Everywhere I look this spring seed companies are promoting fruits and vegetables for growing in containers. Container growing is not new, but emails and online advertisements for new compact varieties arrive almost daily this year. I’m not sure why.
A few food-producing containers are not going to provide self-sufficiency the way a full vegetable garden can, so this promotional flood isn’t a response to world tensions. Maybe these small planting projects just provide some enjoyable diversion from daily events. When you pick tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, lettuce or chard from a pot you planted earlier in the spring, that is real news and real success that nobody can dispute.
Typically, apartment and condominium dwellers are the people most drawn to growing vegetables in containers, because they have no yard for a traditional garden. Still, many people with plenty of open ground like containers as well. Some want just a few plants, and the containers are easier than a full garden. Others like the look of vegetables growing on their porch, patio or deck, so these vegetables and fruits are ornamental as much as anything else.
The containers for container-grown food have to be fairly large. The smallest possible for most plants is about 12 inches, but 18 to 24 inches works better. Larger pots provide more room for the roots to grow and won’t dry out as quickly, meaning less frequent watering. I use the term “containers” because you may want to plant something other than a typical plant pot. At nursery centers, you can find the ubiquitous half barrels and patio-planting bags. The bags are made from tarp-like fabric, and I know from personal experience they can withstand at least three seasons of growing. As with any vegetable garden, plant what you will actually want to eat.
The many promotions I’ve been getting this spring are offering some interesting specialty plants, so let me tell you about a few here.
The Patio Baby eggplant in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, for example. It’s a perfect container plant because it produces tasty food and is gorgeous while doing so. Picture bright purple flowers as well as shiny two- to three-inch purple fruits throughout the season.
Tomatoes are the vegetable people most love to pick from the garden. Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester is offering two different shape options. One stands up, and the other tumbles down.
The Tumbling Tom yellow tomato would work in a tall regular pot, sure, but the catalog photographs of the vigorous 2-foot vines spilling from a hanging pot are gorgeous so that’s the route you may want to try. The plant yields cherry-sized fruits that start early and will go throughout the season if you keep them picked.
Pinetree describes the Totem Tomato as a bonsai tomato tree, growing from 18 to 36 inches tall, depending on the size of the pot. The fruit is bright red, and while not huge, at 2 inches is larger than many other tomatoes.
Burpee, a giant seed company, has a helpful five-minute website video that describes how to plant tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in containers, stressing the use of bagged planting mix and regular fertilization. It suggests using dwarf plants, and putting one tomato in each pot but two peppers or eggplants per pot.
White Flower Farm, a high-end catalog based in Connecticut, suggests growing fruit on your patio and has a trademarked Bushel and Berry series of plants that fit the bill. The Perpetua blueberry is self-pollinating but will produce better with a second blueberry variety nearby. It ships in a one-gallon pot, so eventually you will have to move it to a bigger container. The Bushel and Berry Peach Sorbet is a blueberry bush (yes, that peach in the name is confusing) that can help with pollination. Growing instructions warn that you won’t have much production for the first two years.
White Flower Farm also sells Bushel and Berry raspberries, which grow about 3 feet high.
People have been growing strawberries in containers for years. While garden centers sell hanging pots with multiple holes for individual berry plants, a regular pot will also work fine. I suggest a day-neutral strawberry because they produce fruit throughout the growing season. Johnny’s recommends the variety Elan especially for growing in pots. It sells Elan only as seeds, not bare-root plants, aka seedlings, but is marketing it to professional farmers, so you might see seedlings at a local farmers market. Another day-neutral variety, Seascape, is available from Johnny’s as bare-root plants.
Squash is a plant you might not think about growing in pots because it likes to ramble. But Pinetree’s catalog sells a bush delicata squash called Pepo that it says will produce a lot of fruit in a container – with some hanging over the sides. Delicata, although classified as a winter squash, is not a great keeper so you’ll want to eat it throughout the season, not store it.
One of our favorite vegetables to grow in pots is Bright Lights Swiss chard. It comes with purple, red, pink, yellow and orange stems, and you can mix it in with other ornamentals or vegetables to provide an eye-catching spot of color.
I have written about growing potatoes in bags in the past. Yes, it works, but you’ll get fewer potatoes than you would in the garden. Since my bags are ripping out after about five years, I may give them up this year. But if you grow no other potatoes, try the bags.
Now for one last vegetable to grow in a pot if you are totally lazy and don’t want to fool around with large pots: Arugula. Johnny’s sells 4-inch disks containing about 45 arugula seeds. You fill a six-inch pot with growing mix, place one of the disks on top, cover with a bit of soil or vermiculite, water and put in a warm, sunny place. The arugula will grow three to 10 inches tall, You can eat the leaves as well as the yellow flowers, which provide color as well as flavor to garden salads and stir fries.
Nothing could be easier than that.
Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]