They cannot be contained (except when they can…)

Hello to our fellow denizens of the soil, tenders of the garden! Our plants are loving this weather and are growing with purpose, enjoying these temperatures and humidity far more than I am, where the sun and the temperatures provide a persuasive reason for staying in the shade and air conditioning. Not even the hot weather has been able to keep us away from our burgeoning harvest, as we have been able to pick peas and radishes, cut garlic scapes, and tend to the beds to ensure the plants, especially the finicky peppers, can grow as much as they can during these stretches of ideal weather.

In addition to our beds, we are growing plants in containers. We have several, which adds an extra dimension to what is already a challenging enough pursuit. Unlike a garden bed, you do not have as much control over the environmental variables you can expose your plants to nor do you have as many options for maintaining growth. Once it’s in a pot, it’s in a pot. About all you can do is water and fertilize it. You do not have the relative freedom provided by a bed: fewer ways to control moisture levels, limited space for roots to grow, better exposure to the environment. Containers do have one obvious advantage though. You can physically move them. Not getting enough sun or water? Maybe the other side of the deck is better. Not getting enough nutrients? All of that fertilizer is going to one plant.

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The pros and cons of beds versus containers is one where the pros are firmly in favor of the bed, but you can still have success with a container. Living in rental apartments over the last few years has forced us to learn the best practices of container gardening, lest I end up empty handed. Other than large heirlooms, which I have given up all hope on successfully cultivating in a container, I’ve had varying levels of success. From an over wintered habanero to an especially precocious bell pepper plant, it is possible to have a good harvest even if it has to be done on your back porch or in your front window. Here are a few of the most important things I’ve noted from my attempts the last few years, bountiful and futile alike:

  1. Water. Unlike in a bed, where it’s hard to over water to the point of killing them because it’ll run off, if the pot is not well drained or in the sun, it’ll stay moist a lot longer than a bed will, meaning root rot is a distinct possibility. Only water when you are sure the dirt is completely dry or the plant has begun to wilt.
  2. Sunlight. This is one area where containers can be better than gardens. You have to work within the limitations of your space, but you can sometimes better accommodate the light needs of your plants because of the portability of pots.
  3. Fertilizer. This is a the toughest part and the lesson it took me the longest to learn. Even an unfertilized garden will have nutrients passing into the soil consistently from organic matter, worms, animals, and more entering the ecosystem. A pot is a relatively self-contained environment. Once the nutrients from the soil are gone, they’re gone and if your plants runs out of nutrients while it’s trying to fruit, you’ll be out of luck.
  4. Pot size. This is one case where bigger is better. Never underestimate the ability of a plant to grow roots. In a garden bed they’ll be able to go down as deep as they need, but in a container they’ll be constrained. Use as a big of a pot as you can manage to give your plant the most room to expand. Not to mention a bigger pot will hold more nutrients, decreasing the amount you need to fertilize.
  5. Optimism. Sometimes you just need to keep at it and hope for the best. Last year we had a black bell pepper that put out three delicious peppers by August and then nothing. We kept at it, watering and fertilizing regularly, and got another dozen peppers before the first frost.

Does anyone out there have any tips for container gardening? I’d love to be able to grow full-size heirloom tomatoes some year! Until next time!

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A Dream of Spring

This weekend was the beginning of the spring season here.  Sure, the official start was about two weeks ago, but for me spring doesn’t really get going until my eyes are itching and my nose is congested from allergies.  Fortunately, the outburst of tree pollen fades in short order and the increasing temperatures and sunlight persist for the coming months. Those who live in the north mark their lives through the coming and going of the seasons, an uncertain method matching the uncertainty of our lives.  Sometimes spring comes late, summer is unusually hot, or winter unusually harsh; people come and go, as does work, we move around.  Despite their variability the seasons lend our lives a comforting backdrop.  They happen in a regular order, spring always following winter, giving way to summer, and crisp fall days guide us gently (sometimes not so gently) back into winter.  A predictability all of us crave at times.

Of the four, winter is the most maligned.  It is often considered a period of dormancy for plants and animals alike.  The leaves have left the trees, plants have died, man and animal have either migrated or shifted into a period of relative inactivity, some more than others.  I am one of those who tries to stay active during the winter, picking up winter sports and trying to find the beauty in the outdoors when the weather is inhospitable even if it must happen underneath the protective layers of a thick jacket, hat, and mittens.  I would be lying if I said that the long winter nights and the sometimes unrelenting bleakness did not get to me, especially in those bitterly cold January nights and damp and chilly February days, where spring seems so close yet still so far away.

Taking part in the preparation for planting season this year has changed my opinion on winter being a time of inactivity where rejuvenation awaits the spring thaw.  Watching seeds come to life in mid-February, when the sky is still gray and snow is on the ground, was proof enough for me that winter is as much a time for life as the gentler seasons.  Late winter is when the birds start to come and sing their songs once again, filling the void they left when they went south the previous autumn.  Forest mammals begin to emerge from their winter homes.  Particularly ambitious plants poke up out of the ground. People begin to plan their spring and summer activities knowing that even though they may still seem far away they’ll be here soon enough, often sneaking up without warning. It is thoughts like these that keep me going on those days in the depth of winter and hoping for warmer days, tromping home from work when it’s dark at four in the afternoon or watching from underneath a blanket as my street is buried by yet another snowfall.  Even at its worst, spring is always right around the corner.  Soon these plants, which emerged at the end of winter, will take root in the garden in the spring, grow throughout the summer, and bear fruit in the fall before winter claims them.  Not long after it will be time to plant for another year.

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