I had good results, but wasn’t sure if it would work with the newer opaque milk jugs, so I tried it last winter.
This does work with opaque milk jugs!
I tried it last winter and by spring I had tomato seedlings. I worried that they were coming up later than they should, but our spring was cold, so they were probably on time.
I’m not sure why it worked with the opaque milk jug, but it did. When the top and bottom halves of the opaque jug were closed, they didn’t fit together as neatly as they did on the translucent milk jug. Maybe that let in enough light for the sprouts.
Other containers for winter sowing
If you don’t trust the idea of using containers that are opaque, there are lots of other options.
Plastic tray, plastic bag and a marker to build a mini-greenhouse
Starting your own transplants
By MINNIE MILLER, T&D Garden Columnist
How much money do you spend every spring buying vegetable and flower transplants to fill your garden or make up containers? Make this the year you save a little cash by growing your own starter plants. You will be able to pick and choose the exact varieties you want by selecting your seed. The sense of accomplishment you will gain by growing your own, start to finish, will be priceless.
Now is the time to start gathering the supplies you will need including containers, seed starting mix, liquid fertilizer, labels and seeds. Seeds ordered online take time to be shipped as do related supplies. If you are going to need to set up grow lights you will want to come up with a plan and implement it as a first step to successful transplants.
Be sure you can supply the right conditions for starting seed or you will not be successful. Seeds do not necessarily need light to germinate, but most do need warmth. Once they have sprouted, you will need to supply them with 16 to 18 hours of light daily to grow strong seedlings. Grow lights or regular florescent lighting can be used.
You don’t have to purchase special containers to start seed, but there are some handy ones out there that include trays and “domes” that help keep moisture regulated. Ordinary flats that have drainage holes, used pots and even recycled plastic produce containers (such as greens or berries are packaged in) can be used. The container simply needs to hold soil and provide drainage. You will want saucers or solid trays underneath to catch excess water.
Have on hand a supply of liquid or soluble fertilizer for watering the seedlings as they grow. Regular light doses of liquid fertilizer, along with adequate light, will keep plants strong and stout so they will be more successful transplants.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call me on +2659028290.
May God bless you, Professor Willem, for introducing this container gardening method to the people of Africa.
These planters let non-gardeners, like myself, get great results. I’d guess that most of my peers haven’t thought about growing anything since they were in elementary school and started something from a seed as a science project. Sub-irrigated planters (SIPs) are perfect for them.
Around the world, large numbers of people are moving to cities, and at least here in Chicago, the Community Gardens that exist have long waiting lists. Why not offer those people the chance to grow something on their balcony or deck (or roof)?
The simple act of growing a little bit of your own food can lead a previously apolitical person to question any number of things: the subsidy program that is the lifeblood of agribusiness, how modern agriculture contributes to global warming and produces tainted food, the prevalence of chemicals (and yes, plastic, more on that in minute) in our lives, Energy Policy, air and water quality, how access to fresh fruits and vegetables is largely determined by race and class. And more. The increasing numbers of city residents imply a growing level of political power. It makes sense to reach out to as many of them as you can.
In building these SIPs, I learned about different kinds of plastic. Some are better (less bad?) than others. Before I started this whole project, my attitude towards it was something like “well, if PVC is good enough for potable water lines, how bad can it be?”. I don’t think there’s any way to talk about this without sounding like a lunatic, especially with (to?) strangers. All I can say is go read the links and make up your own mind.
I suppose I should issue a disclaimer: This is a blog. I’m not an expert. These are my opinions, even if they’re supported by Experts.
The most impressive stand I visited at Hampton Court was the Back to the Future Garden in the Climate Zone, designed and built soley by a unique charity called Send a Cow. It was one of the busiest with visitors intrigued by a method of growing vegetables in a keyhole garden:
(very nice picture)
As you can see, this is basically heaps of soil based around a compost that continually feeds the garden with the rotting matter as it grows. This a great way to use up kitchen waste and means you can grow lots of vegetables in a small area, all year round. Perfect for city balconies or terraces where space is at a premium and there is often nowhere to have a compost heap. The height is good for elderly people who may find bending down to tend their vegetables more difficult.
For many families in Africa these amazing keyhole gardens are the difference between life and death. Climate change has seriously reduced the levels of soil fertility in many parts of Africa and the situation has been made worse by the loss of almost a whole generation to Aids which means that horticultural know-how is very limited.
About 70% of Africans depend for survival on what they grow on their land and keyhole gardening is just one of the areas that Send A Cow is involved with. Set up in 1988 , this group of farmers in the West Country helps African farmers develop answers to this need to grow their own food. They deliver direct, practical help to poor farmers in Africa, by providing, cows and other livestock, training in livestock rearing and organic farming, plus low-cost veterinary and advice services .
Another novel idea that was demonstrated by Send a Cow was the bag garden – see pictures above right. These tall hessian sacks of soil are sent to families trying to survive famine in Africa . They are deep enough to grow potatoes in, plus you can also cut holes in the sack and plant things up the sides too. They can be watered easily when irrigating fields isn’t possible. The bag garden saves lives in Africa but it will also do well on a tiny British patio or balcony.
Check out their excellent web-site at http://www.sendacow.org.uk for more information on their various projects plus some more sustainable gardening suggestions from Africa – making your own natural pesticide and liquid manure.
Garden sustainably from Send a Cow
3. Make a keyhole garden
Draw a 3m circle and edge with rocks. Mark a tiny central circle with posts and make a compost “basket” inside with sticks and string. Fill bed with soil sloping down from centre, leaving a tiny path for access. Fill the basket with vegetable waste and enjoy your fertile plot.