Do you think a vegetable garden requires a formal planting bed, lots of space and orderly rows of plants? Well, think again.
By experimenting with growing edibles in containers you can enjoy the simple pleasure of picking your own fresh food without paying expensive grocery store prices. It may surprise those accustomed to northern gardening that fall and winter are the best times to grow many edibles in our climate.
Why grow in containers? First, it’s easy!
Do you have limited space, such as a patio? Just choose a right-sized container. Maintenance? Very little as there’s minimal space for weeds to pop up. Need more or less sun? Just move your containers to the optimal spot. Cold night forecast? Simply move them to a warmer space. You control the soil, so you’ll be blessed with fewer bugs and nematodes that could otherwise attack your in-ground garden.
Follow a few guidelines and then let your creative side soar!
Lettuce and Asian greens are great choices for winter. Pair them with fresh herbs, such as rosemary and basil. Include vining plants like tomatoes and sweet potato. There are even edible flowers that add beauty and color to your creations, such as nasturtiums, violets and calendula. Many of these plants can be started from seed in early fall and grow happily through the southwest Florida winter. Other edibles to grow during the fall and winter include kale, spinach, arugula, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes and carrots.
To begin, determine the size of the container you are going to use. Many herbs will do fine in smaller one-to-two-gallon containers, but you should use 10-15 gallon containers for tomatoes or root vegetables. Also, be sure to use a good potting mix, not dirt dug up from your yard. Many readily available pre-mixed choices are prepared specifically for containers and vegetable gardening — or mix your own with compost and soil.
Experiment with different combinations of plants. Container gardening allows for placing plants close together, especially if you harvest regularly. Choose different types of lettuces and greens and you can pick them daily for salads. Nothing beats that super fresh flavor.
Many vegetables grow easily from seed, such as lettuces, greens and radishes. Growing from seed allows you to try varieties not often found in stores, such as purple carrots or watermelon radishes. If you start with seeds, you’ll most likely need to transfer the seedling to its final container once the plant has developed its second set of leaves.
If seed starting is not for you, purchase seedlings from plant nurseries. October and November are ideal months to get your vegetable garden started and enjoy the results for many months ahead.
Another alternative to seeds or purchased seedlings is to plant kitchen scraps to regrow. Ideal candidates include the bottom ends of celery, romaine and other lettuces, pineapple tops and the ends of green onions. These plants will regrow once they form roots. Also, sweet potatoes, dried beans, and even chia and flax seeds bought at the grocery store can be planted.
Many container plantings are designed with “a thriller, a filler and a spiller” for visual appeal . What edible plants fit this definition? Thrillers may include edible flowers, blooming herbs or even bell and hot peppers. Lettuces and herbs can be fillers, while spillers could include cherry tomatoes, sweet potato or squashes. Peas and other vines will benefit from having a small trellis or tall support to lean on.
WATER AND DRAINAGE
Container plants typically need to be watered more often than in-ground plants, as soil tends to dry out faster. Be sure and test the moisture level with your finger. Make sure your container has drainage, so veggies don’t sit in water for an extended period of time.
A slow-release fertilizer or other natural growth stimulators such as fish emulsion or cottonseed meal will help your plants thrive. If your container is outside and not in a screened area, you’ll probably encounter bugs at some point. But the advantage of having a container garden is that you’ll probably notice problems before they get out of control.
Follow these guidelines, choosing the edibles your family most enjoys eating. The sky is the limit as you discover the fun of growing your own food and fresh herbs, and enjoy the amazing flavors that fresh picking provides.
Jane Hayse is a Florida Master Gardener who has extensive experience in growing all kinds of plants. Edibles may just be her favorite things to grow because they are practical, nutritious and delicious