Q. DearMike: I live in a townhouse with a small back patio that gets adecentamount of sun in the morning. It's a concrete slab, so I'm forced tousecontainers for all my plants. I'd like to create some type of gardenbut I'mnot sure what types of vegetables or trees would do well incontainers. Could you give me some guidance? Thanks,
A. Thank YOU,Nate—even those of us what got lots of ground to grow in still love theeaseand portability of containers. But the devil IS in the detail here.Mostcontainer failures aren't due to the wrong plants beingused—they'recaused by the pots themselves or what's used to fill them. Solet's beginwith my five-point primer on proper potting up. Then we'll talkselection.
1. Make it a BIGContainer!
Whether it's a simplewindow box ora prodigious posse of ponderously pretty pots posed 'pon your porch, BIGGERIS BETTER! (Sorry, guys—butall thoseemails you've been getting are true.) Large containers don't dry out asquicklyduring dry spells. And hey—you'll be able to fit more stuff inside ofthem too;that's always a plus.
2. Ixnay on Your Irtday!
Garden soil may (or may not)be adequate for your in-the-ground growables, but it's a death trap forplantsin a container—especially if that soil is the nasty, heavy clay many ofus haveto struggle with. Instead, fill your containers with one part compost(home-made or bagged) and three parts of a loose, light,'soil-free'mixture like Premier's Pro-Mix or Fafard's All-Purpose Mix. Bagslabeled'seed-starting' are almost always the right consistency. You DON'Twant'heavy'; you want a mix that seems almost impossibly light. And don'tuse anyof these new mixes contaminated with chemical fertilizers andpesticides; sincewhen are there BUGS in peat moss and perlite?!
No compost? Use a cleansoil-freemix that contains natural plant food. There are a few out therein theretail world, and Gardens Alivemakes a pottingsoil with five differentorganic nutrients, including compost, earthwormcastings and "mealworm crap"(now there's an ingredient you don't see on a lot of bags…).They alsouse Coir, a fiber from coconuts, instead of peat.
Or make your ownmix out ofone part each compost, peat, perlite, and vermiculite. (Perlite andvermiculiteare natural mined minerals that keep the mix light and provide lots ofroom forroots to grow strong.) Add one tablespoon of lime or wood ash per fivegallonsof mix to adjust the pH, and combine it all up in a big tub orwheelbarrow,spraying with plain water as you go to keep down the dust. Warning:Somesamples of vermiculite may contain traces of asbestos fibers (naturallypresentin the mined deposits); I really value the structure vermiculite lendsto amix, but if you don't wish to use it, just add more perlite instead.
3. Drainage is Essential!
Don't fall in love withcontainersthat don't have drainage holes unless you're capable of drilling someyourself.("Crack!" goes the $40 pot!) Always check thebottoms ofyour containers; sometimes you'll have to drill holes, sometimes thereareplugs that must be removed. And if the bottom of a container is veryflat to theground, put it up on bricks so the holes don't become obstructed.
4. Pretty Pots Porous;Plastic PotsPerform Preferably
Unglazed terra cotta potslookgreat, but their porosity (you like that woid? Classy, huh?) wicks thewater from your 'soil' right out into the air. Plants in such potsoften needto be watered every day—sometimes several times a day; and arepracticallyguaranteed to die when you go on vacation. Terra cotta is alsobreakable,heavy, and can't be left outdoors over winter. (Well, that's not quitetrue; you can leave them out. They'll just crack.) Plasticpotsare lighter, less expensive, retain moisture better, laugh at winterand comein a huge variety of sizes and colors. (If you're just stone inlovewith terra cotta, find plastic pots that are slightly smaller and sliptheminside, where they won't be seen.)
5. Don't Crowd The Plantsin ThoseContainers
One of the biggestmistakes rookiesmake is trying to fit a truck patch worth of plants in a ten-inch pot.Take tomatoes.Bushy, well-behaved "determinate" varieties (like most paste tomatoes)will dogreat in five-gallon containers—but only one plant per pot! (Trustme—you'llget lots more love apples this way. Too many plants? Buy more pots!)Giant,indeterminate types that produce huge fruits on long vines (like BigBoy and
Peppers and eggplants dofine in10-inch pots. So will long, viney things like cukes and zukes if youprovide atall trellis for them to climb. And 'cut and come again' stands ofsalad greensSHOULD be crowded close together.
Plant what you like:Position bigpumpkin pots so the long vines can trellis up your deck! Frame yourdoorway dramaticallywith pretty pepper plants! Pick cherry tomatoes as they trail down froma hugehanging basket! Just remember that flowering plants liketomatoes,peppers, eggplants and the other fabulous 'fruits of summer' need agood amountof sun. If the hours of daylight striking your pots time out to be lessthanfive or six, grow things like herbs, potatoes and leafy greens thatdon't needas much light instead.
You also mention trees.Once again, I'll reiterate (I'll even repeat it too) that anyplant canbe grown in a pot. But Northern gardeners have to have a plan for thoseplantsover winter. Now, you are in a big city in what sounds like avery'sheltered' location (I would just say "crowded" but I'm feeling nicetoday),so you MIGHT be able to leave trees, roses and other long livedperennialsoutdoors in pots over winter without their widdle wootsfreezing—especially ifthe pots are really big and you line them up against the wall of yourhome,which being a Philadelphia townhouse, should leak warm air like asieve. (Whatwe call a metropolitan microclimate.)
But gardeners in yoursurroundingsuburbs—growing in the very same alleged USDA zone 6 as you—would beguaranteedto lose every plant if they left them outdoors. The options are to dragtheminside (betcha happy you used that light stuff instead of dirt now!) toa sunroom or cold but not freezing garage or basement, or lay them on theirsidesagainst a non-South facing wall, cover with leaves and light candles tobothSts. Francis and Fiacre.
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