Growing Vegetables in Containers

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Don't let a lack of land keep you from growing vegetables -- do it in a basket!

Last spring, my wife and, I were faced with a problem that
I suppose most folks run into sooner or later: We wanted a
garden–in fact, we desperately needed a
garden – but we didn’t have any place to put one.

At the time, I had just left the Army and was out of work,
so the idea of spending my hard-to-come-by cash on
overpriced supermarket produce wasn’t all that attractive.
Unfortunately, our landlord didn’t like the notion of us
digging a vegetable patch in the backyard any better . . .
and even if he had, we would’ve hesitated.

You see, we hoped to move to a small farm sometime before
the end of the growing season, and we didn’t want to have
to leave a still thriving garden behind. Besides, we’d
already learned from experience that “we’d have to get up
early in the morning” to protect a vegetable patch from our
two mixed terriers. The “devilish duo” would get under or
over any kind of fence we put in their way, and proceed to
mangle whatever plants they could find.

So. We used a little ingenuity and came up with a
differentkind of garden that was
portable and pet-proof and productive all
at once. In short, we grew piles of tall-topped carrots,
juicy tomatoes, and a bevy of other fresh fruits and
vegetables . . . in baskets!

Now, I know that some dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists will
turn their noses up at any garden not rooted deep in Mother
Earth herself. But if your problems are similar to what
ours were, or if you live in a small city apartment, or if
you can’t do all the stooping and bending that ground-level
planting and weeding requires . . . well, then a basket
garden can be a pretty good way to go!

Choose Your Containers

To start one, all you’ll need is several containers large
enough to hold a sufficient amount of soil to support
living vegetation. In our case, we couldn’t spend a fortune
on oversized ceramic pots, and we didn’t have any good
“recyclables” (such as paint buckets or gallon-size plastic
milk jugs). So we scouted a local discount store, where we
discovered that ordinary clothes baskets were just fine for
our purposes (and inexpensive to boot). The bushel size
cost only 57¢ apiece, and the half-bushel just
37¢ . . . so we brought home three large and seventeen
small baskets for a total price of just $8.00!

Next, we lined the containers with plain old “Hefty type”
trash bags, and then filled the bottom of each with two
inches of coarse gravel for drainage. On top of that we
placed a layer of newspaper to keep the soil from washing
down into the stones.

Fill With Potting Soil

Then we added the growing’ medium itself. Gardening books
call for a 1: 1: 1 ratio of peat moss, loam, and sand . . .
and advise that rotted manure, leaves, grass clippings, and
other well-shredded vegetation can also be mixed in. We,
however, simply used three parts slightly, sandy (and
rocky) soil from an empty field, combined with one part
grass clippings judging from the way our plants thrived,
I’d say just about any reasonably rich blend of natural
materials that’s light and loose enough to provide good
aeration will work OK.

Finally, we poked a few small holes in the base of the
lined containers to allow extra drainage, and placed stakes
in the baskets in which we intended to grow tomatoes and
peas.

A friend of ours had access to a number of wooden pallets
that some local factories wanted to dispose of so he gave
us two of the skids, from which we constructed a platform
that kept our “garden” well above the reach of canine
claws, but at just the right height for easy weeding. One
of the discards made an “instant tabletop”, and a few
minutes’ work with a crowbar and hammer gave us enough
usable lumber from the other to build supporting legs and
braces. (Incidentally, homesteaders might take note of the
fact that throwaway pallets are a good source of free wood
for rough construction. They can be used either
disassembled or as whole “prefab” sections in any number of
projects.)

Plant Your Vegetables

The final step in establishing our vegetable patch, of
course, was the actual planting . . . but before jumping in
“seeds first”, we referred to three books which were
especially helpful: [1] Raise Vegetables Without a
Garden
by Doc and Katy Abraham (Countryside Books,
1974); [2] All About Vegetables edited by
Walter Doty (regionally oriented editions, published by
Chevron Chemical Company, 1973); and [3] The
Mother Earth News ® Almanac
(THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS
® , Inc., 1973).

This information — particularly the guides to natural pest
control and companion planting in MOTHER’S
Almanac– helped us choose the kinds of
vegetables and fruits we felt would be most productive and
best suited to our own needs and tastes.

We put two large-variety tomato plants (such as “Heinz” and
“Country Fair”) in each bushel basket, and found that a
half-bushel container could accommodate either a pair of
small tomato vines (such as Burpee’s “Early Girl”) or four
good size pepper plants. Our remaining baskets were seeded
with radishes, onions, carrots, peas, miniature corn,
strawberries, and cucumbers. We planted relatively early in
the season, kept the containers out in the sun on warm
days, and simply carried them back into the house whenever
a chill threatened. (My poor ole Dad lost two successive
sets of tomatoes to late frosts in his regular garden . . .
but our portable vegetables stayed cozy and warm–
and healthy — the whole time.)

Obviously, there’s much less moisture-retaining soil in a
“container garden” than in a conventional plot, so we did
have to give our “babies” frequent waterings. (One possible
solution might be to fold the tops of the trash bag liners
over the soil, punch holes in the sacks, and then let the
plants grow through. We haven’t tried it yet, but suspect
the plastic would act as a good water-holding,
weed-stifling mulch.) We also had to add extra dirt
occasionally as the original material settled but aside
from those two minor measures and a little careful
bug-watching and squashing, and cultivating (none of which
ever required bending our backs) our food practically grew
by itself!

All that summer and fall, we enjoyed a vast and abundant
variety of fresh produce straight from one table (the
plants’) to another (ours). And we never so much as picked
up stake the whole year!

So . . . you say supermarket prices are killing your
budget, but (moan, groan) you don’t have space to grow your
own vegetables? Buy a bunch of baskets!