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Container Gardening: Start Where You Are

You have never grown a thing. Looking around and seeing all the changes that have happened in the last few years make you want to grow your own food. But, you have no idea where to start. So you look online to find ideas on how to begin. It’s overwhelming. Container gardening is a great solution on how to get started easily!

You can start TODAY and begin your own garden in containers. Container garden is just what it sounds like – using dirt in containers and planting seeds in them. So, what’s the big deal? First we will address the WHY and then the HOW. So, hold on…

Basil in a planter and sweet potatoes in a bag.
Basil planted in a container and sweet potatoes in the bag.

WHY Start with Container Gardening?

If you are beginning your gardening journey and you find the whole concept of gardening a bit much, container gardening is honestly the best way to begin. Here are the reasons why:

You Can Do It Anywhere

This is one of the main reasons many people container garden. Either they are renting and the landlord isn’t keen on digging up the yard, or there isn’t much land to work with. Either of these make container gardening a great option.

Also, if you live in a place with very little yard space, there are ways you can create vertical growing. There are “stackable” type planting situations you can buy or create.

You can even have grow lights in your apartment and grow a small garden either in a few buckets or planters on a shelf. More on this in a later blog.

You are Learning

You have been reading , but your knowledge is limited. Your understanding of how things work with seeds and frost dates and fertilizing, etc. only is that, understanding. Even if you have read and studied how to grow things, honestly, the best lessons always come from doing. That’s where you gain true knowledge.

You Can Do It Economically

You don’ t need to spend a lot of money on planter boxes or soil amendments. However, you do have to invest in soil that you bring in. The advantage to this is that you can buy soil that is amended and start with this. This will honestly be your greatest cost.

For vegetables that need deep roots, you can buy old totes from thrift stores, drill holes in the bottom and use the cover of it as a catchment for any water drainage. You can use 5 gallon buckets to plant tomato plants. Look for our blogs on this to come.

For things with shallow root systems, you can use old plastic coffee containers with holes drilled for things such as herbs and other shallow root systems. I make soap and so I save my 4 lb lard tubs to use for planters. I have even planted directly into a bag of potting soil!

You can find seeds cheaply at the dollar store or a seed swap. You can get some at the local big box store. However, not all seed companies are created equally. More on this later in the HOW section of this blog.

Plants covered for an unexpected frost.
Plants covered for an unexpected late frost.

You Can Start with Better Soil

You don’t need to soil test because you start with soil you bought from the store that is amended. (Compost mixed with native soil to begin your containers is another option to use, if you can source this.)

What is “amended soil”? This is soil that has had organic matter added to increase the value of nutrients available in the soil to nourish your plants as they grow. Just like children, the better the nutrients available, the better they grow.

Make sure you are looking out for this when you buy at the store. Not all soils are created equal. We will go over this a little more later in this blog.

You Can Control It Better

Since this may be your first garden, you have to learn the season patterns of sunlight for you. What does this mean? Where does the sun rise and set where you live? What is in shadows at what time of day? The seed package says “full sun” – what does that translate into on your available space?

These are important things to discover and a part of that knowledge you gain by doing that was mentioned earlier.

You can observe your plants over the growing season. In containers, you can move them around. You can place two of the same plants in different locations to see which one does better.

When we grew our desert garden in New Mexico, my first year growing in our yard was definitely experimental and I used containers to see what did best. I learned so much. As you can imagine, “full sun” in the desert is not the same as “full sun” in Tennessee!

You Don’t Have Weeds

Gardening directly in the ground will result in weeds. Most times there are seeds from weeds of “days gone by” that have been living and waiting for the wonderful conditions of water and sun that you provide when gardening.

However, if you are using store-bought soil, you are less likely to get weeds growing up within the containers on their own.

Be aware, that even with this truth, seeds can blow in and settle on the top of your planters. You will still get a LOT less. This is especially true if you live in suburban and urban settings. (Country air carries a LOT more weed seeds).

No Soil Contamination

This one is added in after recent events in Ohio. You don’t know exactly what’s been on your soil. You can’t guarantee what someone else has done to it before you lived there.

Chances are nothing major happened and it’s probably not something you have to really worry about. However, if there ever was, you are not going to be exposed to any of it with container gardening.

Grapes grown the first two years in a bucket until I could decide where I wanted to plant them.

HOW to Start Your Container Garden

STEP 1

Decide what you LOVE to eat. Looking at seed catalogs can and will tempt you to buy seeds you don’t need. Remember, this is to help you supplement your groceries! Therefore, you are going to get ONLY WHAT YOU’LL EAT. Decide what you want to grow and list them out.

This seems silly to say, but trust me, there are those of you like me that want to get all the cool and funky seeds!

STEP 2

Research your early frost and late frost dates and “dates to maturity”. The country is broken down into growing zone. These zones are defined by how long your growing season is because of first and last frosts. You can find yours here: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/

Then compare this information to the “date to maturity” on your seeds. Choose the seeds that will fall within that window after last frost and before first frost. Note seeds considered cold-hardy varieties, like beets and radishes, can be planted before last frost.

Something to keep in mind with container gardening outside: Your soil can freeze and heat up quicker than an in-ground garden.

Something else to consider for selecting seeds: For the most part, vegetable types will generally develop about the same maturity. For example, all radishes grow very quickly. Tomatoes all take a while. (Look here for a great site on growing tomatoes https://extension.unh.edu/resource/growing-vegetables-tomatoes-fact-sheet-1)

However, within a type, there can be different kinds of maturity rates: According to the Green Pinky site (https://www.thegreenpinky.com/tomato-growth-stages/#0-how-many-days-to-maturity):

  • Early season varieties require 50 to 60 days to reach maturity.
  • Mid-season varieties require 60 to 80 days to reach maturity.
  • Late season varieties require more than 80 days to reach maturity.

Therefore, if you have only 70 days until last frost, you should not plant a “late season variety” of tomatoes. Something else to keep in mind with container gardening outside: Your soil can freeze and heat up quicker than an in-ground garden. So choose seeds that will fit into your growing season nicely or you’ll be growing a nice plant with no fruit to show for it.

STEP 3

Decide how much space you have to work with. After you order your seeds, you can collect the bins and pots and plan the planting area, but first you must estimate how much that will be. For example, one tomato plant will use one 5 gallon bucket, yes, however, when it bushes out, you will need 2 to 3 feet between 5 gallon buckets. So, if you line up two plants side by side, you would need an area that is 3′ wide by 6′ long. If you are filling a tote with soil, how much area does that tote take up? Information about the space for a plant to grow both out and up can be found on your seed packets or catalogs. From this information, you can determine which plants you will actually order and how many. Usually a package for each type will be more than sufficient.

Also, remember, you may need to move them around. If you didn’t note sunlight in your area over the last spring and summer, this year you’ll have to “punt” and be willing to move containers around to find the optimal location for growth.

STEP 4

Order your seeds. Not all seed companies are created equal. Dollar store seeds can work, but may or may not have amazing germination rates. If you want success, here are some reliable seed companies that homesteading peers and I recommend:

Baker Creek Seeds https://www.rareseeds.com/

Seed Savers https://exchange.seedsavers.org/

MIGardener https://migardener.com/

As mentioned, you will probably only need one packet of each. Whatever you don’t use, you can store in a cool, dry place and use the next year!

STEP 5

Go on a hunt for your containers. Find what your garden area will support. Look for totes, bins, 5 gallon buckets, whatever is large enough to hold dirt! Hit up neighbors and friends for containers or totes that they may throw away or aren’t using. I save my plastic coffee containers for planting!

Find a way to punch or burn holes in the bottom of your containers for drainage. This is a very important step. If you do not, you will potentially “drown” your plants and kill off all the hard work you have done.

STEP 6

Go get the soil. Now that you have the containers, you can start setting up while you wait on the seeds to arrive.

Note: Like seeds, there is a difference in store bought soils. Some caveats in making your choices. Price isn’t everything, but only a part of the consideration:

  1. Potting Soil is the most “expensive” option, but there’s a reason. They are especially designed to be able to provide maximum benefit for your seeds and seedlings. They have hummus and other organic matter in there making it light and fluffy and conducive to great growth.
  2. Garden Soil is the least expensive store option. It is meant to add to rocky or sandy soil in a garden bed. This can be used, but only if you can mix other hummus type material in with it. It will compact quicker making it harder for water to get to roots and roots to develop in. However, if you want to spend time researching and amending this soil, it can also be a great option. Also, garden soil comes with a risk of weed seeds in it, whereas potting soil does not.
  3. Composted Soil can be had for free from friends or family or maybe even you’ve been developing a compost. I would recommend either this be VERY composted or you can use it as hummus for your garden soil.

For your larger totes, you can actually create a mini hügelkultur – that is literally planting into dirt that is over decomposing plant materials. This will lessen the amount of dirt you will need to fill the tote. Do this by collecting twigs, small branches, and leaves to put in the bottom of your tote, but to halfway. Fill in the remaining area with dirt. This is an interesting spin on container gardening, for sure.

STEP 7

Plant your seeds. You’ve done the hard work, now the fun part. Planting the seeds! Make sure to be aware of spacing and depth. Do not plant too deeply. After they are planted, water them well.

STEP 8

Keep them watered and watch them grow. Once you get fruit, look up information on when to harvest! Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Congratulations! You are now growing you own food! Be happy!

Note: Don’t be discouraged. I want you to expect that something is not going to “grow like it’s supposed to”. Yes! This may and probably will happen. It happens even to the most experienced gardeners. So, remember, this is also about growing your knowledge as you grow your food.

We would love to see pictures of your container gardens. Please feel free to email us at MaplewoodHomestead2017@gmail.com with your pictures!

Ready to move on from container gardening? Ready to grow an in-ground garden? Look at our article here to get you started.

Or, if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us here!

GROW FOOD. BE HAPPY.

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