Grow a garden on your porch: Don’t let limited space or bad soil rob you of the money-saving benefits of growing your own produce
By Wendy Thomas
When we moved to New Hampshire we had grand thoughts of creating a garden that would provide our family with plenty of food. At the end of our first season, however, all we got was one anemic zucchini. We hadn’t factored in the years of acid build-up in our soil from the tall pines surrounding our property.
Unless we wanted to spend a lot of money trucking in soil, a large garden was just not in our future, but that didn't mean we still couldn't have fresh vegetables and herbs. We turned instead to growing our produce in containers on our back porch.
Type of container You can spend lots of money buying planters specialized for container growing or you can be creative and just use what you have around the house. Literally anything that can hold soil will work. I’ve seen plants in traditional clay pots, sneakers, and even in old tires and bathtubs. Half whiskey barrels, black plastic pots and bushel baskets can also be used.
A standard type pot, the same height as diameter, with a diameter of at least 12 inches is a nice easy container. A plastic pot will not dry out as rapidly as a clay pot and will require less watering. It is essential to have drainage holes in the bottom or root rotting will occur. Place a round fiberglass screen of the same shape and size as the pot in the bottom to prevent soil from washing out of the holes and to bar the entry of pests into the pot.
The biggest advantage to container growing is that you can grow your plants just about anywhere in the yard providing they get at least 8 hours of sunlight. They can be easily moved as needed: Into the shade when it's too hot and into the sun as the season progresses and sunny areas become overshadowed by trees, shrubs or walls. The disadvantage to container growing is you have to watch the watering more closely as the plants are above ground and dry out quickly.
Soil mix Plants in a container will need a soil that is loose, filled with nutrients, and has the ability to remain hydrated. Potting soil from a gardening store is a good start. If you can mix that with some compost, all the better. Soil taken directly from your yard should be avoided as it could be infested with soil pests, and chances are it will be too dense.
Add a slow release fertilizer to the container soil by following label recommendations. This provides additional nutrients slowly over a longer period when there is active growth and vegetable production.
Although not necessary some people like to include water holding gels or hydrogels to help reduce the watering requirements of container plants. These gels are either separate and can be added to the soil mix or can already be included in the mix. The gels help to retain moisture in the soil until it is needed by the plant.
Porch vegetables When garden space is limited, certain varieties of cucumbers, peppers, squash and tomatoes can be easily grown in large containers with plants still producing close to the same amount as garden planted varieties. To be successful you must first choose those varieties suitable for growing in containers. These varieties generally have a reduced growth habit and will not grow too large for a container. Read the seed packet information to determine whether the cucumbers and squash varieties are suitable for container gardening. Most varieties of peppers and tomatoes will be just fine. Pepper and tomato seeds can be started indoors in individual pots or in peat pellets as early as mid-March to April. You can also purchase already started plants in May/June. Cucumber and zucchini can be planted directly into the container as they are more difficult to transplant. These seeds can be sown early to mid-May.
For a fall crop, plant cucumber and squash seeds in early July. This produces a September harvest when the earlier plantings are beginning to decline. The potted plants can be moved into the garage during our early New Hampshire frosty fall nights, which will extend the harvest into November.
Bagged tomatoes I'm sure you've seen those upside-down tomatoes growing devices on TV. If you want to make your own inexpensive version, take a plastic coated bag (one of those reusable ones sold at grocery stores works well) and make a few puncture holes for drainage. Cut a hole in its base large enough to pass a plant root system through. Re-enforce the hole with a layer of plastic canvas to make sure that the opening does not rip and the early plant does not fall out.
Insert a tomato plant through the hole, making sure the root system is well within the bag. Fill the bag with good potting soil and hang high enough that the plant can freely grow. Water, fertilize, and check sunlight and shade, as you would for any other container garden.
Kitchen herbs Is there anything better than using fresh herbs in a recipe? Herbs are perfect for growing in containers and have the added bonus that they can be moved indoors during the winter to keep you in constant culinary bliss.
A few different herbs can be grown in the same pot, or you can simply use one herb per container. Some herbs are particularly invasive and are best grown in a pot by themselves; examples are mints, thyme, oregano, etc.
Generally, a light open soil/compost mix is preferred. Do not plant too many herbs per container; instead opt for more pots because herbs tend to increase in size and may take over (think weeds).
Caring for container herbs: Potted herbs need good drainage. Be sure to check often for dryness and water them accordingly. Pot-grown plants need occasional fertilization. Fertilize outdoor pots at least once mid-season with a good organic fertilizer. However, be extra cautious in fertilization since in most cases, less is more. Over fertilization of herbs results in weak growth and reduces the oils that give the herbs flavor. Regular pruning of herbs promotes fresh and vigorous growth. Use your herbs regularly to keep them pruned. Freeze or dry extra cuttings for off-season use. Most herbs have few problems with pests and disease. Regular weeding, proper watering and frequent use usually eliminates any pests and diseases herbs may encounter. Harvest herbs in the morning when moisture and fragrance are at their peak. However, wait to harvest until after dew has dried.
Potatoes in a bag Although growing your potatoes in a large trash bag may not be the most attractive container on your porch, it's certainly one of the easiest ways to have your own potatoes with very little work. Your kids will be amazed at what little pieces of cut-up potatoes will end up producing.
To grow potatoes in a bag: About a week before planting, place seed potatoes in a warm spot. When the sprouts that form are about 1/4" to 1/2" long, the potatoes are almost ready to plant. Cut large seed potatoes into chunks about 2" wide. Each piece should have at least two sprouts. After cutting the seed potatoes, let them sit at room temperature for two or three days.
Use a pair of scissors to cut several drainage holes in the bottom of a 30-gallon black plastic trash bag. Roll down the sides of the bag and fill about one-third of the way up with potting soil. Place the bag in an area of the garden that receives full sun.
Plant the seed potatoes by burying them, eyes pointed up, about 2" deep in the soil. Water well.
When the potato plants get about 6" to 8" tall, add more soil to the bag. Add enough soil so just the top few leaves poke through the dirt. As the potato plants grow, continue to unroll the bag and add more soil. Keep the potatoes well watered but not soggy.
One clue that the potatoes are almost ready to harvest is that the leaves will yellow and the foliage will die back. At this point stop watering and leave the potatoes alone for two or three weeks so that their skins toughen up. To harvest, slit open the side of the bag to release the potatoes.
Additional information For more information on container gardening, go to the UNH Cooperative Extension ebsite and click on Home & Garden Fact Sheets.
Wendy Thomas lives in Merrimack with her husband and six children, and has been published in various regional magazines and newspapers. Check out her blog, Simple Thrift-Creative Living on Less, at http://simplethrift.wordpress.com.