No space for a big crop? Grow fresh fruits and vegetables in pots on stoops, balconies and sun porches with these helpful gardening tips.
With urban gardening on the rise, so is the evolution of nifty tools and techniques. But for those who have only the space or time for a simple setup, there’s a good old-fashioned method, says Nora Melley, education manager at the Delaware Center for the Horticulture (DCH) in Wilmington: farming in pots.
You can grow almost anything in them—vegetables like peas, greens and peppers in late winter, plus a variety of tomatoes and fruits in spring—and they even offer a perk that gardens don’t, says Melley, who spent years running organic vegetable farms in Pennsylvania and New York before joining DCH last spring. “Plants grown in containers have fewer problems with diseases than those grown in the soil,” she says, also pointing out that pests like insects have a harder time finding your harvest on a deck than in the soil below, where they move between plants.
“Pots are also great because you can plant in them earlier than you can in the ground,” she adds, “plus, you can easily bring them inside during torrential rains” that could be damaging.
What you’ll need: Pots deep enough for your plant’s root structure (about a 20-inch diameter for vegetables, bigger for fruits like strawberries and tomatoes); a small trowel; organic mixing soil; organic seeds (High Mowing and Reimer are among Melley’s preferred brands); and an organic pest repellent, like Plantskydd. (Gardening gloves are optional, but be warned: Digging in the soil with bare hands is half the fun.)
Your seed packet should provide instructions for planting—when to do it, how far apart and how deep, and when you can expect seeds to germinate. We’ll use butterfly spinach, beets and carrots as examples here.
For spinach and beets, start by puncturing the drainage holes on the bottom of your pot. (“Some containers come with saucers that protect concrete or decking flooring,” Melley notes, “but it’s important that you don’t let them collect water, which is bad for most plants to sit in for long periods of time.”) Next, fill the pot with soil about an inch from the top—so seeds get adequate sun, but water won’t run off—making sure to keep it “nice and fluffy” as opposed to packing it down. For butterfly spinach, make little divots in a circular pattern, spacing the next row in between those in the outer row. Drop one seed in each divot, then lightly move soil on top. Water so that soil is like a “damp, wrung-out sponge,” Melley says, before poking it with a popsicle stick that has the vegetable name and date. “If it hasn’t germinated in three weeks, start over and plant again.”
With carrots, puncture and fill your pot with soil, same as before. This time, sprinkle a pinch of seeds on top, then pat down gently before adding a few more and spreading on a bit more soil. “Carrots don’t like to dry out before they sprout,” Melley notes, “so be sure to keep this one damp.” You should be able to pull them come June, then plant another round to enjoy by late summer or early fall. If they grow in too close together, simply weed a few out to make room.
Aim to plant tomatoes and other fruits by Mother’s Day, looking for starter plants (available at local garden centers) that are already flowering. For these, use a trowel to plant in the center of the pot. Tomatoes, with their huge root systems, do well in shallow, wide containers. You can even combine them with carrots and other vegetables. Strawberries are fairly easy, Melley points out, and blueberry bushes add beauty to a backyard space.
For pest control, there’s chicken wire or organic sprays. It’s best to water in the morning, Melley says. “At night, water doesn’t dry as fast, which promotes fungal diseases. In the middle of the day, plants can burn.” Also note that containers require more water than a garden, because it drains away. “Stick a finger in the soil to your knuckle,” Melley adds. “If it’s dry, it needs water.”
Store seeds in the refrigerator for future plantings. At the end of the season, you can scoop out soil and combine it with compost to be used again next spring.