If you are eager to grow vegetables at home but do not have a large plot of earth or feel overwhelmed by the idea of a full-fledged vegetable plot, fret not! You can grow a wide variety of greens, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, squash and others in pots on a patio or porch. And everything you need, including vegetable plants, can be purchased by phone and picked up curbside locally or ordered online.
Almost any vegetable that grows in the ground can be grown in a container. While "bush"-type vegetable plants have been developed specifically for container gardens, it isn't necessary to limit yourself to those varieties. If you have room next to a sunny fence, trellis or wall for support, you could grow green beans, cucumbers, and snap peas that need support or want to climb. Love potatoes? Grow them in a barrel — or a bag.
Any container that will hold soil and allow for good drainage can be used for growing plants. Wooden boxes made of raw cedar or redwood are great, so are those half-barrels found at garden centers. Terra cotta pots are classic and beautiful but dry out very quickly, particularly in hot windy days. Wooden window boxes also dry quickly. But if you love the look, use plastic pots placed inside the more handsome terra cotta or wood.
I have been growing full-sized (indeterminate) heirloom tomato plants in large, 25-gallon, recyclable nursery tubs for the past 20 years. The tubs are large enough – 24 inches wide and 18 inches deep – for two full-size tomato plants and a 6-foot tall bamboo teepee to support the plants. I’m still using the same recyclable, polypropylene pots I started with decades ago. They show very little sign of deterioration, even though I leave them outside all year in all types of weather.
Tomatoes and other plants need consistent water and fertilizer. Plants suffer if the soil in pots stays dry too long, and this can affect the quality of your harvest. I mix water- absorbing crystals like the SoilMoist brand into my potting soil to help prevent it from drying out too quickly. Be sure to hydrate water-absorbing crystals in a bucket before mixing them into your potting soil. Self-watering containers can make life a bit simpler when the weather turns hot and dry, but they are more expensive.
When growing plants in regular containers you must water and fertilize often -- but check the soil before you water. It is possible to water and fertilize plants to death. To test the soil for moisture, insert a slender pencil or smooth dowel into the pot at least two inches. If it comes out clean, the soil is dry and it's time to water; if particles of soil are clinging to the pencil when you pull it out, the soil is still moist so wait and test again later.
Even if you have wonderfully fertile soil in your backyard, do not use garden soil in containers – it is too dense and will soon compact into a heavy mass, robbing plant roots of essential oxygen and interfering with the absorption of nutrients.
Soil rich in nutrients is essential for vegetable plant health and a good harvest. Plants in pots will quickly deplete the nutrients as they grow. Most fertilizer companies, even MiracleGro, now acknowledge the importance of replenishing the natural, living components of soil in order to grow healthy plants. Chemical fertilizers are “junk food” that do nothing for soil health. Slow release pellet fertilizers are fine – but I do look for organic brands that have instructions for container gardens. They are a little more expensive but since they are applied only once every 90 days or so, they are much more convenient. I use liquid organic fertilizers –a mixture of fish emulsion and liquid seaweed – every other time I water heavy feeders such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
If your pots will be placed on the ground, use trays, bricks or stones under the pots to prevent the plant roots from growing out the drainage holes and into the ground. Roots that have gone into the earth will be severely damaged if you need to move that pot after plants have matured.
Gardener’s Supply (gardeners.com) and Renee’s Garden (reneesgarden.com) provide excellent online tips for growing vegetables in the ground or in pots or bags. And the best book for those interested in creating a full-fledged vegetable patch is The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward C. Smith.
Vicki Johnson is a gardening columnist for the New Jersey Herald. She can be reached at email@example.com or athomeinsussexcounty.com.