Make Container Gardening Your New Thing and Unleash Your Gardening Potential.

For us gardening purists, there is only one way to garden. At least their was. You dug up a patch of lawn and planted stuff in rows. Then some forward thinking person, probably with terrible soil and /or back issues, thought there had to be a better way. So they made a tall box and filled it with better soil, planted some rows of stuff and relished in just how easy it was to garden that way. But that wasn’t good enough. An engineer named Mel thought traditional row gardening was a waste of valuable growing space. He went on to utilize every square foot of his raised beds and set the standard for easy to achieve, high-yield gardening. Today, the world of gardening continues to evolve.

Along the way, a small part of gardening that many of us were already doing got overlooked: containers. Maybe we had an herb or two, a patio tomato, or some cute miniature pepper plant but that was it. Never anything serious. Well I am here to tell you different. Container gardening may just be the next big thing. Why? With the rise in urban gardening and homesteading, containers are a great way to make up for a lack of space. City and condo dwellers have been doing that for a long time. There are several reasons why you should jump into container gardening or consider adding containers to your existing setup. So instead of looking down on those who choose to grow stuff in pots, I say add it to your arsenal.

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Containers are a Great Beginning

If you are a budding novice gardener, or on your first gardening baby step, containers are a great way to get started. You can start slowly with just a few pots and easy to grow stuff and then add to it as you get more proficient. And should gardening suddenly not be the thing for you, then you won’t have the regret of all the time and money spent on raised beds. And you won’t have the added labor of trying to turn garden back to lawn.

I recommend starting with something easy, like lettuce or another fast-sprouting leafy vegetable. They are easy to grow and can handle a variety of conditions and it will help you gain proficiency and confidence as a gardener. Then as you get bolder, you can move on to tomatoes, peppers, even potatoes.

Containers Eliminate a lot of Problems

When you plan a garden or where to put a raised bed, you need to consider what you will be growing and how much direct sun it likes. Lettuce bolts easy in the heat, so having partial shade will help counter that and result in bigger leaves, but then what about the others that want that full sun? Now stuff is getting complicated…..not with containers though. Put them wherever you want and move them when you need to. Right now my patio lettuce is doing great in full sun. Once we get into July though, I will move it to a spot that gets a lot of afternoon shade. I can’t move my raised beds.

If water conservation is important to you, containers use far less water than even raised beds. Water your containers directly with a can or a wand and you avoid all that wasted water that just leaches into the water table. Some types of containers such as thin walled plastic ones, can dry out a little faster, so be aware of what you are growing in. The thicker the better. And a saucer to catch the excess helps as well especially with clay pots. The same rules apply to fertilizing containers. You need a lot less so you will save money there as well.

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You can get creative in your watering methods if you are imaginative and handy.

Weeding, even in raised beds is tough. No one likes doing it. In containers it’s a lot easier. Your not weeding the empty space in between rows, and if you want, put your pots on a higher surface to make it even easier. I have six pots and a planter so I just run through them quick. I pull a lot less weeds from my containers than from my beds. You don’t have to worry about tilling containers in the spring. You can either work the soil around with a trowel, or dump it out into a larger container such as a wheelbarrow, mix and re-fill.

Containers make it economically feasible to use a higher quality soil. If you want to use a high end  garden soil it can get costly to buy enough to fill your raised beds, or till into your garden in a quantity enough to make a difference.  Not so with containers. You will need a significantly lesser quantity of soil, so you can spend that savings on quality. Ideally you want something high in organic matter, maybe a little perlite and some peat. Even using this, it’s best to mix in a handful of native soil. What you want are those beneficial microbes that sterilized bagged soils won’t have.

Container Gardening for Kids

Growing stuff in containers is a great way to introduce your kids to growing their own food. How many of us grew stuff in cups or small pots as a project in school? We did beans. A decent sized pot, some soil, and a seed or two is all you need. You can’t tell me they won’t anxiously be checking every day to see if the seed sprouted, or measuring how much taller their pepper plant is today than yesterday. Children learn to care for things, it teaches responsibility and patience and is a great way to teach them a little biology and love of nature along the way. Your children get to see where food comes from, to a lesser extent.

Keeping Furry Pests Away

Growing things in containers can put them out of the feeding range of may smaller pests. Bigger pots ensure that further still. I had my lettuce ravaged last year, along with my spinach. If I wasn’t such a fan of Watership Down, I might have taken steps. Since I switched to pots and moved them to the deck, nothing has bothered the rather abundant lettuce crop I have growing. Not even the deer.

Are there downsides? Sure. Containers can dry out fast, or drain poorly. Large plants will need large pots and that can get heavy. High winds can knock stuff over. But the good outweighs the bad as long as you use quality pots, know the peculiarities of what you are growing, and manage your risks. Enjoy and explore the possibilities of this option. It can expand your gardening possibilities.

If you don’t try, you never learn.

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Tomatoes and Tilling

Tomato Status: Excellent

Despite the setbacks for the cold, the tomatoes are flourishing. They are almost a foot and a half tall. Color looks good. I removed all the yellowing, cold-damaged lateral stems.  I would say I am on track for where I would normally be this time of year, which is a little surprising considering the long, drawn out cold spring we have been having. But lot’s of sun and a few hot days and the tomatoes have bounced back in fine fashion.

Yesterday I weeded all the beds and gave everything the first shot of Espoma Garden Fertilizer. Today, I went through the plants and pinched off the small flower buds that were starting to set. It won’t affect the quality or quantity of the harvest. Plants can’t expend energy in too many directions at once.  So by pinching off the flower buds, the plant will shift gears to green growth instead of fruit production. More flowers will come, but until I think they are ready, no flowers. This is gardener’s version of responsible parenting. I also went through and removed all of the suckers where lateral shoots come off the main stem.  They can have a tendency to retard growth if left unchecked. And if you can successfully root them, they are a ready made plant.

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Today I also started tying up the plants as well. You have a lot of options with tomatoes. You can stake them, cage them, weave them o a wire, or just let them sprawl out. I choose to stake mine. It works better with square foot gardening. Over the years I have used a variety of tying options from jute twine to wire , electrical zip ties and kitchen twine. What I found last year was something that works better than all of that. Elastic. Just a plain old elastic band like the type you wold use for sewing. I bought a roll of 3/8 inch elastic at Walmart for just a few dollars and it goes a long way. I tie the stems loosely using a square know and leaving just a little room. As the stems thicken and move around, the elastic will stretch and flex with them without any damage. Especially when it gets windy.  It cuts and ties easily. The only downside is that you can’t compost it. So either you untie it and save it, or do what I do, cut it out with scissors at the end of the season and throw it away.

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To Till or Not to Till

Finally, I would like to close out by bringing up a topic I have seen discussed a lot lately. Tilling or working the soil. The current and trendy view is that this shouldn’t be done because it damages the mycorrhizae which exist in your soil, and in damaging them you hurt the soil as a whole over the long term.

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The mycorrhizae are those tiny little fungi that inhabit the soil and latch onto your plant roots in a complex symbiotic relationship. Plants can easily absorb water, but not so easily absorb most nutrients. The mycorrhizae need sugars that soil doesn’t provide. Thus a partnership is formed. The fungi latch to the plant roots and help the plant absorb those nutrients and the plants provide them with sugar. This is the complex interconnection of nature in action.

The along come the humans. We break up the soil to some extent in order to make soil easier to work, add in amendments or simply to till under a cover crop. It all amounts to the same thing. Some amount of damage is done to the beneficial fungi. But I believe that extent is a bit exaggerated by the “no till” permaculture crowd. There are several reasons why I think this is true, but mind you these are theories based on what science I do know.

If you remove the plants, roots and all at the end of the season, you are basically cutting off the fungi’s food supply anyway. But don’t worry, unless you are sterilizing your soil between seasons, those fungi have inoculated your soil with spores. Spores which hang for the next season waiting for another plant to bond with. This will be especially true if you’re a heavy user of compost or have a garden soil already rich in organic matter. Rich, well drained soil will help the mycorrhizal layer quickly re-establish itself.

The “no-till” viewpoint gives too much credit to these fungi for being able to overcome terrible soil. If you have that dreaded heavy clay, or soil so sandy it holds water about as effectively as a colander, then you need to amend it, most likely for several years in order to get it where you want it. The fungi that help the plants don’t really improve the soil. That’s not their function. So in this case the benefits of tilling or mixing in amendments, far outweighs the damage done. Your fungal layer will more quickly establish itself the better your soil gets.

There are several fungal inoculants you can buy to aid you in re-establishing the beneficial relationship. I can’t speak as to their effectiveness as I have never used them. I would suggest trying it out o a small scale and see how that does versus a non-inoculated section. Where I can see these inoculants being most helpful is if you are starting plants from seed in pots or trays and you are using sterilized soil. The sterilization process may have destroyed any mycorrhizal spores present. The seedlings will not need these fungi when they initially germinate. But as they quickly mature and develop roots  here it will make an impact with faster nutrient uptake. In theory this could mean you enter warmer weather with bigger, healthier transplants who already have an established root/fungus relationship to bring to the garden with them. Hmmmmm. This sounds like something to experiment with.

That’s all for now. The warm weather is upon us. So get out there and enjoy it. A bad day out in the lush green beats a good day inside anytime.

 

Mono Cultural Problems

Monoculture. My Plant Materials professor in college constantly warned of it and the dangers it brings. That same sentiment was echoed in my Integrated Pest Management classes as well. But my Landscape Design and Plant Propagation/Nursery Management professors were at odds with it. So what to believe? Is it good, or is it a thing to be feared?

This depends upon your school of thought. Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. In order to understand it and figure out how it fits in, and whether it is to be feared or not, is all a matter of perspective. So lets start with what it means on a residential level.

Elm-lined streets no longer exist thanks to Dutch Elm Disease

Landscape architects and city planners love monoculture. Elm lined streets were everywhere once upon a time. I can walk the streets of my neighborhood and count no more than 4 or 5 species of trees; Red Oaks, Silver Maples, Norway Maples, Honey Locusts and Plane-trees. The repetition lends a certain look and continuity to neighborhoods. Landscape designers favor it too. Every house on my street has similar shrubs, Arborvitae hedges, mature Rhododendrons…….and all that is fine. Until Dutch Elm disease wipes the shade form the neighborhood streets, Japanese beetles ravage the landscape, tar spot covers the colorful fall maple leaves with unsightly blights. You get the picture.

For you, the established homeowner, it gives you a heads up as to what to guard against. As a new homeowner, it is an opportunity to not have to suffer their fate. Monoculture draws pests. They go where the food is. The most food that will sustain the population. The denser the food/host source, the faster the problem will spread in that geographic area. Disease spreads right down the street with the wind blown rain, insects, wind, blowing leaves, etc. and you cannot stop the spread. It is almost useless to fight against it . As a home owner, you can spend thousands having you lawn treated, and your trees and shrubs sprayed to no avail. Because if the whole area isn’t on the same regimen, the pests or disease gain a foothold. Then the second you are off on your application timing, bang! Cedar apple rust, grubs, powdery mildew and all sorts of lovely and unsightly things come calling.

Recognize these? Everyone in my neighborhood planted them at one time. Why not? They look nice, they dampen road noise and they block your view of that junky whatever-it-is your neighbor has in her backyard. Alas, after a few years of harsh winters and overpopulation, the deer came calling to our neighborhood. With their preferred foods scarce, they ate their way up one block and down the next. They like the tender, new growth on the tips. Our mono cultural buffet attracted a herd of hoofed pests that to this day still come through nightly to see what’s for dinner.

So you homeowners need to be savvy. Plant a good mixture of stuff. Yes, you can use multiples of the same plant material. Before you consider it, see what your neighbors are battling and just choose not to have to fight the same battle if possible. Sometimes it means just switching to a cultivar that is more disease resistant to whatever the big problems are. And above all, a healthy plant is the best defense. So prune when you should, fertilize, make use of beneficial insects, try to use chemicals only as a last resort.

For you avid gardeners out there, take all that with a grain of salt. Gardening is all about monoculture. Modern agriculture gets by on it. Why? Because it simplifies things. For large farms, it limits the diseases and pests one has to deal with. It’s less farm implements required for planting and harvesting, it simplifies the economics and cost analysis and a number of other things. In short, you need it. That is not an excuse for not using Integrated Pest Management principles, or crop rotation, disease resistant strains and other sound practices. Rather, it’s an incentive if one wants continued success.

For you smaller, more realistic gardeners and homesteaders, you have other concerns. First, when possible select plants that are resistant. Be aware of what your neighbors are planting. A community garden group is a great way to do this, but I will expand upon that more in a post coming soon. Also, as an excellent free resource, do not overlook your local extension service. They generally track the bad stuff they are seeing in the area and can be a good form of intelligence against a coming invasion. They also offer practical solutions and their master gardeners are experienced and always willing to help.

Monoculture isn’t as big a problem for the gardener as it is for the commercial farmer, but to a smaller extent it can be a problem. Don’t settle for just one crop, which most of us don’t. I love tomatoes, but I don’t want to defend my entire backyard against horn-worms. So I plant a broad variety of things. And switch stuff up year over year. Including locations. Some things aren’t that mobile and moving to a new spot entirely may disrupt the process enough to break the cycle. Last year I had a problem with powdery mildew, mainly because I planted enough squash and melons to support a small country. This year, I moved their location and have scaled it way back to make the mildew easier to control. The general idea is to make it as difficult as possible for anything to gain a foothold. And remember, a pest, or disease may jump from one type to another. Japanese beetles don’t discriminate, neither does powdery mildew.

So there it is. Monoculture is a different problem based on your particular perspective. So be forewarned, think ahead and avoid it when practical. I would rather you plant nice shrubs, keep a nice lawn, grow huge tasty veggies for you. Not for deer, grubs, anthracnose, mildew, cucumber beetles and so on, and so on…..

Keep growing, keep enjoying.

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