Gardeners, start your containers! Spring has sprung! The weather is beginning to turn warmer and the sun is beginning to hang around a little more each day.
Now is the time to plant warm season annuals and vegetables. I want to focus on veggie garden containers this month.
Even small space gardeners can grow enough nutritious produce to prepare a few meals, supplement your diet and save some bucks. With a little planning and attention, container gardens can produce like mini farms.
Almost any vessel can be used as a container, but it must have drainage holes that allow water to freely flow through the pot. Most veggies only need 8 inches of soil depth.
Trays and smaller containers work fine for lettuce, radishes, spinach and peppers. Root crops like carrots and onions, and large plants like most tomatoes and squash, require containers larger than 16 inches in diameter. Generally as a rule, bigger is better for root growth and overall vigor.
When growing veggies in containers, packaged potting mixes are typically the best choice to use for a planting medium. Using garden soil in containers is never ideal.
Packaged potting mixes are lightweight, moisture retentive and well aerated. In addition, they do not harbor any fungi, bacteria, insects or weed seeds that would cause problems later.
Sunlight, not space, is probably the biggest limiting factor in urban environments. Without at least six hours of sun a day, it will be tough to grow quality vegetables.
Crops need a lot of solar energy to make nutritious fruits, seeds and leaves. Southern exposure is best, but six hours from any direction should be sufficient. To avoid leaning or uneven ground, rotate the containers weekly. Use wire cages or other sturdy supports to protect large plants like tomatoes, beans, peas and squash.
Regular watering is crucial when you grow in containers because there is a limited soil mass for storing water. During the peak of summer heat, gardeners may need to water daily to keep plants growing at full potential. A drip irrigation system allows you to water automatically, and with a timer, you can even water containers while you’re away.
However, the best option for vacation watering is always a reliable neighbor.
Vegetables grown in containers also need regular fertilizing. Follow the label instructions, and make sure the container is well drained or plants may suffer from high salt levels due to fertilizer buildup. Some gardeners combine the two tasks and simply water with a quarter-length fertilizer solution once a week.
If plants don’t appear vigorous and healthy, check them closely because disease and pest infestations can quickly get out of hand. If caught early, most are easy to treat.
Check the undersides of leaves for insects. Many of them can be picked off or sprayed with a strong stream of water. Some pests require other treatments.
Natural insecticides are very popular with home gardeners. Always read insecticide labels to make sure the product is compatible with food crops, and follow the directions carefully.
When looking for plants, look for vigorous young seedlings with bushy growth. Check to make sure each seedling is securely anchored in the six-pack or pot, which implies a well-established root system.
Dip the seedling in a bucket of water to moisten the root ball, tease out any circling roots, and plant it at the same depth it was previously growing. (Tomatoes are an exception to the planting depth rule because they can be planted with the bare stem several inches below the ground, and roots will form along the stem.)
Some crops like lettuce, beets and carrots are best grown from seed. Simply follow the instructions on the packet. Be sure to thin sprouts to the recommended spacing.
Thinning is a ruthless task, but fortunately most veggie sprouts can be used in salads and other dishes for a spring treat.
If you have space to do a small raised bed garden in place of containers, check out www.squarefootgardening.com for a complete listing and schedule to produce a plentiful harvest for a family of four. Dig in and see how great and beneficial veggie gardening is!
This monthly column is written by Sandi Hillermann McDonald of Hillermann Nursery & Florist, Washington.