rinda's blog
Growing Veggies in Containers

In Chicago, it makes a lot of sense to grow vegetables in containers. Most people don't have yards big enough to accommodate a large vegetable garden, or sun enough to make the plants happy. But patios, decks, and balconies often have better conditions. In addition, the in-ground soil in the city is often not great for growing edibles, especially if there's been asbestos or lead or any industrial activity in the area. If you are going to grow veggies in the ground, it's wisest to do it in a raised bed with organic soil and compost added.

Growing vegetables is also a great activity for children. They enjoy planting and then watching the seeds germinate and grow, and there's a lot of pride to be found in harvesting the tomatoes or cucumbers and seeing the family enjoy them at dinner.

So how do you start?

Soil! This is the most important ingredient in any garden, but it's critical in gardening in containers, and double plus critical in growing vegetables. So before you buy seeds or plants, consider dishing some dirt.

You can buy prepared soils from garden centers that have some nutrients mixed in to the soil, or you can mix your own soil with 1/4 potting soil, 1/4 compost, 1/4 peat moss and 1/4 coarse sand or perlite to improve the texture and drainage. I strongly recommend that you talk to the people at the garden center - and don't go to a big box store or a grocery store - and get the best organic soil they carry.

OK, why am I such a fanatic about organics? This has to do with the soil food web: soil is actually made up of countless living organisms, from fungi and bacteria to worms and insects. These are all connected, and the plants need substances provided to them by the life forms. Chemical fertilizers can neutralize or kill the beneficial organisms that make it possible for the plants' roots to take up nutrients. Sterile potting soils sold in big box stores, or worse, the "top soil" that they sell (which pretty much comes straight off construction projects) is unlikely to have much in the way of nutrients and may have some undesirables.

Plus, you're going to eat these fruits and vegetables, right? So don't you want to grow them in the safest way possible? And since the veggies are cranking like crazy to produce food, they need extra nutrients, because they use up what's already in the soil pretty quickly. So you're going to want to fertilize them as they grow, and again, organic products, especially compost and fish emulsion, will give the plants a boost. In addition, good soil helps the plants fight diseases.

So: What do you want to grow?

In the early spring you can plant cool season crops: peas, lettuce, spinach, radishes, or broccoli. You could also plant potatoes if you're feeling adventurous. Wait till late May, though for warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers.

People often start with tomatoes. Don't you just crave real tomatoes, not the red rubber balls the supermarkets sell 10 months of the year? You can have a good harvest from two or three tomato plants in containers on your balcony or patio.

Dwarf type tomatoes have been developed for container plantings. Some good varieties are Husky Gold Hybrid, Husky Pink Hybrid, and Husky Red Hybrid. These are called indeterminate tomatoes, which means they set fruit along a vining stem that continues to grow all season. You'll need some form of support for the plants, which can be a tomato cage, a trellis, or some other structure. One of the links at the bottom has very clever products for growing tomatoes in containers.

Two determinate dwarf tomato varieties are Patio Hybrid and Tiny Tim. The first is a nearly normal sized fruit on a dwarf plant, and the second is a cherry tomato.

Because tomatoes are juicy, they need lots of water to thrive. In very hot weather, you may need to water more than once a day. If you're out all day all summer, consider getting a self-watering container. Also remember that plastic containers lose less moisture than terra cotta. You'll also need to feed the plants, probably at least every two weeks. Again, fish emulsion is a good choice.

One way to contain the size of your plants is to pinch off new growth once they've reached the height you can sustain. New shoots come from the angles of existing shoots, so when you see one about to develop, just pinch it off. This will help encourage the plant to put its energy into producing fruit, not leaves.

Except for the Tiny Tims, the rest of these plants take a little over two months from planting to harvest. Of course you can also buy plants from a garden center and save yourself some time.

Here's another idea: once your tomatoes have reached a foot or so in height, consider putting some herbs or flowers in at their base.

Cucumbers are another good choice for containers. Cucumbers come in vining and bush type plants. For containers, you will need some supports, much as you do for tomatoes, for the vining type. Bush type cucumbers are easier to grow in pots. Some good varieties are Bush Crop, Fanfare, and Salad Bush. The Bush Pickle is also good for pots.

Like tomatoes, cucumber plants put out flowers first. They need pollinators to produce fruit, so don't be alarmed by some bees in the area. Male flowers often appear first; they're smaller than the females, and don't worry when they fall off without setting fruit. The females will show up.

Like tomatoes, cukes need plenty of water and food. Both like plenty of sun, too.

Beans are another good candidate for container growing, and they're a little more tolerant of missing a watering than tomatoes or cukes. Beans come in vining and bush varieties too, and you can just let the vining ones run along the ground, but most people support them. A little ingenuity helps. You can build a kind of tepee in the pot and train the vines up it, or you can use a cage. Bush beans don't need the same support.

Sow bean seeds in mid-May. They need six hours of sun a day, though they're happier with more. They may take a break in very hot weather, but once it cools down a bit they'll resume producing. Pick the beans regularly to get them to keep producing.

Some good varieties are Dark Red Kidney, Great Northern, and Pinto beans, though you need a good 3 months to harvest these. Among bush varieties, Blue Lake, Contender, and Tendercrop are disease resistant. Among runners, you could try Kentucky Blue Royalty.

I've never grown potatoes, but here's what I've heard.

Get a barrel or some other large container. Fill it 1/3 full of good soil. Buy good seed potatoes from a reliable source, such as a feed and seed store in the country, and cut them into pieces with 2 or 3 sprouts or eyes per piece. Place the seed pieces 12 inches apart and plant them 2-3 inches deep with the eyes up. Cover them with soil. When the sprouts reach 6 inches, begin hilling soil around them. Potatoes need to be covered in soil, and they do better in moist, cool soil. As the sprouts grow, continue building up the soil. When the first flowers appear, new potatoes are probably ready to harvest. Simply reach your hand under the soil, take a few, and sneak off. When the vines start to yellow, it's time to dig the rest of the potatoes up.

I said I'd give you some good links. I know there are many, but my favorites are www.gardeners.com, a website that has pots, organic fertilizers, and nifty support devices, and www.gardensalive.com, which specializes in organics.

Happy gardening. Isn't spring great? It's my very favorite season - all the promise of new life.

Container Tomatoes