The Literary Gardener – June 2016

“Gardening in a small space shouldn’t restrict your ideas…Accept the challenge and discover new possibilities!”
~Philippa Pearson, Small Space Garden Ideas, 2014

When I was a little girl, I created a sitting area inside my closet and filled it with pillows, a lamp, books and toys. I called it my “roo”—not quite a room—and I spent many happy hours enjoying the privacy of this small space. Today, I still enjoy the coziness of small spaces, which perhaps is one reason I am drawn to container gardening. I especially delight in growing edible crops in containers, and I’ve learned that doing so offers several benefits.

Of course, the major advantage of gardening in pots is providing a place to grow food for would-be gardeners with limited space. In addition, people with soil that is not conducive to growing produce don’t have to lug-in a lot of amendments or topsoil for raised beds. Containers can be moved around to suit the needs of the plants, and even brought indoors during cold nights and for overwintering tender perennials. Also, gardening in pots reduces the need for weeding, and helps prevent plant diseases and insect infestations.

I particularly enjoy the challenges of maximiming a small space for growing food. What’s more, interspersing brightly-colored containers at varying heights among my raised beds adds color and interest to my garden.

On the other hand, container crops dry-out faster and need more frequent watering. Although automatic drip systems can be rigged-up for pots, hand watering is the preferred method, and this takes consistent effort. Time must also be spent on upkeep so plants don’t become unruly and overgrown in the pot.

Container crops do best in a pot that is at least 12” deep and 24-30” in diameter. I like to use a half-whiskey barrel or similarly-sized pot. Dark-colored containers absorb more heat than white or tan pots; however, I line all of my container gardens with coconut coir or pulp fiber liners to protect the plants’ roots from burning on hot days. Containers should have holes in the bottom, and I’ve found it increases drainage to raise the pots about an inch off the ground.

A nutrient-rich potting medium is essential for healthy container crops. I’ve had success with a mixture of peat moss/coconut coir, compost, soil- building conditioner and perlite, to which I add 2 tablespoons of rock phosphate per five gallons of medium. After planting, I mulch with 1-2 inches of more conditioner or coconut coir. Compost in the potting medium breaks down slowly, adding nutrients to the soil throughout the growing season. In addition, I use a balanced fertilizer once a month during watering.

The best plants for container gardens are compact or bush-type berries, herbs and vegetables, as well as plants that grow vertically and can be trellised for support. My favorite container gardens are companion plantings in which I combine food crops that grow well together and even provide benefits. For example, legumes such as beans and peas are nitrogen fixers, which support healthy tomatoes; garlic enhances flavorful oils in herb leaves; and sweet basil protects its companion plants from aphids and mites. See my blog for more ideas about “potted pals” combinations.

One of the books I remember reading in my “roo” as a child was “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Of course, I completely understood the enchantment of a secret hideaway that “seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place.” I think container gardening captures some of that same magic because it involves creating something wonderful in a small space. I hope you’ll make “roo” for it in your gardening life.