small spaces

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.

Container Roses Light Up Your Patio or Balcony

Container Roses Light Up Your Patio or Balcony

By Christina McDonald

There are many reasons to have roses in containers rather than in a traditional garden or order. Perhaps you have limited space, making the deck or balcony your only option. Or you may want to have a rose close at hand, to easily enjoy its beauty, scent and burst of colour.

Regardless of the reason, a container rose is an easy-to grow delight.Choose your rose and the container carefully. A 24-cm pot will easily accommodate a small miniature rose, whereas a large, robust Hybrid Tea will need a container at least 37 cm in diameter. Consider the shape, colour and material of the pot and whether it will compliment the form of the rose and its bloom colour. Traditional urns of roses are stunning, but so are hanging baskets; don’t be afraid
to try something new. Keep in mind that roses growing in plastic or glazed pottery vessels will require less water than clay or fibre.

Whichever pot you choose, fill it with good quality potting soil; regular garden soil will harden in the pot, and may carry soil-borne diseases. Potting soil won’t compact, allowing for better drainage; plus, it breathes and holds fertilizer well.

Select roses that are well suited to container growing. Roses with strong, upright growth that supports blooms above the foliage are ideal, as they hold up well to the elements and you can see each bloom. Cascading forms look striking with their blooms tumbling over the sides of a pot and compact forms can provide a very formal mounded look to a patio setting. The fun part is choosing a rose based on your own preference for flower form, fragrance, foliage and, of course, colour.

Roses prefer full sun, so place your pots accordingly (try moving your pots around the deck to follow the sun—that’s what I do as the season progresses). Make sure to keep your roses well
watered and once a week it helps to add a pinch of 20-20-20 fertilizer to the watering can. Remember to remove spent blooms regularly. While container roses are far more prone to drying out than those in the garden, take heart—they are much easier to weed. That feature alone may inspire you to try your hand at growing a glorious pot of roses!

You’re sure to find a suitable rose in every class—some are even purposely bred for this use. Here are a few of our tried and true favourites and some newer varieties to consider.
Abbaye De Cluny
Abraham Darby
Baby Love
Barbra Streisand
Bronze Star
Cupcake
Cyril Fletcher
Dream series
Flower Carpet series
Gizmo
Marmalade Skies
Octoberfest
Origami
Palace series
Ruffles series
Sheila’s Perfume
Singin’ in the Rain
Weeping China Doll

Peony Paradise

Peony Paradise

Perennial gardeners have enjoyed a long love affair with peonies. They’re extremely long-lived, lasting two decades or more, they’re tough as nails, standing up to the worst northern winters, they require little fertilizer, and they’re among the showiest perennials around. It’s no wonder that peonies have such a devoted following.

Several different peonies are hitting the market that will attract devoted collectors as well as casual fans of this perennial favourite.

Cactus Flowered Peonies

These unique peonies put on a stunning display, with blooms very similar in shape to the popular cactus flowered dahlias. Many varieties feature twisted, distorted petals that really draw the eye. Smaller in stature than double-flowering peonies, cactus flowered peonies grow to about 80 cm in height. The more compact growth habit and the lightweight, single flowers combine to help these peonies withstand wind damage much better than their larger counterparts.

  • ‘Pink Luau’ features fragrant blooms with spoon-shaped petals of soft pink, with dark raspberry streaks, resembling a single-flowered rose.

  • ‘Pink Firefly’ has rich, light-pink blossoms. The petals have serrated edges that look as if someone made tiny little decorative cutouts with a pair of scissors.

  • ‘Raspberry Rumba’ has a wild, untamed, tousled appearance of peppermint candy, with white petals streaked with pink and raspberry.

Rock Garden Peonies

Rock garden peonies are compact, some varieties less than half the size of other peonies. As the name implies, they look great in rock gardens, but they can also be used in small gardens. The introduction of rock garden peonies is a great new development, the first compact peonies that are actually named varieties rather than species types. Now you can enjoy them in a small garden without sacrificing any of the outstanding vigour and beauty!

  • Fairy Princess’ forms a beautiful, compact, forest-green bush that produces lovely, true-red, cupped blooms on red stems early in the season. The plants are 40-45 cm tall and wide.

  • ‘Thumbellina’ is a fragrant, early-blooming, very floriferous peony, producing many rosy-pink blooms on a plant only 40 cm tall!