It's More Than Pot Luck

THE REAL DIRT

April 24, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Tammy enjoys raising her own vegetables. She grows tomatoes, beans and brussels sprouts; cucumbers, peas and peppers.

What makes her garden special? It's 50 feet off the ground.

Tammy, who has a third-floor apartment, tends plants on a fire escape outside her window. She harvests her crops from the pots perched there.

It's not easy, she says, coaxing all those veggies to grow in pots. But for Tammy, a newspaper colleague who lives in the city, container gardening is her only means of raising food.

She is not alone. Container gardening of vegetables, vinesshrubs and trees is hot among apartment dwellers, who -- with a little imagination and modest effort -- can transform a terrace or balcony into a leafy haven.

All it takes is tubs, topsoil . . . and time to baby-sit the potted plants. They dry out quickly in summer heat, says Tammy, who waters her vegetables twice a day.

For centuries, man has tried to tuck unwieldy plants into containers. King Louis XIV had 3,000 potted trees in his garden at Versailles. The trick is making the plants believe they're anchored in Mother Earth.

Dwarf or compact plants are best suited for balconies, patios . . . and fire escapes. Many new varieties of vegetables, bred specifically for small outdoor gardens, adapt nicely to tubs, barrels or even window boxes. There are tiny green pepper plants that grow 18 inches tall, and cucumbers limited to a 15-inch sprawl. A large hanging basket is a perfect home for the Basket King tomato, a small-fruited plant whose vines spill down the container's sides.

Onions, kale, eggplant, Swiss chard and bush squash also grow well in containers, given fertile soil, plenty of sunlight and water. Most veggies are big eaters, so feed them weekly with fish emulsion, a liquid fertilizer, or manure tea. Remember, potted plants are on life support: Their roots cannot dig far for food.

Patio-grown vegetables also have special soil requirements. Ordinary garden soil retains too much water for most potted vegetables. A good homemade mix consists of garden loam, compost, coarse sand and sphagnum moss. Commercial potting soil is OK, too, if it's light and well aereated.

When potting plants, always leave a little room at the top of the container to water them. A pot brimming over with dark, rich loam may look nice, but try soaking the darn thing. All the water spills down the sides, carrying the soil and making a big mess.

To ensure good drainage, drill holes in the bottom of the container and line it with pebbles or a layer of plastic foam packing chips.

Match veggies with appropriate pots. For instance, tomato plants need strong, heavy containers, at least 1 foot deep and 1 foot wide; these won't topple in the wind.

The same planting rules apply for trees and shrubs, many of which can be grown in large tubs or old whiskey barrels. Imagine picking blueberries without leaving your balcony. Or inhaling the fragrance of a lilac growing in a bucket beside your patio door.

Some potted plants merely accept their fate; others revel in it. Restricting the root growth of some bushes actually triggers larger flowers and lush growth. I've seen 3-foot yews thriving in window boxes less than one-third that deep.

A surprising number of common shrubs and vines adapt to container planting, including barberry, camellia, clematis, deutzia, euonymus, forsythia, honeysuckle, spirea, weigela and wisteria.

Rhododendrons and azaleas live happily in large pots filled with acid soil. In lime-rich locales, where these shrubs would otherwise succumb, homeowners can cheat Mother Nature by raising them in containers filled with "customized" soil.

Will trees live in containers? Japanese maples prosper in tubs; so do crab apples.

Tender citrus trees, such as oranges and lemons, are often grown in pots on patios in summer, and dragged indoors for winter -- a backbreaking but necessary chore in Northern climates. However, hardy shrubs and trees can stay put year-round. Just don't try to rearrange the patio's decor. It's silly to lug large trees around once they've been planted. Dirt weighs a ton, so place empty containers in their permanent location before adding the plants.

And never block an exit with a large specimen. The plants on Tammy's fire escape are small. In an emergency, she wouldn't want to struggle with a maple tree.

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