You don’t need acres of land; you don’t even need a big garden to enjoy your very own homegrown, fresh garden produce. Your balcony, your stoep, or even a windowsill can all be turned into vegetable producing areas.
There are many vegetables that can be grown successfully in containers. With some thought given to choosing various types of plants available, such as dwarf plants or bush plants, all vegetables can be happily grown and harvested in containers.
Vegetables that take up a little space, such as carrots, radishes and lettuce for example, as well as plants that bear fruit over an extended time, such as tomatoes and peppers can be very successfully grown, and indeed, are perfect for container vegetable gardening.
What you can grow in a container is limited only by the space that you have available and the size of your flowerpots. You could grow a summer salad in one pot – just plant a tomato, a cucumber, some parsley or chives in a large pot together. These plants all have the same water and sunlight requirements and grow very well together.
Vegetable plant varieties
Seed companies realize that homeowners have less and less space to devote to vegetable gardens. Every year they come out with new vegetable plant varieties suitable for growing in small spaces and vegetable container gardens. Be on the lookout for key words like: bush, compact and dwarf species.
But almost all vegetables that are grown in a back yard vegetable garden can be grown in a container garden with as much success. Vegetables that vine, like runner beans and cucumber will, of course, need more space, but can be grown quite well in containers.
One advantage to flowerpot farming is mobility: container gardening makes it possible to position the vegetables in areas where they can receive the best possible growing conditions.
Containers and pots
Selecting containers: Containers for your plants can be almost anything: flowers pots, pails, buckets, wire baskets, wooden boxes, window planters, strawberry pots, washtubs, large food cans, plastic bags, drums, half barrels… almost anything you can think of. So long as there is enough space for root growth you cannot go wrong with the containers you choose.
An added advantage to selecting smaller to more medium sized containers is that they are movable, allowing you to access the best positions needed for your vegetables.
Drainage: Having said all that, it is vitally important that whatever container you choose has proper drainage. Drainage holes are needed at the base of every container to drain off any excess water. The best place for drainage holes is on the sides of the container, about a centimetre from the bottom. Adding a layer of coarse gravel or small pebbles at the bottom of the container will improve your drainage as well.
Color: The color of your container is also important, bearing in mind that a dark container will absorb more heat, which could damage the roots of your plant, than a light colored container. If the container you choose is dark, paint it a lighter color.
Size matters: As mentioned before, the size of your container is important. For larger plants a large container is necessary. For example, if you are growing a tomato or eggplant, using a 20 litre container is the best. However, you could use a 10 litre container, but you will have to be more vigilant and certainly give your plants considerably more attention than you would otherwise.
Soils to use
Synthetic mixes or ‘synthetic soils’ are almost always recommended for growing vegetables in containers. These synthetic mixes already have most of the components needed to give a good start to your growing vegetables. Having a ‘soil’ that is sterile and pH balanced, allows both moisture and air to circulate to the root system, that has the necessary nutrients, allows good drainage and is lightweight is the best way to get a good start for your vegetable garden.
These mixes may be composed of sawdust, wood chips, vermiculite, perlite, fern peat or almost any other type of organically acceptable media. Regardless of what the mixture is of your synthetic soil, it must be free from disease and weed seeds.
Garden centres have a variety of mixes available or you could mix up some of your own. Refer to the Organic Potting Soil for your Flowerpot Farm section at the end of this article for more information about this.
Fertilizing your vegetables
Fertilizing your vegetable garden can start with the potting soil you use. Mixing one part compost to two parts planting mix will improve the fertility of your plants. Also, using a slow release complete organic fertilizer at planting will provide your plants with food for the growing season.
Once your vegetables are growing, the easiest way to fertilize your plants is to prepare a nutrient solution and pour it over the soil. There are many good organic fertilizer mixes available to make nutrient solutions. If you are growing from seed, then you would only use a nutrient solution in your water once the plants have grown at least a couple of leaves.
Your plants should be watered with a nutrient solution at least once a day, although this may vary from crop to crop. Slow growth periods require less watering, while plants that have a lot of foliage growth might require move watering.
It is very important that you leach all unused fertilizer out of the pot, or rinse the pot, once a week. You do this by watering with plain water until its running out the drainage holes at the bottom of the container. This gets rid of any build up of harmful materials in the soil.
Watering your vegetables
Proper watering is essential for a successful container garden. Generally a watering once a day is adequate, although this varies from crop to crop, and in the very warm climates you might even have to water twice a day. Avoid wetting the foliage of the plants as this could encourage plant disease. You should use enough water to keep the soil moist between watering times.
The only time you would over saturate the soil is when you do your weekly rinsing. Remember that each watering should be done with a nutrient solution except for the weekly leaching when you would use just plain water. This is also when drainage becomes very important. If there is insufficient drainage, then the roots will become waterlogged and your plants will suffocate and die from lack of oxygen.
Nearly all vegetable plants will grow better in full sunlight than in shade. However, leafy crops such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach and parsley can tolerate more shade than root crops, such as radishes, beets, turnips and onions. These root vegetables can in turn tolerate more shade than vegetables that bear fruit such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants.
A good guide to use then, would be if you pick a vegetable it must have more sunlight than a vegetable you would dig up, which in turn must have more sunlight than ‘green’ or ‘leafy’ vegetables. Move your containers around to get the best advantage of the sunlight needs for your vegetables.
Seeding and Transplanting
It is a personal choice as to whether you want to grow your vegetables from a seed or if you want to buy a seedling plant from a nursery. Either method has its advantages and disadvantages.
If you are a person that likes to wait and watch things grow, then planting seeds is ideal for you. You can germinate your seeds in almost any smallish container, a baking or plastic tray, a small flower pot; even a cardboard milk container can be used to germinate your seeds.
A wonderful idea is to make a newspaper container (refer to the Shared Know-How section on page 6), to germinate your seeds, this way you won’t have to disturb the young root system when you transplant your seedling to its container.
You could also buy peat pots, which are especially for starting seedlings, and are also planted with the seedling when you transplant your seedling. Geminating your seeds is very easy.
Fill your container with your potting mix; cover your seeds to a depth of between about a half to one centimetre and keep the soil moist.
Alternatively, you could buy your seedlings from the nursery and then transplant them into your prepared container. Do make sure that you don’t over handle the young root system and remember to give a good first watering with a nutrient solution.
Diseases and insects
Vegetables grown in containers are as vulnerable to all the diseases and insects that a ground grown vegetable garden is. Plants must be regularly checked for any insect infestations or any plant diseases.
If you do get an infestation it is a good idea to use an organic pesticide as soon as you notice any signs of infestation. Remove any leaves or stems that show signs of disease before the disease spreads, and treat your plant to a suitable treatment. There is a wide variety of organic plant treatments and pesticides available at any garden centre.
Harvesting the fruits of your labour
For the greatest amount of enjoyment from flowerpot farming, harvest your vegetables at their peak of maturity when a vegetable’s full flavour has developed. The sense of satisfaction and achievement you feel, will make your excellent produce taste even more delicious. `