinterest tutorials for building your own sub-irrigated container if you’d rather DIY than shell out the cash for a pre-assembled product.
One potentially negative aspect of plastic containers is that they are more prone to fade, bleach, or warp in the sun. That may not concern you, but it is worth noting. Plastic is not porous, so it may not be the best option if you are an over-waterer. These containers can, however, be helpful (especially the self-watering variety) if you’re not able to water your plants with high frequency. Another thing to be aware of is that darker colors attract more sun and therefore heat, which can dry out your soil more quickly.
Glazed ceramic ($$-$$$$):
Glazed ceramic containers come in a beautiful array of colors and textures, but they can cost a small fortune. They are more durable than their terra cotta cousins, though less porous and heavier. That means they are best suited for plants you don’t plan to move often! Like plastic, the less breathable material is a good idea if you live in a hot region and/or don’t have time to water daily. If you want to invest in a beautiful container garden, this is where I would start.
Now, about that investment… For many years I lusted over the beautiful, glazed pots at nurseries and home improvement stores, but the sticker shock was too much to handle. I fortunately discovered that many discount stores (Like TJ Maxx, Home Goods, Big Lots, Steinmart, etc) often carry glazed pots in the spring and early summer at greatly reduced prices. I found a large pot (about 2′ tall) at such a store for $20 and the very next day saw the same one at a home improvement store for $80! It might take some time to find the color(s) and size(s) you want, but your patience can be rewarded. Estate and yard sales are another great place to look for lower-priced ceramic containers. I try to find a couple each year to slowly replace my plastic buckets and pots.
Regardless of what type of pot you choose, don’t skip out on the saucers or drip trays (unless, of course, it’s built in already). Water that collects in the saucer will get soaked back up later. It also makes for happier neighbors if anyone lives below you in an apartment or condo building! Nobody wants to get dripped on! On the other hand, make sure your pots have drainage holes in the bottom. Without them, excess water will pool in the bottom, and insufficient drainage can lead to many problems.
What type of soil is best?
Most soil available at garden centers and home improvement stores is either potting soil or garden soil. Neither is ideal on its own, but either will work. Potting soil typically has perlite in it–those little, white balls that look like bits of styrofoam–which helps the soil to drain. Garden soil, on the other hand, tends to have bark in it.
The best combination of readily available growing mediums is one part garden/potting soil to one part compost. If you’re planting from seed, potting soil is a much better choice, as the large chunks of bark in garden soil can get in the way. If you’re repotting a seedling, either type is fine.
If you can, fill the bottom of your pots with rocks or gravel to aid in drainage.
What are my options for organic fertilizer and pest management?
Earth worm castings are a fantastic natural fertilizer. A large bag isn’t cheap, but it will last for a long time. I add a small handful to the soil anytime I’m planting something, and my bag has lasted for a couple years so far. Organic fish and/or seaweed fertilizer (such as Neptune’s Harvest) is a popular choice among organic farmers that I know. Other organic fertilizers are available online and where plants are sold (I usually search Amazon). I recommend doing some research before blindly trusting a label that says “organic.” Egg shells are a great (free) source of calcium, one of the three main nutrients in fertilizers. Rinse egg shells out with hot water before using to reduce the likelihood of spreading salmonella; boil shells to sterilize them if you’re particularly concerned. Crumble shells and mix into your soil.
Physical barriers, like netting, can help shield against birds, deer, and other varmints. Pests such as aphids and beetles can sometimes be discouraged with a diluted dish soap or vinegar solution in a spray bottle. Ladybugs are also natural aphid predators; you can buy a container of them at your local nursery. Just be sure to release them at night so they’re less likely to fly away immediately. Not overwatering your plants can really help avoid some infestations, as many insects like damp soil. Unfortunately you can’t naturally avoid all pests, which is just the reality of organic gardening and farming.
When and how often should I water my plants?
Your frequency of watering greatly depends on the type of plants you’re growing. It is best, however, to try to water in the morning and/or evening. Watering during the afternoon heat has two disadvantages: 1) droplets of water on the leaves can act like tiny magnifying glasses in the sun and burn the leaves, and 2) more of the water will evaporate before getting absorbed by your plants. Generally, if you see your plants drooping, they’re thirsty! (Update 2/3/16) It’s also helpful to plant things together that need about the same amount of water, so you’re not trying to water half of a pot.
When is the best time to harvest my fruits/veggies/flowers?
The the best time to harvest is in the cooler hours of the morning if you can manage it. During the day, plants lose water content and they’ll wilt much more quickly after harvest. Greens and herbs are most affected by the water loss and wilting; fruit and vegetables such as tomatoes, berries, peppers, squash, and root vegetables are not as bad, but should still be brought in from the heat as soon as possible.
What are some good plants to start with? Where can I buy organic plants and seeds?
I recommend starting off by buying plants or seedlings, rather than starting from seed. Try a few herbs, which can be grown inside or out. Basil, oregano, and rosemary are good starter herbs, and mint seems nearly impossible to kill. A lot of grocery stores carry potted herbs, and they’re often close to the price of cut herbs!
Lettuces, kale, chard, and greens are fairly easy spring or fall crops. Try a pepper plant in the summer; they usually aren’t as high maintenance as tomatoes. Root vegetables–such as carrots, radishes, and turnips–are great for full to partial sun and don’t take up much space, though you do have to start them from seed.
If you want cut flowers, zinnias are hardy summer growers. Nasturtium are easy-to-grow flowers whose petals and leaves are edible!
More and more nurseries and home improvement stores are carrying organic plants now, but they can still be difficult to find. Whole Foods usually has a great selection of organic fruit, vegetable, and herb plants for sale in the spring and summer. Local farms sometimes sell seedlings at the farmers market or at an annual plant sale. It never hurts to ask a farmer if they’d be willing to sell you some seedlings; just make sure to ask early enough before they’ve planted all of them!
Growing from seed takes extra time (read: patience) and care, but it’s definitely not impossible. The good news is that seeds are relatively cheap, so it’s not an expensive experiment. If you’re up for the challenge, I highly recommend ordering from All Good Things. They grow and collect their own organic seeds on a farm in California, including some really interesting heirloom varieties. High Mowing Organic Seeds is another socially- and environmentally-responsible seed company whose products are all organic and non-GMO. Botanical Interests sells organic vegetable, herb, and flower seeds online and in stores (I’ve purchased them at The Fresh Market). Burpee is another big name in the plant and seed market that carries a line of organic seeds.
When should I start?
Early spring and late summer/early fall are probably the two best times to start planting a garden. If you wait until summer to plant your summer produce, it might be too late! Many seeds have trouble germinating (getting started) if it’s too hot, and transplanted seedlings can struggle to take root in higher temperatures. Once the heat of summer starts waning, there is quite a variety of plants you can try out. Fortunately, it’s rarely the wrong time to start an indoor herb garden if you don’t want to wait until spring or fall!
Have any tips of your own? Be sure to let me know in the comments! Happy gardening, friends!
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