by Carole Schwalm
Growing tomato plants in containers is just as easy as raising petunias.
Yes, avid gardener, city dweller, condo owner or renter and possessor of the small yard, you too can grow vegetables. The answer? One word: container.
Besides tomatoes, you can grow beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, peas, squash and more. Home-grown herbs have lots of flavor, need little space and taste better (even when you dry them yourself at the end of the season) than those purchased at the grocery. Basil, chives, cilantro or parsley, sage, tarragon, and thyme, for example, are easy to grow. If you like fruit, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries are happy container dwellers.
There are many sources for perfect-for-container seeds and plants. You may be especially interested in dwarf vegetable varieties chefs love so much.
THE RIGHT CONTAINER
Success happens with the right size and shape of the container. Planters have to be large enough to contain the roots of the plants you want to grow, unless you want to keep transplanting them to a larger pot through the season.
You have many options: clay pots, boxes (or barrels), clay flue tiles, and grow bags. Many containers are labeled water-saving and self-watering.
Clay pots are generally inexpensive, however the bigger the container, the higher the price. Plants in unpainted terracotta require lots of water. You can use a glazy paint and make your own pretty pot for less money, and get the added bonus of a plant that needs less water. Many plastic pots are inexpensive, unless you buy poor quality with a short life-span.
Wood is insulating, holds moisture well, and redwood is decay resistant. The do-it-yourselfer can build a container, or simply "a box," inexpensively. Ensure adequate drainage. Raise the wood an inch. Do not let it rest on the ground.
Clay flue tiles are nice and deep for things like potatoes and tomatoes. I've used them successful for several years. Builder's supply stores may have PVC pipe available approximating the size of flue tiles. Use a saucer underneath because it is bottomless.
Grow bags are not necessarily the prettiest, although they now come in colors. They are workable, but they do need to breathe. Bags are classified and the right depth and size for specific plants; beans, peppers, potatoes, salad veggies and tomatoes. A grow bag can also be an upside-down planter. You can plant seeds directly in a 40 lb bag of potting soil, though you risk the un-breathability.
THE RIGHT CONTAINER ENVIRONMENT
The key rule is location, location, location: or the right sun for the plant. Read the seed packet or instructions that come with the plant and then let it grow to its little heart's content.
Your container vegetables thrive with a good soil mix that allows the water to quickly reach plant roots. Drill holes if the pots do not have drainage. Cover the hole with pot shards or a small piece of window screen. Container vegetables require more water than their garden-variety counterparts. The faster your plant grows, the more water it requires. Use the old-fashioned method of sticking your finger in the pot to see just how wet the soil is.
*Cost saver #1: Think concrete. This is a do-it-yourself project. You need a framing form the size you want. The concrete mix consists of 3 parts cement, 1 part sand and 2 parts stones. You can also use "Sakrete," and simply add water. Dry 24 hours. Scrub well and plant. You can also create a planter using cement blocks and plant in the holes. Stack them as high as you wish. Think stucco paint for decoration.
*Cost saver #2: Grow your plants from seed.
*Cost Saver #3: Harsh winters disintegrate containers. Store them inside, even in the garage, once the season is over. Better yet, a greenhouse will allow you to utilize your equipment, and enjoy garden fresh vegetables, all year long.
*Miscellaneous hints: Rotate container crops from one season to the next if using the same soil. Or, rotate the dirt inside the pots. Or, mix old with new soil. Don't put gravel or rocks in the bottom of the pot, thinking you have the right drainage. Repot your plant when the roots fill the container. Go one size larger, or you can root prune and return it to the original home. After the season, if you have legumes, let them become compost; legumes add nitrogen to the soil.
Share your container gardening experience or if you'd like more information.