MAY
2003

 

 

By
B. Rosie Lerner
 
Purdue Extension
Consumer
Horticulturist

 

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05-15-03

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Container Gardening Expands Possibilities


Many would-be gardeners would love to grow their own vegetables and flowers, but they are not able to due to health reasons. Gardening in the traditional sense requires a strong back and arms to work the soil, plant the crops and harvest the rewards. Weeding, watering and general garden care also may take quite a bit of bending and elbow grease.

If your mind says "yes" but your body says "no," don't despair. Container gardening can be the answer to your green thumb's prayers! Although gardening in containers is by no means trouble or work free, it can bring your garden to a more manageable height and size.

No heavy digging and little or no weeding are required. The soil-less media are much more lightweight than garden soil, making containers easier to handle. Container gardens can be brought within the reach of those who are confined by a wheelchair or who have weak back. Container gardening also enables apartment-dwellers and others who lack garden space to participate in one of America's favorite pastimes.

The possibilities are endless in finding containers for gardening. Conventional clay or plastic pots are perhaps the most obvious choices, but many other materials work just as well. Old whiskey barrels, tires, bushel baskets, buckets, wash tubs, coolers, window boxes, hanging baskets and homemade boxes are just a few suggestions.

The most important characteristics in choosing containers are size and drainage. Containers must be large enough to support full-grown plants, including their root systems. Most plants need a minimum of 6-8 inches of rooting depth. Whatever the container, it must have a means for excess water to escape (usually through holes in the bottom). If excess water is trapped in the soil, pores that should be holding air will be filled with water, driving out much-needed oxygen.

Many vegetable and flower plants are quite adaptable to growing in containers. Shorter crops and flowering plants usually adapt better to the limited soil area, but even tall tomatoes can be containerized if given enough space. Fortunately, plant breeders have become sensitive to the needs of container and small-plot gardeners, and they have been developing many new cultivars of both flowers and vegetables, which are compact yet productive. Check your garden catalogs and garden suppliers for these mini or dwarf cultivars.

Container gardening does pose some special considerations beyond conventional gardening. Keep in mind that, due to greater exposure to drying winds, containerized soil will need watering more often than a garden bed. You may need to water every day or even twice a day during hot, sunny weather. The best way to tell if it's time to water is by feeling the soil with your fingers. Soil-less media also become very lightweight as they dry, so simply lifting the pot can help determine if water is needed. Water when the top inch or so of soil begins to dry. Use enough water so that some excess runs out of the drainage holes at the bottom. This will help ensure that the entire root area is moistened. Peat moss is very difficult to wet once it becomes dry, so be sure to check the watering needs of soil-less media frequently.

You'll have to pay greater attention to fertilizing as well. Soil-less media carry little or no nutrients of their own. Even garden soil will lose nutrients due to leaching (from watering) faster when confined to a container. Lightweight media, such as the soil-less types or a combination of soil and soil conditioners such as peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, etc., are recommended to avoid soil compaction, but be sure to add a balanced commercial fertilizer to the media mix to establish the nutrient pool. Additional fertilizer will be necessary after about 10 weeks or so. Water-soluble or timed-release fertilizers are convenient for mid-season fertilizing. Follow label directions for application rates.

 

Writer: B. Rosie Lerner
Editor: Olivia Maddox