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Posted May 1, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Container gardens offer portable spaces for growing produce

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Imagine a lush vegetable garden growing just beyond your window, offering fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans and herbs.

A nice dream, certainly, but what about those people who don't have a yard, or time to spend gardening, or any prior gardening experience?

Cue the container garden -- a collection of tiny, portable patches of earth perfect for growing just a few plants wherever you have room for them, like on a balcony, in a couple of windows or spaced among the tulips and marigolds and in your flower garden.

The most difficult part of planning a garden might be choosing what to grow, but after that important decision, the rest can be as simple as you want it to be.

Pick your place

What you decide to grow can determine where your garden should go. Cabbage, spinach and lettuce grow well in colder weather and do well outside in the spring and fall.

Other veggies, like tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash, prefer the longer days and warmer weather. If you choose for your garden to be outdoors, or to move indoor plants outside, you still have a couple of weeks to prepare.

Despite how warm some spring days might be, many gardeners around the region wait to plant until May 15 -- the last day for early morning frost in this area, according to Peter Weber, manager of Weber's Nursery & Garden Center on Martinsburg Pike in Winchester. He explains that vegetables growing before that date are at risk for dying early.

The easiest thing for beginners to do is to buy vegetable plants at the store to transplant at home, rather than starting from seeds, Weber says.

Another option for beginners is to use an Earth Box, which Weber's sells for about $54 and is designed to hold more water than traditional flowerpots. Earth Boxes are 3 feet long and 1 foot deep, and come with fertilizer. The buyer decides which plants he or she wants to plant in them. The boxes are big enough for two large vegetable plants like tomatoes or peppers, Weber says, and are easier to use.

"It'll take off a whole lot faster and won't be near enough trouble," he says of the vegetable plants.

If using your own flowerpots, Weber recommends using 5-gallon pots -- about a foot around.

Tomatoes are an easy plant to work with, he says, but they take up a lot of room and should each have a flowerpot of their own. Weber recommends allowing for one separate type of vegetable in each pot, except for herbs, which will grow easily in the same pot with many other herbs. Those working with herbs can also be more creative with the look of the container garden, experimenting with plants of different heights and colors. Different sized and colored pots can all offer interest to the side of a deck or patio, even if each pot holds only one plant.

Expect most tomato plants to grow to about 6 feet high, Weber says.

"Tomatoes just take over," he says; one plant per pot is enough, he explains. When it comes to other vegetables, planting two seeds in each pot just to be sure is a good idea, he says.

To ensure you will have enough vegetables all season, try staggering the dates of when you plant different varieties of produce. Weber says planting vegetables about two to three weeks apart will keep your garden full all summer and into fall. Produce should be fine outside until the first frost in autumn, Weber says.

He does not recommend growing most vegetables inside without a sun room.

"Most people don't have a sunny enough spot to do that [inside]," he says. The exception is herbs, which he says will flourish indoors if placed in a sunny window.

Feed and fertilize

The right fertilizer can make all the difference in how vegetables will turn out.

Tomato plants, for instance, will not flower with just any plant fertilizer.

"[People] definitely want to use a fertilizer for tomatoes, or else they won't grow fruit," Weber says. "A lot of stuff won't flower if it doesn't have to."

He recommends using Miracle Grow fertilizer for all vegetables and herbs; if growing tomatoes, opt for Miracle Grow for Tomatoes, he says.

Garden-tone by Espoma is another type of fertilizer he recommends -- an organic plant food that gardeners can sprinkle around the base of the plant after using Miracle Grow to provide continuous feeding to the plant. The Web site for Espoma, www.espoma.com, also lists Tomato-tone for those finicky tomatoes.

"Check water every day to every other day," Weber says. Container gardens dry out really fast because they are so small, he says.

"Especially in a pot, you use a lot of water."

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