If you want to grow your own food but have too little time and space for a garden (or too many aches and pains to do weeding and other back-bending chores), don't despair. There's a solution for your dilemma, and it's easier than you might think.
It's called container vegetable gardening, but with a slight twist. For containers, not just any vegetable seed will do. The trick for growing vegetables in containers, said Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden in Felton, California, is to use seed from exclusive varieties bred especially for growing in pots. These family-, budget- and back-friendly varieties are one of her specialties.
"What we have have done is find varieties of vegetables, or herbs for that matter, that are bred to be compact and produce full-sized fruits," Shepherd said. "They are easy to grow in containers, and while they may tumble off the sides, they don’t sprawl all over." Another benefit, she said, is that the fruit is easy to access.
As an example, she pointed to her bush green bean French Mascotte. "It's perfect for containers because it's compact and the beans grow at the top of the plant, so they are easy to harvest," she said. Mascotte, which Shepherd describes on the seed packet as the first true container green bean variety, is also extremely disease-resistant, produces heavy yields and makes an attractive plant because it produces an abundance of purple blossoms that become slender and crispy beans.
Container garden primer
But don't think growing vegetables from seed is difficult, she urges young and older gardeners alike: "It sounds complicated, but it’s not." To be successful, she said, you just have to follow several easy rules:
1. Have the right size container. Using Mascotte as an example, she recommends a container at least 18 inches tall and 18-20 inches wide. Almost anything you can imagine — big clay pots, wine barrels, recycled containers of various kinds — will work. What won't work, she advised, are small pots. That's because, she said, they won't have enough room to be productive, and it will be all you can do to keep them moist.
2. Not thinning seedlings. Shepherd calls this the most common mistake in container vegetable gardening. "What makes our varieties special, besides the fact that they are the right varieties for containers, is that we put directions on the packet about how big a container to use and how much to space the plants," she said. "In other words, you have to thin them, but we tell you by how much."
As an example of the importance of thinning seedlings, she uses her compact zucchini Astia, which has light speckled green leaves and bears the zucchinis at the center of the plant, as an example. "I'm going to give you 20-25 seeds. If you planted them all in a pot and they all came up and you let them all grow, you would probably get next to nothing in fruit because all of the plants would competing for space and nutrients." So, how do you decide which ones to keep and which to discard? Shepherd says to leave the best-looking plants that are already the proper distance apart according to packet directions and discard the rest. As long as they are evenly spaced, it doesn't matter where they are in the pot, she said.
3. Proper feeding. Shepherd contends that even though the information on potting mix containers might say the mix includes fertilizer you'll still need to add fertilizer after about the first six weeks. She believes that's about the time the fertilizer in the mix begins wearing out. The plants also need feeding because they are contained in a small volume and the roots can’t reach out and search for nutrients. She suggests using a good all-purpose fertilizer for vegetables and feeding the plants frequently, about every two or three weeks.
4. Potting soil. A good potting soil is critical, and purchased soil should work fine, Shepherd said, especially if you amend it with organic supplements. Don't use garden soil in a container, she advised. That's because it will likely become compacted in summer heat. Commercial soil, she said, gives consistent drainage and is weed and pest-free.
5. Proper watering. Pots dry out as days lengthen and temperatures rise. Shepherd's test to see if pots need watering is to put her index finger into the soil. If the soil is dry below the first joint, she waters immediately.
Variety is the spice (and herb and vegetable) of life
Other vegetable seeds, beside those for beans and zucchini, Shepherd offers that are specifically cultivated for containers include carrots (Chantenay Carrot Short Stuff), Cucumbers (Container Cucumber Bush Slicer), eggplant (Container Eggplant Little Prince), sweet peppers (Container Sweet Pepper Pizza My Heart) and tomatoes (Container Roma Inca Jewels) plus several kinds of head and leaf lettuce. Container Lettuce Garden Babies is a new variety of baby butter head lettuce that is slow to bolt, heat tolerant and makes compact, 5- to 6-inch heads at maturity. Cut and Come Again Lettuce Renee's Baby Leaf Blend is a mix of green and red lettuces in a variety of colors, flavors and shapes. Shepherd gave them the Cut and Come Again name because if you trim them and leave the base, they'll produce a second flush of growth you can cut for another salad.
Shepherd also offers a wide variety of herbs for pots — basil, cilantro, dill and parsley, among others — plus numerous small flowering plants, including edible nasturtiums. In fact, she said, "If I had a very small outdoor growing area like a balcony, and I only had room for three or four pots, I would start with a little herb garden because there's nothing that adds flavor to food like fresh herbs. They don't take that much space, and they taste terrific. I would do an herb garden and maybe one pot of the Cut and Come Again lettuces so I could make my own little salad.
"But you could also have a patio garden where you grew container cucumber and a container squash and a green bean. It's pretty infinite if you take care of the plants properly. There's a lot to learn. You can't just stick vegetables in a pot. They're not houseplants."
Quality tests for seeds
Shepherd knows her seeds will produce and grow true to the packet descriptions because of how she sources her seed and because she grows everything she sells in trial gardens. The seeds are sourced from around the world in countries where the growers are experts in particular varieties.
"We buy everything from very small family farms that specialize in one crop," she said. "I buy a lot of seed from Europe. So, I buy basil from Italy because I think the Italians do the best basil. And I buy parsnips from the English and lettuces from the French. Then I make sure it's the [right] quality and gets the germination rate I want before I put the seed in packets."
She also puts an enormous effort into the descriptions and instructions on the packets, which she writes herself. "Those descriptions are based on my growing experience. I pride myself in writing really complete instructions. That's why we can say on the lettuce packet on the Garden Babies to use a container this size and plant them this much apart — because we did it!”
If you decide to grow a time- and back-saving container garden, Shepherd urges you to pick something that you really like to eat. "It's just having the right size container and soil, thinning the plants out and feeding them. I don't think it's that complicated, and it's a lot of fun. That's the main thing. Besides being a really satisfying experience," she added, "it will put you in touch with the environment and you will notice things you wouldn't have otherwise noticed."