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Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

Container Gardening to Feed Your Family

I always view a garden as if it were a business.  Like a business, there is a lot of up-front investment and it is hard to make up your money the first year or even second year for that matter.  This is especially true for container gardens because they cost more to set up.  I easily spent more than a hundred dollars on things such as, G&B Organic Blue Ribbon blend potting soil, Baby Bu’s Biodynamic Blend potting soil, Jobe’s organic fertilizer spikes, and 12 inch pots, and really big square containers. There is also a certain amount of fruitless experimentation that needs to be accepted as the cost of doing business.  But this metaphor of a business reflects economic reality. Numerous sources from journal articles and the web show a significant return on investment assuming the value of your time spent in the garden is not counted. For example, the GRS garden project. showed a personal investment of $153.28 for the year 2011 and a return on investment of $657.32 in the value of the produce from one particular person’s garden. Academic research into the question shows an average return of about 3-fold as is reported in the Journal of Extension. This research also shows that some crops yield a higher return on investment for home gardeners. In particular, tomato, eggplant, peas, and salad greens offer some of the highest return on investment for home gardeners in terms of the value of the produce coming from the garden vs. the cost of supplies for the garden.

Since container gardens cost more to set up, it makes sense to focus on the most valuable crops that will reduce your produce bill at the grocery store as much as possible.  I focus on salad greens in late winter and early spring as well as snap peas in my container gardens. This arrangement has other benefits besides the return on investment.  Growing salad greens on a second floor concrete balcony offers big advantages over the regular garden in a place such as Oregon where the slugs will literally grow several inches long. I have enjoyed salad greens completely untouched by slugs ever since I moved my salad greens to the balcony. Similarly, my carrot seedlings were completely wiped out by slugs in the regular garden but are flourishing in my container garden, and my pea seedlings were badly damaged by slugs in the regular garden but are quite happy in my container gardens.  

After trying many different varieties of snap pea, the best I have come across are the ‘Green Beauty Vine’ peas bred and sold by Peace Seedlings of Corvallis, Oregon. I think they beat out standard types, such as ‘Sugar Ann’.  They are a total package of flavor, tenderness, some sweetness, and visual appeal.  The pods are delicious raw or lightly cooked. It turns out that they do quite well in container gardens if they are given a pot at least 12” in diameter (5 gallons) with no more than 4 seeds planted in one pot.  They also need a large support such as 6 foot bamboo sticks.  They can be started in late winter here in Oregon and will continue producing food for your family at least until July.  (Seed germination can be an issue in late winter, so be sure to germinate your seeds indoors before planting them.) Considering the price of sugar snap peas at the store and the fact that you can’t buy anything as good as the ‘Green Beauty Vine’ at the store, it is an investment well worth making.

I have tried a number of varieties of spinach in my container gardens, including several open pollinated types and a couple hybrid types. I, of course, tried the old stand-by open pollinated type, ‘Bloomsdale Long Standing’ as well as ‘Monster of Viroflay’, ‘Tyee’ F1, ‘Giant Noble’, ‘Giant Winter’, ‘Bordeaux’ F1, and ‘Fiorana’ F1. The one that has performed best in the three years that I have been testing spinach greens in containers has been the ‘Olympia Hybrid’ F1. Its main advantage seems to be faster growth of tender, delicious leaves. But it generally seems better adapted and more vigorous than other types. That said, my trialing was not scientific. The best variety could be something else entirely. The variety was originally developed by Alf Christianson Seed Co of Washing state, and the name ‘Olympia’ may possibly refer to the Olympic peninsula of Washington State.

Salad greens container garden 

I also grow bok choy, mustard greens, and lettuce greens in my containers. A nice mustard green from High Mowing Seeds is ‘Ruby Streaks’, which adds some color, variety, and a bit of spice to a salad mix. ‘Mei Qing’ F1 Pac Choi from Johnny’s Seeds has done well in my container gardens but I haven’t tried enough varieties to make any comparison. Lately I have been growing ‘Marvielle of Four Seasons’ lettuce quite a bit but I can’t say it is really any better than other varieties. I once got free lettuce plants of a dark red lettuce that I subsequently saved the seed from. I suspect it is a Frank Morton developed variety from Wild Garden Seeds, but I never did get the variety name. This unnamed red variety is really exceptional for luscious leaves, dark color, and vigorous growth. It stands out as one of the best varieties of lettuce I have ever grown, and quite superior to store bought lettuce. 

As spring ends and summer starts, I switch over to tomatoes. I have done a lot of experimentation with tomato varieties for container gardening. Overall, I have made some basic observations about growing tomatoes in containers.  One, there is such a thing as a variety that is well adapted to containers as opposed to varieties that are better adapted to the garden proper. Another observation is that a big plant that has outgrown its container will constantly suffer from a lack of water. I once grew tomatoes in containers that were too small (1 to 2 gallons) and I was watering them, literally, 2 to 3 times per day.  There seems to be a simple relationship here:  bigger containers result in less drought stress and a reduced watering burden.  There also seems to be a relationship, regardless of watering, between smaller pots and smaller yields.  With enough water, a tomato will produce fruit in a really tiny pot of less than a gallon, but the yield will be one or two undersized tomatoes.  With a big enough container, any tomato variety can be grown in a pot, but some varieties will require the super-sized half barrel containers. For well adapted tomato varieties, a 5 gallon pot (12 inches diameter) should be sufficient. It should also be kept in mind that tomatoes are greedy for fertilizer. I give them Jobe’s organic fertilizer spikes mid-season or as necessary if growth is slowing and the leaves start to turn yellow from a lack of nitrogen. I also start them out with a good organic fertilizer when I transplant them into the containers.

Weather Worries

The weather in my area cycles back and forth in March, April, and May (even June) between warm spells in which tomatoes are happy to grow and cold, rainy spells which tomatoes can only tolerate as long as it is not below freezing. One thing I have found is that container gardening of tomatoes has a few inherent advantages for early season production. If there is a sudden cold spell, it is easy to bring in the containers into the kitchen for the night. The statistical last frost in my area is May 11, but I regularly risk planting tomatoes before this day as long as the extended forecast shows good weather in April and my plants are in containers. In addition, most early varieties tend to be smaller, determinate plants that are naturally well suited to containers. I think there is also one or two degrees of warmth that naturally radiates from the cement and metal of the building all night long. I have noticed, for instance, my balcony thermometer will show a temperature above freezing, yet the cars below me will have frost.  I am trying out several early varieties this year in containers, including ‘Glacier’, ‘Siberian’, ‘Gundula’, ‘Uralskiy’, and ‘Jagodka’.  The latter three are varieties from Adaptive Seeds.  But the variety that is proven and tested for me is ‘Cherry Punch’ F1 from Burpee Seed Co.  It is a relatively early, medium sized indeterminate plant. It is very well adapted to containers and performs as well or better in containers as opposed to garden soil. It has 30 percent more vitamin C and 40 percent more lycopene than an average tomato according to the Burpee website. It is tough, vigorous, and unstoppable.  I have grown this variety for several years and I find it to be one of the essential varieties in my garden every single year. I only have minor criticisms of the variety.  In 2012, my ‘Cherry Punch’ plants suffered more from a severe wind storm than other tomato varieties with more branch breakage.  Another minor criticism is that it is hard to pick the tomatoes without causing small tears to the fruit.  This never bothered me since we usually eat them immediately or within a day or two.

There is something else about container gardens that should be mentioned. It is great to have healthy finger food right outside the door.  Snap peas and cherry tomatoes are best straight from the garden and the lettuce never has a chance to wilt when it is so close by.

You can read my bio and other posts here.

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