Lots of people want to grow food but not everyone can or will dig up the yard. That could be for a lot of reasons such as poor soil conditions, too many trees, limited space, deed restrictions or they just love the lawn. Fear not, because you can grow vegetables in containers and ignore all the reasons for not having a garden in the yard.
You should download and read the Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide for a complete understanding about what to plant (pages 8-10) and when to plant (pages 6-7) and there are tips for growing vegetables without using pesticides (pages 4-5). This Solutions for Your Life webpage has a plethora of information for container gardening.
It is late May and the vegetable gardening season in Central Florida is about to end. You can use the summer months of June and July to prepare your containers for growing the “warm season” vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, and beans. Start your seedlings in mid-July. Get your containers ready to plant out with seeds or transplants by mid to late August.
Size matters! You must use a container that is large enough to meet the needs of your vegetable. This publication from Texas A&M has a very good list of container sizes needed for specific vegetables. Use a potting mix to fill your containers. Do not use garden soil or potting soil or topsoil. By using a quality potting mix you will have a very clean environment for your vegetables to grow. If you have been reading this series of blogs, you will already know that you will need to place the containers in a sunny location (at least 6 hours of sun per day).
If you like to mix your own potting mix, this soilless mix has worked well for me:
- 1 part peat moss (wet first by soaking in a bucket)
- 1 part coarse vermiculite
- 1 part finished compost
- Add 1 ¼ cup of dolomite to each bushel (1.24 cubic feet) of this soilless media
- Add ½ cup of a 14-14-14 slow-release fertilizer to each bushel of mix
Containers can be made of many different materials including clay, ceramic, plastic, wood, and concrete. They can be in various shapes including buckets, baskets, barrels, pails, crates, old kettles and mesh bags. When selecting a container take these points into consideration:
- Dark colors dry fast = overheating
- Metal absorbs heat = can overheat plants
- Plastic retains the most moisture
- Wood retains less moisture than plastic
- Clay loses moisture through the sides
- Paint the inside of concrete planters
- Line wood containers with plastic
The big thing to understand with container gardens is that you are providing everything that the environment provides in a in-ground garden: light, water, temperature, nutrients, growing media and space for roots to grow. Use tall enough and wide enough containers to allow good root growth. Provide vertical supports for the containers if necessary, to keep them from toppling over on a windy day.
Drainage is a must for container grown vegetables. If the container has no holes in the bottom, drill some – carefully. Do not place a layer of rocks in the bottom of the container unless you want your roots to rot. Cover the drain holes with a small piece of fiberglass screen or maybe a shard from a broken container just to keep the potting mix from falling out or washing out as you water.
Once you have provided for drainage, add the potting mix to the top of the container. It will settle some as you moisten the soil so you may need to add a little more potting mix. You may want to consider water storing gel to add to the potting mix to aid with keeping the potting mix moderately moist. Check the potting soil daily and water when the top 2” is dry. Always water during the day when growing vegetables in containers; you may need to water daily as the plant matures.
When selecting the vegetables consider dwarf and miniature vegetables for best results. It will be difficult to grow quality beefsteak tomatoes in a container, but Patio, Micro Tom and Tiny Tim tomatoes will grow prolifically in containers, including hanging baskets. The publication from Texas A&M also has a very good list of vegetable varieties for container gardening.
As with any vegetable garden, water and fertilizer (nutrients) are important for the vegetable to manufacture food for itself. Water early in the day. Liquid fertilizers mixed at half strength and applied about once a week will help you produce a quality vegetable. Water and fertilizer are closely linked. Overwatering will wash the nutrients out of the potting mix and over fertilizing will provide for continued juvenile green growth at the expense of fruit production. Water about once a day and fertilize about once a week.
Yes, the same insects and diseases you expect from vegetables grown in the ground will be present in container gardens. Control by natural means is difficult when infestations of garden pests are high. Here are some helpful suggestions:
- Plant resistant varieties
- Plant seed from disease-free plants
- Select pest-free transplants
- Use cardboard collar around plant stems
- Rogue out severely diseased plants
- Encourage natural predators, plant flowering plants in their own containers
- Use sticky traps
- Replace potting mix at the end of each growing season
- USE CLEAN CONTAINERS
Weeds may also find their way into your containers. Be ready for them. Add a layer of mulch to the top of the potting mix. Pick the weeds when they are small. If you use a hand trowel, do not dig too deeply into the container to prevent root damage to your vegetable plant.
If you must use a pesticide, make sure you have identified the pest first so you will be able to select the correct organic or synthetic chemical to control it. Many pests can be hand-picked. There are a few biological controls such as Bacillus thuringiensis that will target caterpillars only and not affect the beneficial pests in and near your container garden. Always read and follow pesticide label directions for best results and safety for you and the environment.
Growing your own edibles in containers is gratifying, healthy and rewarding.
Come back and read more about the “New Vegetable Gardener.”