We are officially in our third year of container gardening (you can read my other posts here), and although I by no means claim to be an expert, I thought I'd share some tips with you guys based on what we've learned. We went into this with zero gardening experience and very little space. Our mission was to play around, and use trial and error to see what worked and what didn't. There have been triumphs (tomatoes love us) and failures (strawberries hate us). And there have been things that have worked out amazingly well some years that have struggled others (basil was our most fruitful harvest the first two years, yet won't grow at all for us this time around).
Here are a few tips that we have learned along the way:
1. Opt for a good potting mix. Unlike traditional gardens, container gardens give you a lot of control over soil quality. I recommend a high quality organic potting mix and good organic fertilizer. Compost also makes an amazing potting soil.
2. Use what you have/recycle. Container gardens don't have to be expensive. Many of the pots we use we already had. And the small raised beds that Robbie built are made of out pallets. (If you use pallets, just make sure to use ones that were heat treated rather fumigated with chemicals.) You can use buckets, window boxes, hanging baskets - the possibilities are endless. For containers (aside from raised beds), the best size capacity seems to be between 15 and 120 quarts.
3. Drainage is key. Make sure your pots have adequate drainage. Holes should be around one-half inch.
4. Focus on the sunlight. When positioning your containers, keep in mind that at least five hours of direct sunlight is necessary (this can be more depending on plant species). The great thing about container gardening is that you can move your pots at any time if you find that they're not getting enough sun.
5. Be mindful of watering. The summer sun can cause plants to become dehydrated very quickly, and soil dries out faster in pots than in the ground. Often, you'll need to water daily if there hasn't been any rain. Over-watering can cause problems though, so when in doubt, stick your finger in the soil an inch or so down to determine moisture levels.
6. Embrace the concept of cutting back. If a plants seems like it's not growing well (or even dying), cutting it back may be all you need to do. It encourages healthy new growth. When my daisy plant started to look wilted, I removed the drying flowers (called 'deadheading'), and new buds appeared. I was sure that our parsley plant, which had morphed from bright green in to a pale, lifeless shade of brown, was done for good. Robbie cut it all back, and within a week, a brand new plant had emerged.
7. Feed Your Garden. Your plants will need to be fed every couple of weeks (unless you used a special slow-release fertilizer when you first planted.) Our favorite is Jobe's Organic Vegetable and Tomato Fertilizer.
8. Give support. Literally. Plants like tomatoes, sugar peas, cucumbers, etc. (basically anything that will produce vines or grow tall) will need support. We just insert tomatoes cages (plain old wire ones) into our containers when we transplant and they work great.
9. Take charge of your space. Don't be scared to try container gardening because you feel limited by size or location on your space. A container garden doesn't need to mean dozens of pots or beds. Even if you have just one little basil plant on your balcony or front stoop, you're on your way (that's how we started out!). If you live in an urban environment or have a tiny yard (or no yard at all), or even if you have plenty of room but want to have more control, container gardening is ideal. Assess what you have to work with and take charge by designing your garden around it.
10. Experiment. Doing a little research into which plants, vegetables, herbs, and flowers are best for your growing area or how much room specific plants need is helpful, but I think trial and error is the best way to really learn about container gardening. Even when we plant something and it doesn't make it, it's still fun and part of the experience. Each year we try something new (firsts for this year: watermelon, sugar peas, celery, lettuce, carrots, parsley), and it's always exciting to see what happens. We've even gotten into growing 90% of our plants from seeds, which we start in the spring using egg containers. For us, experimenting and accepting the challenge are the best parts.
I hope these tips prove helpful for those of you who are fellow container gardeners (or who are thinking of starting container gardens; and no it's not too late!). Here are some other great resources I've come across as well: Urban Organic Gardener // Treehugger.com Edible Container Gardens // 24 Container Gardening Projects // How to Build a Raised Vegetable Garden. Happy gardening!