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Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – growing in containers

By Sarah Bostick and Carol Wyatt-Evens

Gardening in Florida can be incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating, at the same time. If you are new to the region, you soon learn that gardening in the Sunshine State can quickly become a full-time job. While our subtropical climate is perfect for growing an abundance of different vegetables, fruits, and herbs, it also can present some overwhelming challenges.

We can help! UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County agents and staff have created an online edible gardening resource center. The website features short videos from our 25-episode “Edible Gardening Series” webinars, along with blog posts and resources lists for episodes. Get help on an array of topics that befuddle many gardeners.

 

This week’s Question of the Week is:
Can I grow a successful garden in pots and other containers?

A container garden is simply a garden that is planted into containers rather than in the ground. By using containers, you can grow food almost anywhere: a sunny balcony, your front stoop, a cement patio – the options are endless.

Growing in containers has additional benefits:

  • Containers are moveable! It can take some trial and error to find the perfect spot on your property for growing different fruits, veggies, and herbs. The perfect spot for tomatoes may be different than for lettuce.
  • Nematodes: this little-known microscopic worm is one of the biggest barriers to successful edible gardening in Florida. If you have ever had a garden that just won’t thrive or plants with stunted roots covered in strange white balls, nematodes are almost certainly the culprit. By growing your edible plants in store-bought potting mix in containers propped off the ground, you can entirely avoid nematodes. Pots that are set directly on the ground can become infested with nematodes – the tiny worms can travel up through the drainage holes in the bottom of your pot.
  • Over time, plant diseases build up in soil. Empty out growing containers every year or two, wash containers with hot soapy water, and start fresh with new potting mix.
  • It is not uncommon for urban soil to be contaminated with heavy metals, especially lead. Container gardening is a great way for urban gardeners to avoid growing edibles in potentially contaminated soil.
  • Some plants, like mint, are vigorous growers and quickly take over a garden bed. By planting mint in a pot, propped an inch or more off the ground, it will stay right where you put it: in the pot.

Herbs growing in pots hanging from a fence.

 

Want to give container gardening a try?

 

Tips for success:

Tip 1: Choose the right container

Choosing containers is fun! You are limited only by creativity. You can plant in pots, planter boxes, grow-bags, five-gallon buckets, whisky barrels, plastic tubs, old pitchers, broken wheelbarrows – the possibilities are endless. Here’s a few tips for choosing the right container:

    • Make sure the container is big enough. The root system of most plants is about the same size as the above ground part of the plant. Plants that are in too-small pots will quickly become stressed and will fail to thrive.
    • Don’t plant into tires, chemical or petroleum product containers, pressure-treated lumber, or anything with peeling or chipping paint.
    • Unglazed terracotta pots are beautiful, but dry out very quickly, so be prepared to water frequently if you use them.
    • If the container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, you will need to make your own drainage holes.

 

Tip 2: Choose the right location and support for your plants

All edible plants need light to thrive. Most herbs and greens do best in Florida with 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day but can survive with a bit less. Most fruit-bearing plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, need sunshine all day to thrive but can survive with as little as six hours. To learn more about this topic, here’s another post in our Edible Gardening series that explains why different types of plants need different amounts of light.

Plants grown in pots are not as stable as plants grown in the ground and are easily damaged by wind. Find a spot protected from wind and give large and fruiting plants some support. You can use tomato cages, fences, trellises, bamboo stakes, and creative DIY support solutions.

During the dry season, potted plants are 100% reliant on you for water.

Tip 3: Make sure your plants have enough water

Most of our edible gardening season is during the dry season. That means your container garden is entirely reliant on you for water. You may need to water daily. If this is too much, consider a simple, automatic irrigation system.

Covering the bare soil in your containers with mulch helps keep soil moist. Spanish moss, pine straw, and woodchips make excellent mulch.

 

Tip 4: Plan for urban wildlife

We share our urban environment with an abundance of wildlife. Birds, racoons, and squirrels enjoy sweet fruits and veggies just as much as we do. If you grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, strawberries, carrots, or beets, consider constructing a cage from chicken wire around your containers.

  • Most urban critters are not interested in greens or herbs and will generally leave them alone.
  • Birds and squirrels are inquisitive by nature and like to investigate what you just planted. Plan to protect new plantings for a couple of weeks.

 

The Edible Gardening Series and blog series is a partnership between the following UF/IFAS agents and Sarasota County staff:

  • Sarah Bostick, Sustainable Agriculture Agent
  • Carol Wyatt-Evens, Chemicals in the Environment Agent
  • Mindy Hanak, Community & School Gardens Educator
  • Kevin O’Horan, Communications Associate

10 Comments on “Edible Gardening Series: Question of the Week – growing in containers

  1. I live on the ocean in a condo with a balcony facing east. We moved from Coral Gables where we had many plants outside and few problems. I have a large wall trellis on the north wall of the balcony. I planted confederate Jasmin there (three times). At first it did great but in each case the white flies killed it. They also invaded nearby plants. There is some wind protection in this spot and we are on the sixth floor so I don’t think there is too much salt spray. Is there any vine that would work here?

  2. I just found out about this series and I am bummed that I missed registration for it! I will have to keep up through the vlogs. We are filling in our pool and going to turn or screened in pool area into a raised garden. This is still a few months out as once the concrete it done we then have so much building to do with the beds. What is a good starter for a edible garden. In New Hampshire I found I could grow anything, not so much here in Bradenton.

    • Hello Sandra!

      Gardening in Florida is definitely different than gardening in the far northern regions of the country! Summertime growing is particularly difficult in Florida because of the combination of significant heat, high humidity, and frequent heavy rain. This combination is also the perfect recipe for major pest and disease issues. There are not many plants that will thrive in Florida when planted mid-summer, but a few to try are peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, ginger, and Cuban oregano. We taught a class two weeks ago on Herbs for Florida and focused on hot-season herbs. Today we taught a class on hot season veggies and the recording will be on our YouTube channel by the end of the week: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLkaYUPVpk0P6ibpyrFKHwLAi2cJGRen51.

    • Good morning, Lynn. We suggest you contact the UF/IFAS Extension Manatee County office for information and guidance (note that each of Florida’s 67 counties has a distinct Extension office). You can find the Manatee County Extension website at https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/manatee, and contact them by email to manatee@ifas.ufl.edu or by phone at 941-722-4524. Best, UF/IFAS Extension Sarasota County

      • What disease (or critter) turned the trunk and branches of my Croton black? Whatever it is, it can be scraped off. The leaves have gotten tan spots on them.

        • Hello Alice,

          The black trunk and branches on your croton is likely a fungus called “sooty mold”, which grows wherever aphids live. The best way to get a positive ID on the black stuff and the tan spots is to send our office a few good pictures of your plants so that we can see it with our own eyes. Here’s email address: CooperativeExtensio@scgov.net. Once we are certain as to what is causing the discolorations, we can help you make a plan to treat the problem.

    • Thank you, Lance! It has been such a fun series to put together and it is 100% inspired by all of the wonderful questions we get from folks who are inspired to grow some of their own food. And stay tuned! We have a total of 25 classes in the series and are about 2/3 of the way through. Each class topic gets its own blog post.

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