You say you'd love to have your own ratatouille factory? To be able to just step outside and pick some fresh tomatoes, peppers, eggplant,onions, parsley and basil? Perhaps some fresh mint for the pomegranate sorbet?
But, you ask, where? The new deck has swallowed nearly all of your postage stamp-sized back yard and your Rottweiler needs the rest. Or the kids trample to death anything that grows but dandelions and plantains. Or maybe you live in a condo or apartment and your"North forty" is a concrete balcony.
Ah, human ingenuity to the rescue. An old, but reliable techniqueis available to the spatially impaired -- container gardening. Just about any kind of vegetable that grows in the ground can be grown in containers. Even plant breeders have cooperated by developing bush and dwarf varieties of many popular veggies.
"That's the only way we've grown our vegetable plants -- in containers," said Mary Jefferson, a horticulturist by training who is a buyer at Metzler's Garden Center in Columbia. She lives in a town house. "We've used mostly 5-gallon containers and 16-inch pots," she said. "We've used old pickle containers that we got from a tavern, whiskey barrels, anything that's agood enough size."
Types of containers are limited by only two things: your imagination and the ability to provide good drainage. It'ssimple enough to put 1-inch holes in the bottom of a wooden barrel or punch through a plastic 1-gallon milk jug, but not so simple to drill through an iron pot.
And it's not necessary to spend a lot of money on redwood planters, either. Some people just cut some slits in a bag of potting soil and stick a seedling in at the top. Or use a heavy plastic trash bag filled with soil.
"We set our pots on a couple of 1 by 1s to get them off the surface of the patio so they'll drain," Jefferson said. "You don't want them sitting in saucers full of water."
Just make sure the container used is large enough for the mature plant. A 5-gallon container is fine for one eggplant, tomato, pepper or broccoli plant, but smaller types can grow in smaller containers. Keep in mind the depth, too. Carrots need at least 8 inches asthey grow underground.
Plain garden soil, especially the heavy clay variety, tends to get heavy and waterlogged in containers and can suffocate root systems. "I would recommend a good potting soil al
ready mixed," Jefferson said. "It's the easiest way. Bigger bags are more economical. You can mix your own, too. I recommend a 1:1:1 mixture of composted bark, composted cow manure and perlite. You can mix it on a large tarp or opened leaf bag."
Though they're grown in containers, remember that vegetables and herbs aren't house plants and need at least 5 to 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. "The advantageof containers is that you can move them or rotate them to give them the most sun," Jefferson said. "But, soil in that small volume will warm up and dry out faster than the ground." Frequent watering, especially for the smaller containers, is the key to successful container growing.
The soil needs to be checked twice a day, in the morning and evening. If the top inch or two of soil is dry, "Water thoroughly and gently, until water comes out the bottom," she said.
"But be careful not to overwater, especially if they're young plants."
She also gives her plants a drink of water-soluble fertilizer about once a week.
Though bush tomato varieties like Patio and Red Robin don't need staking or cages, other varieties do. Large cages are sturdier. Peppers and eggplants should also get support from a stake. Peas and pole beans can climb stake "tepees" or netting. Ask someone at yourgarden center about spacing what you choose.
Herbs do especially well in containers. Any kind you like to cook with is what you shouldgrow. Best of all, they can be moved inside to a sunny location for the winter. "For herbs, I like to use different sizes and shapes of containers for variety," Jefferson said. "You can also add some flowers to them for color. There are even edible marigolds.
"The key to keeping herbs looking good is picking them. The best thing for herbs is to harvest them a lot."
What you can't use, give to your friends. Just tell them it's from the "North forty".
NOTE: THIS ARTICLE ALSO APPEARED IN HARFORD, AND HOWARD COUNTY SUN EDITIONS