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The Contained Food Garden

Growing food crops in containers is easier than growing them in a big backyard. You won't harvest as much, but then, you won't work nearly as hard, either.

Containers; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Cecilia Nasti is an organic food gardener and enthusiastic home cook. She produces and hosts the weekly radio feature Field & Feast broadcast on public radio in Austin, Texas. A nature lover, she also produces and hosts Passport to Texas, a daily statewide radio series about the outdoors for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

You don't need a backyard to grow a food garden. A small balcony or patio that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day (greens need less) can sustain a bounty of edible delights – in containers.

Growing food in containers is easier than growing them in a big backyard; you may not harvest as much, but then, you won't work nearly as hard, either. Container gardens are efficient, economical and easier to maintain than typical "grounded" gardens. Like any potted plant, though, a vessel of vegetables has unique requirements that are easily managed.

Mini or Maxi

Tomato Plant; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Vegetables bred to remain compact are ideal candidates for small spaces and available online or at nurseries. Fruits from these varieties are often smaller in size but not small on flavor. Don't assume because your back forty is only forty square feet of concrete you're destined to only cultivate mini versions of your favorite vegetables. Tomatoes, for example, are the number one home garden crop, and standard-sized plants grow just as well in containers as in the ground. Staking keeps them in check. Alternatively, replace tomatoes that vine for determinant (bush-like) varieties, and forget about stakes altogether while harvesting full-sized fruits.

The Match Game

Basil; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Match the right container with the right crop for the right result. Shallow-rooted crops including lettuces, some herbs and greens thrive in large bowl-shaped containers at least three to four inches deep. Crops like tomatoes have deep taproots and do best in five-gallon containers, approximately 14 inches across the top. Other crops, mini or standard, manage well in one- to two-gallon pots measuring 8 to 10 inches across at the widest portion, respectively. Consider recycling and repurposing items as containers for an artful touch and to keep them out of the landfill. And thoroughly clean any previously used container before replanting.

Dishing the Dirt

Dirt in Pots; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Difficult soil can be a problem in a backyard garden but not in a container garden. Even so, good aeration and drainage remain important for containerized plants. Use a soilless potting mix; some of the components in it include peat, vermiculite, coir fiber, bark and sometimes compost. This mixture allows good drainage and moisture retention. Using garden soil? Amend it. Use one part garden soil (or compost), one part peat moss and one part perlite or vermiculite. Before filling containers with any soil, add one to three inches of gravel (depending on the size of each pot), and top with a circle of wire mesh completely covering the gravel's surface. This inhibits soil particles from filtering into the crevices between the gravel, clogging the container's drainage hole. Dispose of any excess water that collects in saucers to discourage fungal growth. Avoid reusing old soil.

Food, Water and Maintenance

Bamboo Pots; Photo by Cecilia Nasti

Container plants require more watering, less fertilizing and less maintenance than in-ground gardens. Containers dry out more quickly than grounded gardens; they may need watering two or three times a week to a backyard garden's once-a-week watering schedule. Salts and minerals in water and fertilizer can build up over time in containerized plants, which may cause a failure to thrive. For container crops, use a fraction of the fertilizer you would use in a backyard garden. Monitoring your plants for signs of pests and disease takes mere moments as does treating them.Big may be beautiful, but petite is perfection when it comes to growing good food in small spaces.

What have you grown in containers? Or what do you plan to grow?

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