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.
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.
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