In The Garden With KokHeong: Container Gardening

Los Alamos

If you enjoy gardening and live in an apartment or condo, you might want to consider container gardening. Do you have a patio, a veranda or a balcony that gets at least 6 hours of sun during the growing season? If so, perfect! You can grow herbs and your favorite vegetables in pots arranged on your veranda to take maximum advantage of the exposure to sun.

Another reason for container gardening is if your soil is very poor, full of rocks, clays, and unsuitable for gardening. At the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos, the Food Forest sits right on top of what was a previously compacted parking lot, so we resorted to container and raised bed gardening while slowly transforming the rest of the grounds into fertile soil with lasagna mulching, cover crops and other beneficial vegetation.

The advantages of container gardening are many, one of which is the portability. Containers can be arranged and re-arranged at will to create different palette of colors. If your tomato plant is not getting enough sun, you can simply move it to a sunnier location. If your lettuce or spinach look like they’re going to bolt, you can move them into the shade. Another advantage is there’s practically no weeding to be done! You can even move your favorite herbs indoors in the winter to continue using fresh herbs in your cooking. 

Containers can be made out of anything that can hold several inches of a growth medium, preferably with drainage. One of my planters is the charcoal holding section of a recycled grill and another is an old wooden box. They sit among other terracotta and plastic pots on my patio where I grow salad greens, kale, herbs, flowers, and a few cherry tomatoes. My neighbor across the street grows flowers in a broken wheelbarrow. I’ve seen pictures of old boots and even a toilet turned into flower pots! The possibilities are immense! An image search on Google for “container gardens” or “vertical gardens” will wow you with what others have done!

With container gardening, one major setback is that the plants need to be watered more frequently. However, there are some commercially-made self-watering systems that typically contain a reservoir with enough water to keep the soil moist for longer periods between watering.  A simple do-it-yourself (DIY) system can be made using two 5-gallon buckets stacked one inside the other to allow the outer bucket to hold water with some sort of a siphon system, typically a wick, to draw the water into the inner bucket through a hole drilled in the bottom of it. You can find many versions of this setup online.

One container system that takes advantage of the self-watering concept with minimum water loss through evaporation is EarthBox®. The box doesn’t have drainage holes in the bottom but there’s a screen separating the soil from a layer of loose pebbles below. Watering is through a tube in the corner with holes drilled along the whole length of it. The pot is covered with black plastic with small slits cut out for the watering tube and the plants you plan to grow. There’s no loss of water through drainage and hardly any through evaporation. The disadvantage of this system is that you’re limited to growing individual plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash instead of something you can broadcast like lettuce, carrots and spinach. A friend who has tried this system tells me it’s great for bitter melons.

Another container system that saves space is Mobilegro® which consists of several vertically staggered boxes on rollers.  Yet another system doesn’t even use soil! Hydroponic uses sand and gravel in water instead of soil while aquaponic is a closed system where the waste products of fish feed the plants which in turns purify the water for the fish. 

Grow Bags are also a widely-used container gardening system. The bags are typically made from black felt or other pressed fabrics. They are air and water permeable and come in different sizes, including those that fold out into rectangular “raised beds”. Some people make their own grow bags from recycling cloth bags that bulk rice and other staples often come packaged in. 

A few maintenance routines can make your container garden productive year after year. With perennial herbs and flowers, re-potting is necessary when the plants become root bound. This is the best time to add soil amendments like organic compost to the new pots. With annuals, crop rotation will let plants with different nutrient needs grow in the same soil for more than a few seasons. I often use home-made fertilizers to water my potted plants. These can be compost tea (put compost in a burlap bag and steep it in water in a bucket for a day or two), alfalfa tea (fresh or dried alfalfa soaked in water), comfrey tea (fresh comfrey leaves fermented in water) and banana tea (dried banana peels pulverized in a blender with water.) 

What is your favorite gardening container? Mine was a heart-shaped pot with a hole in the back that allows for hanging like a picture frame on the wall. I grew a philodendron in it that grew so big it draped all over the wall from one end of the living room to the other. This was back when we lived in California from 1972 to 1975. Regretfully, I had to give it away when we moved to New Mexico.