All hope isn’t lost for aspiring farmers who lack an abundance of green space. Potted gardens and containers can fill in the gaps for beginners, people with mobility issues and those who don’t have large yards.
But the key to getting container gardening right is to be aware of what you’re planting and for what purposes. Ample water, space and sunlight are essential for any edible crop to prosper — even those in pots.
“I know that sounds crazy, but sunlight is very important,” said Chris Burtt, a horticulture agent for Clemson Cooperative Extension. “And so, when growing in containers, I still need to have plenty of sunlight even if it’s not in the ground.”
Plants grown in containers need more water and fertilizer than those that grow in the ground. Deep pots will help with this. And most edible plants require at least six hours of sunlight each day.
Too little space can also stunt the growth of potted crops. For example, live oaks or other large trees probably won’t thrive in a pot, Burtt said. But smaller varieties including cucumbers, green beans and plants that naturally climb might be ideal. In this case, vertical space would help a great deal.
“Why not create trellises that go up the container, so that way, I only need that small container, but I have all this space above it that I can hang it (the plant) on,” Burtt said.
Foods like sweet potatoes and most melons are probably not best grown in containers. These foods require a lot of space to spread and mature. For instance, in fields, watermelons are typically planted about four feet apart. It could be tough to achieve that distance in pots.
Herbs should be planted in pots that are at least a half-gallon in size. Dwarf cultivars like cabbage, lettuces and peas can grow best in 2-gallon containers. Dwarf carrots, peppers and tomatoes need to be planted in 5-gallon containers that are at least 15 inches wide.
Those who decide to give potted watermelons a try should plant them in 8- to 10-gallon pots, the report said.
Regardless of where the crop is grown, Burtt recommends people get familiar with it before starting the gardening journey. A lot of cool-season crops can be grown directly from seeds. This includes cucumbers, lettuce and spinach, among other foods. Warm-season ones — like peppers, tomatoes and eggplants — grow best as transplants.
To transplant, a plant needs to be clipped from a larger one and replanted, or the seeds can be started separately and then planted in a container.
“The big thing I always tell people, no matter what, is remember that gardening is a trial-and-error process, which means I’m going to mess up,” Burtt said. “I can guarantee you the best experts in the world kill plants just as quickly as the biggest novices.”
Sarah Ruth of Park Circle can attest to this.
“My gardening is hit or miss, too,” Ruth said. “I’m a science teacher, so it’s a big experiment in my backyard.”
Ruth considers herself an organic urban farmer. She grows a variety of crops in pots and raised beds on about one-tenth of an acre.
She enjoys growing perennials that can stay outdoors all year and do fine with quarterly fertilizing. Right now, her backyard is filled with pots of lemons, peaches, clementine, figs, lettuce, strawberries and Jerusalem artichokes, among several other foods and herbs.
Ruth uses permaculture as a guide for her gardening habits. This means she works to mimic her backyard after an actual plant ecosystem. Everything is organic and free of pesticides and herbicides. She creates her own compost to supplement the soil.
Gardening soil should never be used in containers, because it can lead to pests and diseases.
A lot of her pots also contain two of more plants growing together.
Her tip for growing crops in pots is simple. “If they’re producing, if they’re happy, and if they’re healthy, I just leave them,” Ruth said.
Once the crops are harvested, Ruth uses them for food, jam, tea and even medicine.
Ruth said she believes container gardening is the key to getting people to believe they can grow their own food on just a few square feet of land.
Everyone has a “green thumb” if they are willing to learn, Burtt said.
“A dead plant doesn’t mean you’ve completely failed or you don’t know what you’re doing,” Burtt said. “Plants come and go, and what our job is to try to hone our ability to keep plants alive as long as possible.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.