A Potted Kitchen Garden

Do you do pot?

Not that kind of pot, silly! But “pot” as in food grown in a container…

Virginia Rockwell asked me in a comment on the post labeled “Eating Local in the Northern Piedmont in Winter” if I have “any tips for newbies [about] growing your own in central VA? […] focusing on growing edibles in containers, close by the kitchen door, and the easy, rewarding stuff – using local, sustainable sources for seeds, plants when possible.”

Virginia is a landscape designer in Gordonsville, VA and offers container gardening to her clients, of ornamental plants – as much as I can tell. So, going edible is just one step away from what she is already doing. I started to write her a private e-mail, but realized this would make a good post, so here is my letter to Virginia.

Dear Virginia:

Thanks for contacting me! I am always truly happy when one more person wants to grow some of her own food, so I hope you have a great attendance for your workshop.

My first edible garden was eked – almost 20 years ago – out of the bareness of a 6th floor balcony of an apartment building in Fairfax County. No elevator. Everything was man- or woman-carried up 6 flights of stairs: the pots, the soil, the planters, the plants, the tools. I mostly remember the tomatoes, started from seeds, and the numerous mile-long walks to Merrifield garden center, and back with plants: fern, rosemary, little annual packs… and I remember all the plants I wanted to grow then but could not. Then I got married, and we moved to a townhouse. Twice. Each time we left a small garden behind us.

I recently scanned some of pictures of that little balcony garden for a presentation I was giving, and was pleasantly surprised to see how good it looked. It’s funny, I mostly remembered the failures from that garden (a.k.a. “lessons learned”), but those pictures showed me it was lush and it was beautiful. And even then, I had sweet peas, growing in a pot. I have always loved sweet peas’ intoxicating fragrance. It’s the first flower I remember planting as a small child in my own little patch.

Today, I still grow things in containers, mostly non-edible though, except for citruses and some herbs (we won’t mention those edibles such as fig trees that have languished in pots for years because I cannot decide where to plant them).

And so if one was just starting out and could only grow things in pots, this is my three cents:

  • First the bad news: you cannot expect as big a harvest in pots as in the ground. Roots don’t have the chance to spread as much, pots dry out faster, heat up faster (which can slow down growth in the height of summer). And you need really large pots (5 gallons minimum) for your large crops: that’s a lot of soil! In summer, you may have to water once (or even twice a day) depending on the temperature.
  • How about the positives? Of course, pots allow you to garden just about anywhere, you can arrange them artistically to make a wonderful décor on the patio, the deck or balcony (beware of the weight of soil-filled containers though). Many edibles will do well in pots, allowing even the landless apartment dwellers to grow some of her food.

Most herbs do very well in pots, and the cost of buying a few herbs will be amply repaid by not buying little herb packets at the store (since with the cost of two herb packets, you can easily buy one plant). It will also make a huge difference in your cooking. If you only want to wet your feet, so to speak, culinary herbs are the way to go.

  • You don’t have to grow one herb per container, you can mix them. Just be sure they have similar cultivation requirements. As for every plant, you want to provide, good drainage yet enough moisture, good growing medium with appropriate fertilization (but Virginia, you can advise your students on that!).
  • Many of the perennial Mediterranean herbs don’t need lots of fertilization: thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay. For them, I use a mix of compost, peat moss (or leaf mould), very coarse sand for drainage, a little dolomitic lime to raise the PH, since many like the soil on the sweeter side, and top with fine pea gravel or granite dust. I also like to use terracotta, mostly for aesthetic reasons.
  • I prefer to grow rosemary and bay by themselves in pots that I can protect/ bring in during the winter. My larger bay plant is topped at 5 feet and has been with me for 15 years, several rosemary plants in pots are between 5 and 10 years old. Thyme – which comes in multiple shape, leaf color and fragrance – is hardy enough to live through most of our winters in a pot (maybe not this year, though!). Group several in one large attractive container for a delightful little reunion.
  • Chives, parsley, garlic chives, sorrel will do well in pots. They want more moisture and can take a little shade and might overwinter since they are tough perennial (Parsley in biannual, but should give you leaves from that first summer until the following spring if tended well and the weather cooperates). Other herbs are certainly worth trying, like tender lemon verbena or sage, as well as dill & coriander. For the latter two, plant often, and cut young (so plant them from seeds)
  • With lots of moisture and frequent shearing, mint will also please you (keep it in its own container as it’s wont to run everything over).
  • Basil – especially the small leaf type like ‘Finissimo’ or Greek basil – will also do well in a large pot with plenty of moisture, and give you crop of dainty leaves. Certainly try the big leaf types too, just give them room, and pinch the tops off (use those leaves!) often to promote bushiness and retard flowering.

But there is more to pot growing than just herbs. Many vegetable can be grown in pots, provided the container is large, the plants are properly watered and fertilized (I prefer to use lots of homemade compost in my soil mix, feed once in a while with fish emulsion, and top-dress with more compost as the soil settles). Here are some ideas:

First, root crops. Yes, you can grow root crops in pots!

  • Plant seeds of radishes in a window box, in late March or early April.
  • If you like carrots, then true baby carrots can be yours. While not particularly ornamental, carrots can be grown in a deep containers – it might even be easier than in the garden if you only have clayish unimproved soil. Add a little coarse sand to the soil mix to further accommodate their tap root. Same for beets, whose young leaves are edible in salads, you know. Both should be started from seeds.
  • Sweet potatoes are remarkably ornamental and remarkably easy, and at the end of summer you just pull out the tubers. Make sure you look for bush type sweet potatoes, not vining. One typically buys rooted cuttings.
  • And I suppose, you could also grow potatoes – maybe even just for new potatoes. True new potatoes (and truly fresh ones at that) are just about impossible to find, unless you grow them yourself.

Leafy crops that I recommend for containers are:

  • Lettuce and salad mixes (especially the cut and come again) – often called mesclun – are also good candidates, as well as sorrel (perennial), and other small greens such tatsoi, mizuna, bokchoi or mustard and kale grown as baby greens. Plant a pot of those from seeds every other weeks, as those crops mature in 4 to 8 weeks and you want a continuous supply. As the weather get hot, lettuce an other greens suffer from the heat and bolt, so start them as soon as possible, they don’t mind a light frost.
  • Swiss Chard, on the other hand, is remarkably ornamental – especially the cultivars with colorful stems like ‘Bright Lights’ or ‘Golden’- and since you only harvest the outer leaves and stalks the plants keep growing. Swiss Chard tale a lot longer to mature from seed than baby greens, so you may want to buy seedlings, if you can find them, otherwise start your seeds in April.

The main stay of summer garden is – what else? – tomatoes. Everybody want them. Well, the bigger the pot, the better for those fruiting crops, 5 gallons at least:

  • For tomatoes, I would suggest the smaller fruited kind, like cherry or Roma type, or tomatoes marketed as good for container, like ‘Patio’, ‘Windowbox Roma’, ‘Tumbler’,’Oregon Spring’, ‘Washington Cherry’. Although smaller in growth habit, they still need to be well fed, though! Tomatoes started from seeds in March will certainly crop, so it’s a matter of convenience, budget etc whether you go seeds or plants
  • There are bush zucchinis out there (as opposed to vining): look for early and compact cultivars. As they grow fast and easily from seeds, fast outgrow their initial container and may suffer from being in a small nursery pot for too long, I suggest you start your own plants from seeds: in plant description, look for things like “bush”, “compact”, “small plant” etc. Cultivars to consider are ‘Golden Bush Scallop’, ‘Early White Bush Scallop’, ‘Gold Rush’, ‘Eight Ball’, ‘Cocozelle’. The printed catalog of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Mineral, VA, specifically list their squashes as bush vs. vines, and carries a good bush selection. Their on-line catalog, unfortunately, does not make the identification of bush type as easy. But even a small zucchini plant needs room and is a heavy feeder, so the bigger the pot, the more likely the plant will remain healthy and bear well.
  • For peppers? Ornamental hot peppers are often compact and yield well: you’ll be able to spice up your salsa or curry, with the bonus of plants that are, well, ornamental! Similarly, look for compact cultivars of sweet peppers such “Sweet Banana” (sometimes sold as ‘Long Sweet Hungarian’) which produces early and abundantly. Johnny’s Seed catalog actually suggests peppers for containers and list ‘Ace’, ‘Islander’, ‘Sweet Chocolate’, ”Antohi Romanian, ‘Lipstick’, ‘Apple’, ‘Carmen’ as good candidates. They are not the only ones of course! It is however late to start peppers from seeds as they take so long to germinate and to get out of seedling stage, so I would go with purchased plants. Ask your vendor for advice on cultivars that will do well in containers.

For fruit?

  • Strawberries of course, especially a day neutral cultivar like ‘Tristar‘ which produces fruit from June until frost the first year! You probably will only get a few berries at a time from a container plantings, but hey, they’ll be yours!
  • Don’t overlook small trees. Columnar apple trees (although I have not grown them) have been bred for those with small garden space, as well as dwarf blueberry plants and dwarf peach trees. I am sure you know about Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA: call and ask for suggestions on fruit trees or fruit shrubs appropriate for container cultivation. Trees have to been trained as carefully in pots as outdoors to fruit well, and fertilize and watered more carefully.

And don’t forget the edible flowers: nasturtiums and Johnny-jump-up can be massed at the foot of taller plants, and will add a little color to your salad. Chive flower and garlic chive flowers are edible too (although in moderation since they have a strong onion-y taste

So, I hope this gives you and your students some ideas. I would love to hear from you or any of them, if they decide to implement any of those ideas, or other food-growing ideas.

To happy gardening and cooking!

9 thoughts on “A Potted Kitchen Garden”

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