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Vegetable garden in pots: How to get started
- |Special to the Tribune
- April 13, 2008
Grace Bouchard does not have a yard, but she may have one of the larger gardens in Wicker Park. She started growing vegetables in pots six years ago as a way to enjoy cheap produce and become self-sufficient. A porch vegetable garden like Bouchard’s is a great answer for land-starved urban gardener wannabes. Not only are they easy to get going, they also offer great rewards in beautiful plants and fresh, succulent produce. “There’s something really beautiful about watching your seeds come up — and knowing you can eat them,” Bouchard says. If you’ve got the itch to try container gardening, April is the time to start. Greens such as spinach, lettuce and arugula thrive in the cool weather. So that’s where experienced gardeners recommend new gardeners begin.
“Greens are generally very satisfying,” says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association, based in South Burlington, Vt., and author of “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies” (out of print).
“You only need 2 inches of growth to be able to snip them off and put them in a salad,” Nardozzi says. “These are the ‘baby greens’ that sell in a grocery store for $4 a bag.”
So how do you grow greens? First, you need seeds, which you can buy at the local gardening center or order on the Internet (see accompanying story).
Next you need a pot or container. “You can use just about anything: a window box, a basket, a wide bowl planter,” says Harmony Picciuca, who runs a demonstration garden at the Garfield Park Conservatory where you can learn about growing greens and many other vegetables. The container should be at least 3 inches to 5 inches deep, she says.
Then it’s time to add soilless gardening mix. Available at garden stores, soilless mix provides exactly the light, fluffy environment that roots love.
Check the label on your bag of gardening media to find out whether it contains fertilizer. If it doesn’t, you’ll want to add some to your pots. “For the easiest way to fertilize greens,” says Nardozzi, “simply sprinkle some time-release fertilizer pellets in the container when planting. Each time you water, the fertilizer will be released.” Organic gardeners can use a fish emulsion fertilizer with good results, according to Nardozzi.
Before planting your seeds, water the soil thoroughly. Nona Koivula, director of the National Garden Bureau in Downers Grove and an experienced container gardener who usually has a driveway full of pots in the growing season, says that a layer of clear plastic (such as food wrap) placed over the top of your pot and sealed around the edge will help keep it damp. Take care not to overwater or leave your pot in standing water; doing so will cause the seeds to rot.
Watch the pots for telltale signs that they need water. “When the soilless mix begins to turn brown from dark brown, mist the top of the media,” Koivula says.
In the meantime, keep an eye on the weather. If a freeze threatens, you’ll want to move containers indoors or into a garage. If the pots are too heavy to move, cover them with something as simple as an overturned cardboard box, Koivula says.
As for the container, gardening centers sell all sorts, but household objects also can be viable, stylish — and environmentally friendly — planters.
Many a gardener has salvaged bric-a-brac and filled it with growing plants. Old baskets ooze rustic flair; line them with burlap or landscaper’s cloth so they can better hold soil, says Picciuca. Likewise, large olive oil tins morph into lovely pots, especially for herbs. Just trim the top off with a can-opener. .
Carolyn Choi, a veteran gardener in Uptown, bought an old whiskey barrel sawed in half to create two deep bins. “My previous barrel finally rotted out after 20 years on the job,” Choi says, “so I’ll be buying a new one this year.”
The more you look around, the broader your options become. Bouchard planted her extensive porch garden entirely in discarded containers: milk crates, styrofoam coolers, even an old toy box. “Pretty much anything I find in the alley is fair game,” she says.
If you salvage a container, remember to make drainage holes. Depending on the container, you can punch a few holes in the bottom with a hammer and nail.
Nardozzi says that many nurseries have piles of discarded black plastic pots the public can claim. He also recommends self-watering containers, which have a reservoir below the plants that periodically needs refilling. “Even on a real hot Chicago weekend, you can go a few days without watering.”