Getting Started – With Container Gardening

It is rapidly approaching the time of year when the hearts of men (and some women) turn to thoughts of love….love of gardening, of course.  Now I know that there are some out there who don’t LOVE gardening and growing things like I do, and I feel for you.  The process of growing food or flowers, or just creating a quiet place to reflect is both good exercise for the body AND a way to exorcise the demons of day to day hectic living.  My goal in this series of blogs is to encourage you to at least THINK about trying gardening again even if you were “over worked” as a child in the family garden.

My wife, Anne, really isn’t much of a gardener, but loves having the basic salad veggies and herbs near at hand.  She tries, unsuccessfully, to share my delight in endless rows of beans and corn and tomatoes and anything else I have ground and seed to plant. But, you see, she spent childhood summers slaving away in the fields of her youth, tending and harvesting truckloads of produce. According to her, the rows were uphill from BOTH ends and it was ALWAYS at least 100 degrees and she was hardly even permitted a drink of water while she was workin’ in the fields…..well, maybe that is a bit exaggerated, but to hear her tell it, not by much!

And then there are those people who have NO background in gardening or growing ANYTHING.  This is the intimidated soul who says, “well, I can’t grow anything. I have a ‘black thumb.’”  First, there is no such thing as a “black thumb.” There may be some with uneducated thumbs, but that can be fixed.  All it takes is a desire to learn and experiment and a willingness to “bury your mistakes” cause as I’ve said before, even your mistakes can be useful, for fertilizer if nothing else.  😉

One of things that is peculiar about humans, and I speak as one, is we fear what we do not understand.  You may have heard the question posed by motivational speakers before that goes something like this. “If you knew you could NOT fail, what would you do today?”  It is the FEAR of failure that stops many people from trying new things, and gardening is no different.  What if I could show you how to get started with only a minor investment, with the certainty that you would not fail?  Would that interest you?  Well, I can’t do that—the failure part.  What I can do is give you information that will lessen the likelihood of failure and make the experience a whole lot more fun.

Because let’s face it.  Eating is FUN!  That’s why there are so many people who LOOK like they enjoy it SO much!  Well, what if you could grow your own highly nutritious food that tasted great, and for pennies a serving?  And what if you could brag about what you had done at dinner parties and to friends at work?  I mean, it is the cool thing to do in this economy—grow your own food.  Do you know that last year 20% MORE people grew some of their own food than at ANY other time in recorded history?  Some people are growing their own food ‘cause they are foodies (like Anne and me) while others are growing their own veggies ‘cause they have to.  Whichever category you fall into, and it may be a combination of the two, I can help you do better. So, let’s get started.

Where to begin? First, we need to decide on whether or not you want to plant a garden or just plant in a few containers.  I mean, I’m okay with whatever you decide because often you may start out with a few containers and catch the bug and end up with 40 acres and a mule!  Okay, THAT probably won’t happen, but you COULD start out with a small herb garden and end up with a raised bed garden on the side of your home.  If you do catch the bug, then you may find yourself out looking for more ground to take in. I know I did.  But that is a subject for another blog, because, to say the least, Anne’s vision of “gardening” differs from mine just a bit.  😉

So, if you either don’t want to “go to the field” so as not to risk a flashback of your horrible childhood, OR, more likely, you just don’t have the room or time for a REAL garden, then container gardening is a great way to supplement the available fare from the local supermarket with locally grown, highly nutritious food.

The basic process is easy.  Locate suitable containers, as close to free as possible.  Craig’s List is a good source, as are local nurseries.  I have used 55 gallon plastic barrels, cut in half with drain holes drilled in the bottom and they worked great.  You can add the flair of “southern” raised bed gardening by using old tires filled with planting mix, but that might not be the look you are going for. If you want to combine gardening with woodworking, you can build your own.  In the next blog I will talk about raised-bed gardening, which is conceptually related to container gardening but gives the gardener more latitude with what can be planted and how permanent the garden can become.  Raised bed permaculture gardens can even prosper with NO added fertilizer. It also reduces weeding time to almost zero….Anne likes THAT! Stay tuned.

Other than good drainage and stability (which is why the bigger the container the better) the most important decision you will make is: “what type of growing soil do I use?”  Some of the commercially available mixes are fine, but I personally would mix my own.  Because containers are not as forgiving as planting in the ground, you have to take into account that the planting soil MUST drain well and have a balanced nutrient content.  What that means is you need to have more in the soil than just compost.  The following is a good rule-of-thumb soil mix:

  • One part peat moss (or equivalent – aged compost works well so long as it has lots of organic matter),
  • One part garden loam (garden soil from Home Depot works okay for this)
  • One part builders sand which is washed sand that would be used for mixing mortar (NOT “play sand”).  This can be found at nurseries or even masonry supply businesses.
  • ***Some organic fertilizer (1%-5% of the total mix, depending on type of fertilizer), such as composted cow manure (5%) or poultry litter based fertilizer (1%).  Remember that plants take over 80% of what they need from the air, so you don’t need too much. *** I realize “some” is a VERY subjective term.  It is something you here from experienced cooks who say “add some butter” or “mix until it LOOKS right”.  The main idea here is temperance.  You can always add MORE, but it is hard to take away what you have already mixed in.   
  • Depending on where you live and what type of soil you have available, 10%-20% of the total amount can be ordinary garden soil.  This assures that the planting mix is not sterile.

Other additives that can be beneficial are composted granite (this could take the place of the sand), and gypsum (calcium sulfate) which provides the all important calcium for the plants and doesn’t change the pH of the soil.  If your potting soil doesn’t contain fertilizer (I don’t recommend those that do) vermicompost is about the best, unless you have access to poultry fertilizer such as Cockadoodle Doo or MightyGrow.

MightyGrow has trace minerals and is a biologically active fertilizer, which makes it superior to any other organic fertilizer available. But, with just a little effort you can find several additional sources of organic fertilizer.  Craig’s List, if you are not familiar with it, can be found here, (search for the city nearest you) and is a great source for all kinds of gardening related items.  I have looked under the heading Farm & Garden and found all kinds of things I could use.  People will sell plastic barrels, bricks (for raised beds), and horse manure and just about anything else you can imagine.  BTW, CL has a “Free” section that often contains posts from people that just want someone to come clean out a horse stall for the manure.  Not a bad trade, an afternoon of mucking out a stall for a truck load of fertilizer.

Before you fill your containers, choose a location.  While the “ideal” esthetic location may be the outskirts of your backyard, you may want to consider locating your containers closure to your house.  Hopefully these containers are going to be bursting with vibrant, tasty veggies, so why hide them where no one can see them?  Also, from a practical standpoint, the closer they are to “where you live” the more attention you will pay to your plants and the better they will perform.

I will make one more comment about container gardening.  Remember that your plants are – hopefully – going to GROW!  Don’t plant too many in one container or put the containers sp close together that they crowd each other.  Plants are solar collectors, so arrange them accordingly.  If you are tempted to plant too many plants in the containers or find that you have run out of room for containers, then I must say to you: CONGRATULATIONS! You have been bitten by the gardening bug and should be spending your spare time scouting out a nice clear acre or two for the day when messing around with containers no longer gives you the fix you need!.

After reading this you may still not feel comfortable with planting your containers.  Remember, we discussed that you have to be willing to make a mistake or two along the way to learning how to garden.  Don’t worry about it.  All you have at risk are a few seeds or plants and some of your time. Start out small and take your time.  You really don’t have to plant the entire season’s crop all in one afternoon.  Remember that some plants grow well in the spring, while others need more heat to prosper.  Even herbs grow at different times of the year.  BTW, this begs the question: how did the Mexicans ever figure out how to make salsa, when tomatoes get ready in late summer, while onions are pretty much done by early spring and cilantro is finished by late spring?  How did they ever get all the parts together at the same time…but I digress.

Let me give you a pointer or two on plant selection. Transplants are sometimes easier than seeds, especially for things like tomatoes and herbs.  Why not try planting a few green onions around the base of a tomato plant?  Basil is THE easiest herb to grow, but contrary to popular belief, it can get HUGE! So it should really be planted in its own container.  My basil last year was well over 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide.  FYI, ONE basil plant will supply a good sized neighborhood.  The same is true of many plants that come “six to a package.”  I mean how many habanera plants do you really NEED?  I could say the same thing about eggplants, but the answer to the question, “How many eggplants do you need?” is NONE!  😉

One way to handle this predicament is to share some of your plants with a fellow gardener.  That way you can buy a six pack of basil and they can buy peppers.  Then you swap around for what you want.  The same practice works well with seeds.  Do you know that there are around 75 tomato seeds in one package?  Enough to send my wife running for the hills!

Now there is NO way I can give you all the info you need in one blog.  I have been studying gardening my whole life, even before I knew I loved it.  And I will admit it—I have made my share of mistakes.  Truth be told, I made my share and probably a good portion of YOUR share as well!  If you have specific questions, please ask away.  My email address is: or you can leave comments at the end of this blog.

The next post will deal with getting a raised bed garden started.  The word of the day will be “permaculture” and the emphasis will be on growing food with the LEAST amount of work for the MOST amount of food.  If you like the sound of that, then tune back in later this week.

Until then, remember, I’m just a man “out standing in his field.”


3 Responses to “Getting Started – With Container Gardening”

  1. Amelia Linde Says:

    I am digging (yep, pun) your blog, dude! It’s so nice to be able to keep up with ya’ll even if it is reading a blog to do so. I’ve always loved your sense of humor and it’s even more prevalent in your blog. Keep up the great work, Michael.

    I am enjoying this and sending it to my friends & family.
    Miss ya’ll,

  2. Ernst Says:

    A great way to start container gardening in late winter (if you have protection) or early spring, is to grow your own potatoes. Its easy, you can get results quickly (by early summer) and there’s nothing like putting your hands in the soil and pulling out one potatory pearl after another. If your new to gardening this will give your confidence a real boost. And you still have plenty of time to grow something else in your containers. Grow an early potato variety or try a salad potato – they make fantastic eating.

  3. 2010 in review « Good Food From Your Own Back Yard Says:

    […] Getting Started – With Container Gardening February 20102 comments 3 […]

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