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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.

Farm Fresh Dividends

Closing the gap from farm to plate


There's nothing better in summer than a fresh, vine-ripened tomato grown on your own
deck or a juicy peach at a fruit stand on your way through the Okanagan. We've all
enjoyed the flavourful fruits and vegetables that only farm fresh can provide. We've
supplemented our grocery store buys with trips to the farmers' market. We've tried to
eke out a crop of vegetables from our backyard. But what if we took it a step further and
actually knew the land where our produce is grown, met the enterprising farmers, and
shared in the yield of the crops? Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been
cropping up across Canada, and this year, Alberta has more choice than ever when it
comes to locally-produced fare. 


Community-Shared Agriculture is a simple concept and one so strikingly obvious, you’ll
soon be asking yourself why you haven’t been doing this all your life. Think of it as
buying futures in a crop. The farmer asks for a year’s investment up front, then plants
and tends a variety of crops, harvests and processes them, and finally delivers the
bounty once a week to a pre-determined location for pick up. Most farmers will ask that
you help weed and harvest a few times over the summer as part of the deal. It all goes
back to seeing where your food comes from and how it’s grown and getting your hands
dirty. Making a living off the land is hard work, and the farmers who run CSAs are
passionate about what they do.


“I see what we do here as reconnecting people to their food and to the land,” says
Yolande Stark, owner of Tipi Creek Farm, near Villeneuve, Alberta. “We are the
instrument that allows that connection.”


Tipi Creek Farm is a CSA pioneer in Alberta, having operated since 1993. Over the years,
Stark has coached other Alberta farmers in starting their own direct-to- consumer
ventures, passing on what she has learned. Some have floundered and some have
flourished. But the time seems ripe for CSAs to come into their own in Alberta.


“Things have really picked up the past couple of years. I have 2 or 3 emails a week asking
about the CSA—and I have to turn most of them away!” Stark says.


The increased attention is likely due to our renewed interest in where our food comes
from. Recent films such as Food, Inc. and books such as Michael Pollan’s In Defense of
Food highlight just how complex our food sources have become. Couple that with recent
food scares such as contaminated baby formula from China and the lysteriosis outbreak
brought on by tainted Maple Leaf Foods meat, and it’s no wonder we’re questioning
how our food’s been handled and how many miles it’s travelled before it reaches our
table.

“People are concerned about food security, and this farm provides that. They see for
themselves what goes into the land and what comes out. They don’t have to worry
about where their food comes from,” says Stark.


Aside from providing healthy food, Stark is adamant about maintaining a sense of
community at Tipi Creek. Entire families are encouraged to help weed and harvest, and
there’s even a small patch where children can dig and play. She also keeps the number
of CSA members under 45. Any more, she says, and it becomes unwieldy. On harvest
day in October, all members are invited to harvest whatever is left in the field and
afterwards join in an open-air potluck. Friendships are formed naturally and many CSA
members visit outside of farm time.


It pays to do some research as each CSA is run a little differently, and you want to
ensure a good fit. Sparrow’s Nest Organics another Edmonton-area CSA, farmed by
Graham Sparrow on a piece of land near Opal, Alberta. Sparrow spent many years at
market gardens and CSAs in BC (where these have a lot more traction) and moved back
home to Alberta to set up. Sparrow’s Nest Organics is certified organic and this year
served 83 shares. Sparrow has also seen a spike in interest and has a long waiting list,
but an expansion may be in the works.

Once you’ve decided to sign up, talk to the farmer and ask questions about what to
expect. A working share can runs from $600–$700 for 12 weeks of fresh produce, grown
with sustainable, low-impact methods. Starting in spring, the farmer will send out a list
of that year’s plantings, which will consist of standbys like carrots, broccoli, cabbage,
and onions, but may also include lesser known veggies like kale, kohlrabi, or garlic
scapes. At the beginning of the season, be prepared for smaller batches containing lots
of lettuce with radishes, and by the end of the season be prepared for a bounty of
assorted root vegetables. Farmers also like to experiment every year with new things, so
you may be getting purple carrots or orange cauliflower the year you sign up. If a crop
just doesn’t work, it won’t be repeated the following year. “We never compromise
quality for the look,” says Sparrow.


Often, the complaint is too much produce rather than too little. Each share feeds a
family of four or a pair of vegetarians, so if you’re not used to eating a lot of vegetables,
prepared for a crash course in roughage. Consider whether you have time to prepare
more fresh food each week and whether your family is open to experimenting with new
tastes. Tipi Creek Farm has a host of recipes on their website to help members make the
best of a vegetable-rich diet. Members are encouraged to send it their own recipes as
well. Either way, prepare for a cooking adventure.


Most often, adjusting to extra veggies is an easy change. With a fridge full of seasonal
produce, you stop asking, “What should we have for dinner tonight?” and instead open
the fridge and think, “What can I make with these ingredients?” Part of the guesswork is taken out of dinner. Some members also plan to give away their excess to friends and
family, or the food bank. Families can also sign up together and plan to divide a share.


And just what kind of person signs up for a CSA? “That’s a good question,” says
Sparrow. “It’s so diverse—it’s amazing. This year we have a couple that are surgeons
and then we have people who are struggling artists. It just depends where people are at
in terms of what they’ve heard about local food initiatives. Once they figure it out, it
seems to really be a match. You know, the farmer’s market is nice, but this gives that
connection, a farm for people to come out to.”


If you’re ready to take the plunge, pick up the phone and talk to a farmer. It’s a
relationship that’s bound to grow through the seasons.

Side Bar
Eating Seasonally
Eating seasonally means eating food at its freshest. Most of the food we eat has
travelled from various parts of the world for over a week to reach our grocery shelves.
By that time, its sugars are turning into starches, and the food is losing taste and vitality.
Eating what is produced close to home and in season is simply better for you.
Whether participating in a CSA or seeking out local produce, become familiar with
what’s in season:
In the spring, the leaves and stalks are ready first. This may include lettuce, green
onions, spinach, and, of course, the quick-growing radish.
In summer, fruit parts dominate and may include beans, beets, bok choy, broccoli,
cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, kohlrabi, mushrooms,
peas, peppers, potatoes, radish, scallions, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, and zucchini.
In fall, look for roots in items such as beets, carrots, cabbage, leeks, potatoes, kale,
onions, potatoes, pumpkin, rutabaga, squash, and turnips.


If some of these vegetables sound unfamiliar, have no fear. Here are a few things to
keep in mind when preparing seasonal food:
Cooking Greens. Bok Choy, Spinach, Chard, Collards, Beet Greens, Kale. These hardy
greens can be bitter or spicy when eaten raw. Cooking reduces bitterness, and whether
they’re blanched, braised, or sautéed, they’ll add depth to your dishes. Pair with garlic,
lemon, hot chilies, olive oil and smoked meat (think spinach salad with bacon dressing).
Root Vegetables. Potatoes, Sweet potatoes, Carrots, Turnips, Rutabagas, Celery root,
Beets. Roots are the energy storehouses of a plant, rich in sugars, starches, and
vitamins. Roasting root vegetables will bring out their sweet flavour, but these versatile
veggies can also be grilled, made into chips, hashbrowns, or gratin. Combine unfamiliar
root veggies with your potato dishes for a more complex flavour.
Cabbages. Summer cabbage, Red cabbage, Green cabbage, Savoy cabbage. If you don’t
have Eastern European roots, you may be at a loss as to how to use this vitamin-rich
vegetable. Cabbage can be baked, braised, sauteed or stirfried, just until tender.

Complimentary herbs and spices for cabbage include celery seed, mustard seed, garlic,
caraway seed, dill weed, black pepper, and thyme. It pairs well with corned beef, bacon,
and sausage (think Reuben sandwiches).