Get a jump-start on veggie garden with winter sowing
By Susan M. Dollard
For the Times Herald-Record
Winter sowing is an outdoor method of seed germination that requires just two things: Miniature greenhouses (made from recycled milk jugs and various other containers) and Mother Nature. After planting in January-March, these mini greenhouses are placed outside to wait for winter to end.
Here are some suggestions for what to plant and when, based on zone 5b:
Container plants let you garden even when you don’t have a patch of earth to call your own. Container gardening brings plants up close, adding color and interest to patios, decks, and porches, and providing indoor rooms with a touch of nature. Growing plants in containers allows you to maintain control over the quality of soil, and makes it easier to manage weeds and pests. Yet many find it challenging to keep container plants thriving. When container plants go bad, often the culprit is the method of watering.
Most people water plants in containers from the top. Some prefer watering from the bottom. While there are certain circumstances where one method is preferred over the other, it is important to remember that to plants, all that matters is that roots get the moisture they need to thrive, neither too little, nor too much. Before deciding whether to water from the bottom or from the top, other factors need to be considered. To reach the right balance of moisture, plants need more than water. They need the right soil and the right amount of drainage.
Soil for Container Plants
Ordinary garden soil is generally too heavy for use in container plants.
The president (Dr. Job Ebenezer) of the organization, Technology for the Poor, explains his vision for the spread of urban agriculture.
In 1993, Dr. Job Ebenezer, former Director of Environmental Stewardship and Hunger Education at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) established a container garden on the roof of the parking garage of the ELCA offices in Chicago. The hope was that the roof top garden would serve as a role model for creative use of urban space throughout the country. Dr. Ebenezer proved the feasibility of growing vegetables in plastic wading pools, used tires and feed sacks.
In August, the once beautifully potted plants sit listlessly on porches, patios, balconies and roof gardens. Greens, herbs, flowers and perennials all seem to give up on life this time of year no matter what we do.
Nine times out of 10, the cause is simply dry roots. Note: I have not said “lack of water” because even in the summertime, plants get watered plenty. The problem is that the water doesn’t go to where it’s needed in the plants.
Look closely at your potted plants to see how the soil shrinks when it begins to dry out. This leaves a gap between the edges of the soil and the pot wall. The water that you apply seeps through that gap and out through the bottom. How much of the water do you actually think gets absorbed into the potting soil or roots?
Slide the plant out of the pot and you will find that the roots are concentrated in a thin but dense layer around the outside of the soil mass known as the root ball. The roots have created this mass around the soil because that’s the only place water can be found, however briefly that may be. This may have been fine in the cool days of late spring, but come late summer with the heat, it’s simply not enough moisture to maintain healthy, beautiful plants.
The best way to revive these plants is to encourage them with a payoff of moisture deep within the dry root ball. Once accomplished, the roots will moisten and grow, where it is dark, cool and wet. So how do you get the root ball thoroughly moistened?
That’s the basic question coming to my mind when I was reading Alessandra TONIUTTI’s message :
‘Dear Doctor Van Cotthem,
I read with a lot of interest your various articles on container gardening and cultivation of plants under drought conditions.
I am from Italy. A couple of years ago I made friends with some Tanzanian Masai who live on the Northern coast close to the city of Handeni. I spent a fortnight at their village. The Masai are pastoralists and not at all accustomed to cultivation. They use the little money they have to buy rice, flour, beans, tomato, carrots and other vegetables. They have no idea where to start from in terms of cultivation practices and it is a fact that they live in a very dry area. Getting water from holes miles away is a very toilsome task and every single drop is a value in itself.
I came across your web page and your articles. I am going to visit back there in a month and I would like to help. I think your container gardening might be a very good idea.
I would very much welcome some additional suggestions on what kind of varieties are better suited to that kind of climate.
I would appreciate it if you would give me a few tips based on your experience. I am very grateful in advance.
God bless you
MY REPLY (Willem)
Thanks for appreciating my work and ideas.
You are right: container gardening is a very good solution for the drylands. Growing vegetables with a minimum of water in plastic containers (bottles, pots, bags) is possible and efficient.
I suppose it will be difficult for the Masai to get a sufficient number of plastic bottles or pots. Therefore, I suggest to use the classical plastic shopping bags as containers.
Put 2 or 3 of these plastic bags in one another and fill the central one with soil (mixed with some cow manure to enhance fertility). Now make 2-4 little holes with a iron nail or a knife in the bottom (through the bags) to let the surplus of water run out (otherwise the soil becomes acid).
Hang such a container on two poles or nails on a wall or a fence (to avoid ants or termites to enter the bags) , preferably in the shadow to avoid heating in the sun. This way you get a hanging container with a certain quantity of soil in it.
Seeding can be done directly at the soil surface in the inner bag (carrot, lettuce, onion, garlic, …).
You can also let some seeds germinate in one hanging container and then transplant the seedlings into other ones, e.g. tomatoes (2 tomato seedlings per container), cabbages (1 cabbage seedling per container) or red beetroots (2-3 beetroot seedlings per bag). One can even plant 1 potato in such a bag container.
I recommend to try all different species or varieties that the Masai prefer. Some will grow better than others, but it would be nice to offer them a also series of “new” vegetables and herbs, not just the classical ones they know (try basil, oregano, thymus, etc.). Herbs will certainly prosper in containers.
My experience in the Sahara desert tells me that we should not hesitate to “try the impossible”. What turns out right for the Masai is extremely positive for their daily life and health, in particular for the children. What turns out negative is not even a loss.
Every vegetable we let grow in plastic containers in the drylands is a victory, because not only we introduce vitamin rich food for children and adults, but we also take care of the environment by “recycling” otherwise littered plastic. There will be less plastic bags hanging in the spiny trees.
I wish you a lot of success.
Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem
AND ALESSANDRA SAID:
‘Thank you SO MUCH for the PRECIOUS tips. Will try them out.
I just feel like saying that I do admire people like you: THEY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THIS WORLD and this is what living is all about, I guess. 🙂
I hope your wife is better now after that terrible brain stroke in October 2008.
I lost my job last month and I am back in my village.
After I learned about the significance of container gardening for rural people in the drylands from you, Professor Willem, my life has changed for the better, because in otherwise useless plastic bottles and plastic bags I can now grow vegetables for offering fresh food to my family, as well as for beautifying my home with flowers. At the same time I am keeping the environment around my house totally clean (no more littered bottles or bags).
My fellow villagers in Piyasani village in the outskirts of Lilongwe city are flocking around my house to learn about this new initiative. In November, I started collecting tree seeds from the surrounding remaining forest. Now that the rain has started I am planning to set up a community nursery of tree seedlings using the container gardening method. I hope to be able with this plan to donate tree seedlings to one school, so that they are able to plant a school woodlot. At the same time, this will motivate other schools to start the same initiative as it is one of the cheapest kinds of agriculture and afforestation methods for the poorest countries in Africa, as no financial resources are needed since you can do this prioject around your home with empty plastic bottles and plastic bags.
I have a lot of photos of this project to be send to you, Professor Willem, so that other people can see the importance of container gardening for a poor country like Malawi.
Apart from container gardening, I am also doing vegetable farming at a small scale for sale and for feeding my family with nutritious meals.
However, I am looking for well-wishers and donors who can come forward and assist me in buying a piece of land, which shall become an education centre for container gardening in Malawi. Any one who is interested can either e-mail me at email@example.com or call me on +2659028290.
May God bless you, Professor Willem, for introducing this container gardening method to the people of Africa.