Focus on One: Grow Your Own

photo(1)This is the time of year when gardeners get the itch. We’ve had a fairly mild winter, and some very warm weather recently here in the Mid- Atlantic States. The urge to plant things has become almost insatiable, especially when you love to Grow Your Own!

But I must exercise caution. Looking ahead to the weather forecast this week, I see night temperatures in the 20’s. Crestfallen, I wonder if I will lose all of the blossoms on my apple tree and make a mental note that on top of everything else I need to do tomorrow, I must get out and push straw over my strawberry plants so they don’t get nipped by the impending frost.

And while I may be a slave to the weather, I feel an incredible sense of empowerment about food when I have grown it myself. As soon as I say this, I brace myself for the defensive responses:

  • “I have a black thumb.”
  • “I live in an apartment and don’t have anywhere to grow anything.”
  • “I don’t have time to maintain a garden.”
  • “I don’t like getting dirty, and I might break a nail.”

Gardening does not have to be a huge undertaking. You don’t even have to be particularly good at plants. But you will need to get dirt on your hands – at least once! Don’t think about gardening in traditional terms. Think smaller is better. For the past few years, rather than having one big garden, I have been cultivating in long narrow beds that once had flowers. Instead of a border of zinnias, I look at a border of tomatoes.

But that won’t work for everyone, either, especially if you don’t have any ground. The solution to this problem is containers. Container gardening is becoming very popular because it is much, much easier to take care of containers.

Choosing Containers: You can put plants in just about any concave item, as long as it is large enough for root growth and has drainage. There are many great ideas out on the web. I love recycling things and three of my favorite containers are recycled water bottles. Using the techniques here for seed starter pots made from small bottles, I used the bottles from the big water cooler at work.

The containers can be used to brighten up corners, or define spaces, the same as you would with flowers, but instead of the six-pack of pansies, you can grow any number of herbs such as basil and cilantro. Perennial herbs, like oregano, can be left in the pots, and will come back year after year. Window or banister boxes are great for growing lettuces early in the season before it gets too hot. Then they can be replaced with herbs.

If you have the space for larger containers, you can grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, or even potatoes! Depending on varieties and your preferences, plants can trail their vines or be trained on fences or trellises. A friend of mine had these rather large planter boxes that ran down one side of her deck. When she moved into her house, they were planted with half dead shrubs and ornamental grasses. We spent a long weekend tearing all of that out, and carting dirt in. That summer she grew tomatoes, peppers, and carrots.

While I consider my containers low maintenance, they are by no means No-maintenance. Because the eco-system of a container is not the same as the eco-system of a garden, the containers will need a little help from you. In the garden, if things get dry, roots can go deep to get to the moisture. That is not the case in a container – there is only so deep a root can go. Therefore, you must be sure that the containers are getting enough water.

Also, there are a limited number of nutrients available in the soil in a pot, so I would recommend fertilizing regularly. This is what I use: I take a heaping scoop of compost in a bucket and then fill the bucket with water and let it sit in a shady spot for 3 or 4 days. Strain the liquid by carefully pouring it through a fine sieve, or an old colander lined with cheese-cloth or a piece of old cotton sheet. Dilute it with more water until it looks like tea your grandmother makes using two dunks of a bag (that she will use at least 16more times). Use this “tea” to water the plants. Water around the edges of the container.

The other bonus is that if you plant early, and then find that there is frost in your forecast, containers can be moved inside, or easily covered for protection.

Even if you have never grown a thing in your life, here is this month’s focus: Figure out one thing to grow that you can eat: whether it is basil on the banister, a tomato on the terrace, or a pepper on the patio. Things taste better super fresh, and it is fun to eat something your grew yourself.