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The Container Grocery Store

The Container Grocery Store

Whether you’re a young couple that’s just starting out or a couple facing retirement, you know that you often have to stretch your budget to cover all of your expenses. You may need to move to larger accommodations, there’s furniture to buy, there may be student loans or a wedding to pay off. Well, you can cut a lot out of your budget, but everyone needs food to live that’s one cost you can’t eliminate. However, you can make a dent in your grocery bills by growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs in containers.

Containers are great because you can use them whether you’re living in an apartment or a house; plants will do just fine in containers perched on balconies or sitting on patios. Just make  sure to put them in a location where they’ll get as much sun as possible; vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight per day to develop properly, and herbs need five. A south-facing location is best, but if that’s not possible, a west-facing one is almost as good.

Vegetables growing on east- and north-facing balconies and patios will still provide some produce, but the yields won’t be as high. Herbs growing indoors should be cultivated close to the windows that get the most sunshine; it’s also important to grow them in high-humidity areas, like the kitchen.

Choosing the right pot is crucial. For vegetables, I never use pots smaller than 25 cm wide for container vegetable gardening; 30 cm wide is preferable. These plants need space to grow, and pots smaller than this just don’t provide enough volume. For materials, I prefer glazed ceramic, plastic, or fibreglass; all hold water well and are easier to handle than clay pots. Large hanging baskets and troughs are good choices for patio or balcony vegetable gardening, too; even whiskey half-barrels will work. I’ve seen people use all kinds of cheap but effective containers—old milk cans, toilets, bathtubs, trash cans, even washing machines. Just make sure that whatever container you choose has enough volume to provide the plant with enough room to grow. Herbs can be grown in pots that are slightly smaller, though; feel free to keep them in the 10 or 15 cm pots that you buy them in for a while. When they’re big enough, move them to larger pots or a trough. You can plant more than one plant in a large pot; stuffing half a dozen herbs into a 30 cm container or a long trough would be a fine way to grow them, as long as you’re careful not to mix aggressive herbs with the less competitive varieties.

Potting soil is the root medium of choice for potted plants, chiefly because it doesn’t compact like garden soil does—potted plants need rich, well-drained soil to promote healthy root growth. Potting soil has another advantage: it’s free of the soil-borne diseases and insect pests common to regular garden soil. I incorporate a controlled, time-release 14-14-14 fertilizer that will feed the plant for many weeks. This non-leaching fertilizer becomes a reservoir backup that prevents the plants from yellowing and cuts down on maintenance.

I always say that watering is the most important job a gardener has to do. It’s a simple task, but that doesn’t mean that it can be done without thought. Since containers can’t hold much water, you may need to soak your plants twice a day during heat waves—once, thoroughly, in the early morning and once more, if needed, in the evening. Hanging baskets should be checked more often for moisture; the wind can dry them out quickly. To seal in moisture and keep down weeds, you can cover the soil with a mulch of shredded bark. As for fertilizer—I usually just add a pinch of 20-20-20 to the pot each time I water and give the plants a heavier feeding once a week. All vegetables need these extra nutrients, especially heavy feeders like tomatoes and cucumbers, so don’t skimp.

Speaking of tomatoes and cucumbers, just what kinds of plants should you be growing in containers? I’ve drawn up a list, and there are a couple of products that merit special attention.

The first of these is mesclun. This is a mixture of “instant salads” created by the French that’s really catching on in North America. The idea is wonderfully simple: a number of different greens are grown together in one pot. Sound complicated? It isn’t. All you have to do is buy a packet of mesclun seed, sow into a container, and watch the greens spring up. Every two or three weeks, when the plants reach a few inches in height, all you have to do is take a pair of scissors out, cut off the greens, and throw them into a salad bowl. You should leave about two inches of growth in the pot, since mesclun can be harvested several times. Over the course of a growing season, you can expect to harvest five or six meals—meals big enough to feed three or four people, so plan to invite another couple over each time you harvest.

The second item of note is the potato barrel, a British invention that I think is the best way to grow container potatoes. It’s a Victorian style barrel made of polymer with sliding “windows.” Instead of digging up the soil to harvest the potatoes, all you need to do is slide open a window, reach in, grab the spuds, and slide the window shut. Sweet potatoes or other tubers can be grown in this innovative device, too.

There are other benefits to growing your own vegetables. For one thing, there’s something very arresting about vegetables growing in containers; they make great conversation pieces, especially for repeat visitors who can see the plants slowly come to fruition. Plants like cucumbers have long vines that can be trained to grow around balcony railings, adding some life to your apartment.

If you’re really adventurous, you can try growing peanuts on your balcony, or figs, dwarf lemons or limes, or even coffee indoors. These are novelty crops—you’ll be lucky to grow enough beans for one cup of coffee, for example—but they’re fun to have around. The most important thing is that you enjoy yourselves, whatever you choose to grow.

Vegetables (and one fruit) That Grow Well in Containers

Cucumbers
Tomatoes
Potatoes
Eggplant
Leaf lettuce
Spinach
Peppers
Beans
Garlic
Mesclun
Bush-type melons (in large patio containers only)
Strawberries

Herbs That Grow Well in Containers
Basil
Chives
Marjoram
Oregano
Thyme

Try growing oregano, marjoram, thyme, and chives in the same container as your tomatoes—these plants grow quite well together, and broiled herb tomatoes make a delicious snack.

Edible Flowers That Grow Well in Containers

Pansies
Nasturtiums
Daylily flowers—especially new multiple blooms, e.g. Stella d’Oro

The Black Thumb's Guide to Containerized Vegetables

The Black Thumb’s Guide to Containerized Vegetables

By Earl J. Woods

Using Your Imagination

Some culinary containers can get pretty wild—you’re not limited to potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and the other standard vegetable crops. While working on Herbs and Edible Flowers in 1999, we mixed edible nasturtiums, fuchsias, parsley, calendula and pansies in one huge hanging basket. It looked and smelled great, and provided plenty of flowers for garnishes and salads. 

I confess. Even though I’ve been working at Hole’s for almost four years, I’m still not a successful gardener. In fact, if I were a comic book super villain, I’d have to use the name “The Black Thumb,” malicious murderer of all things green and growing.

But as a thirty-something bachelor who usually alternates between pizza, cold cereal and microwave dishes, I do appreciate the fresh vegetables that Mom and Dad bring from their bountiful garden. A steady diet of fast food will numb your taste buds as quickly as it expands your waistline, and biting into one of Mom and Dad’s tomatoes is an all too rare treat.

So I’ve made a resolution—I’m going to start growing my own vegetables in balcony containers. One of the advantages of working at Hole’s is that I have a good head start on how to proceed.

Rule One: ­­­Big Pots

Lois Hole drilled into my head a very important rule of container gardening: always, always, always use large pots. The bigger the container, the more space there is for water, soil and roots. That’s not to say that you can’t grow a perfectly good pepper plant or two in a 25- cm pot, but for really impressive yields, go for the large pots.

Rule Two: Good Soil

Always use the best quality potting soil, never garden soil. Quality potting soils are free of weeds, pests and the most serious diseases. They are light and easy to use. Garden soils are much too heavy, and get compacted easily (besides, living in an apartment, I would have to steal garden soil from someone’s yard in the dead of night. It’s far less of a hassle to buy a bag of the good stuff).

Rule Three: Grow What You’ll Use

Any singles attempting to change their lifestyles must know their limitations. I love potatoes, tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, so it makes perfect sense to pick up tubers and seeds for these. On the other hand, the only use I’d ever have for eggplant (gag) would be to toss it off my balcony at innocent bystanders below.

Start small. There’s no sense in growing far more than you can use. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with growing extra produce to donate to charities or local food banks and Grow A Row charities.

Rule Four: Quality Seed

Make a point of tracking down the best varieties. Quality seed is more expensive, but well worth it in the end. Germination is much better and the plants will be more vigorous.

Rule Five: Water Daily and Fertilize 

Vegetables in containers are like pets: they depend on you to provide for their every need. This means you need to tend to your plants with far more frequency than, say, you vacuum the carpets. Give each container a good daily soaking of water and add some 20-20-20 fertilizer to the watering can once a week. This will keep your plants healthy and increase the bounty you harvest. If the weather is hot, sunny and windy, you should probably soak the containers heavily in the morning and again in the evening.

From Black Thumb to Green?

Growing vegetables in containers is really quite simple. In fact, I’m almost convinced they’re bachelor-proof. Maybe it’s time for “The Black Thumb”— to turn green—after all, even super villains have been known to turn over a new leaf.

Perennial Planters—The Bachelor’s Best Friend

Perennial Planters—The Bachelor’s Best Friend

By Earl J. Woods

As I approach my mid-30s, it occurs to me that one of these days I’m going to have to make the terrifying leap into the world of home ownership. But what if I should buy a new house, one without any landscaping? I’ll need a quick and easy way to add some colour and life to the yard.

Fortunately, Hole’s perennial expert Jan Goodall has come to my rescue with some expert advice on simple landscaping solutions. Her suggestion? Perennial planters. When you think of planters, it’s usually bedding plants or vegetables that come to mind. But Jan showed me that with a little imagination and planning, I could create colourful and creative perennial pots.

A Landscaping Solution

My lesson began with a short lecture from Jan. “Perennial planters are ideal when used as an interim landscaping solution,” she said. “Often, people move into newly constructed homes without any landscaping—no lawn, no plants of any kind, and it just looks terrible. Who wants to wait for seeded grass and small trees to reach their mature sizes? Perennial pots can instantly add some colour to that dusty brown emptiness during the summer.”

When you have completed the landscaping around your new home, you can remove the perennials from their pots and install them in traditional perennial beds. The empty pots can then be used for late-season annuals or indoor plants.
 

Starting Out

When creating perennial planters, you need a few essential ingredients

  • A sturdy, aesthetically pleasing pot

  • High quality potting soil

  • Several perennials of mature, blooming size

Care and Nurture

Perennial planters require little maintenance. Consistent watering is vital—irrigate only when the top 3 cm or so of soil has dried out. For fertilizer, add 20-20-20 once every two weeks or once a month until the first week of August.

Overwintering

In colder zones, perennials will not overwinter in pots outdoors. Wait for the first hard
frost of the fall then cut the foliage to about 5-8 cm tall. Leave the pots outside until the
weather remains consistently cool, but before the soil freezes solid. Then, you have a
choice—you can remove the plants from their pots and plant them in the garden or bring
the pots indoors. A heated garage is ideal, but any indoor location with a temperature
that hovers close to the zero degree mark and receives some light (as from a window)
will do.

“Overall, though, I’d recommend taking the plants out of the pots and planting them in your garden,” Jan notes. “They’ll always have a better chance of overwintering successfully in the ground than they ever will in a pot. Also, if you plan to overwinter perennials in their pots, then you must make sure that the pots you choose are large enough to contain the mature roots.”

Jan had one other caution for me—if you love the look of your perennial planters so much that you move them from your garden back into the pots each year, you should choose varieties that don’t mind having their roots disturbed on a regular basis. Hostas, variegated sage (Artemesia ‘Oriental Limelight’), daylilies, bluebells (Campanula), stonecrop (Sedum), Hens & Chicks (Sempervivum) and ornamental grasses such as moot grass (Molinia), lime grass (Elymus) or blue oat grass (Helletotrichon) are good choices. But astilbe or bugbane (Cimicifuga) will probably deteriorate if you move them around too much.

The Black Thumb’s Dilemma

Jan makes a convincing case for perennial planters. In fact, she was so enthusiastic that I may actually discard my arrested adolescence and start looking for a real home, rather than a teeny apartment crammed full of comic books and DVDs of old science fiction movies. And if the Black Thumb can enjoy and appreciate perennial planters, it’s a cinch that you will, too.

Uses for Perennial Planters

Condo or apartment balconies
Housewarming, wedding and graduation gifts
Temporary landscaping