Auyanna McBride navigated gardening conditions in four countries when her husband was in the military, and she adapted even when she had only a postage stamp of outdoor space.
Her solution: container gardening.
“I have been gardening for over 20 years, and one of the things I tell people is, it doesn’t matter the amount of space,” says McBride, an accountant and gardener who has settled in Hinesville, Georgia, with her retired husband and a lot of plants. “Many times we didn’t have a yard. We mainly stayed in apartment-style buildings, but I would figure out a way to grow.”
McBride became so adept that she now has her own YouTube channel, called Southern Entertaining. She offers videos, books and courses for growing vegetables and fruits in raised beds and containers like the ones that have overtaken most of her back yard.
“I could really fill up more,” she says. “Why not have containers on the patio?”
Experts like McBride say container gardening is not only an easy, portable way to jump into gardening but also an efficient use of whatever space you have, be it a yard, patio or sunny window. Almost any container will do, whether it’s a plastic 5-gallon bucket or a ceramic heirloom. Just make sure the container is the right size for the plant and has holes for drainage. If you’re growing food, make sure the container is lead-free.
To get started, keep some basics in mind.
- Grow what you like. Don’t waste resources and space on something you won’t eat, says Whitney Wade, a garden teacher and coach who owns Plant Grow Eat, a garden service in Los Angeles. She sets up container gardens for clients and schools while growing the things she likes – vegetables, flowers and even fruit trees – in containers at home. “I have a garden that I’m installing for someone next week. She doesn’t want tomatoes, but everyone else, it’s tomato season,” says Wade. So if you only want herbs, stick with that.
- Pick the right plants. A common mistake is to pick a plant that will grow too big for your chosen container, says Megan Will, the master gardener coordinator in Dallas County for Iowa State University Extension. Buy plant varieties labeled for containers, and don’t crowd them. “[Gardeners] may have that 5-gallon bucket and they get a little bush-style or patio-style tomato plant, but then like, ‘Oh, but it’s so tiny in here. Let me throw some basil around it or lettuce around it,’ ” Will says. “Somebody’s going to lose. It’s better to put that basil ... in its own pot.”
- Use the right soil. Be sure to use potting soil, which is relatively light. Avoid garden soil or topsoil, which will compact in a container, experts say. And don’t scrimp. “All potting soil is not equal,” McBride says. “So you want to get you the good-quality potting soil, maybe even with some nutrients in there already to start off so that you can set your plant up for success.”
- Water wisely. Never sprinkle or spray water from the top down on container plants, Will says. “Number one, half of that water isn’t even going to get in the pot because it’s just dripped over the sides and you’ve unnecessarily watered your foliage,” she says. “Push away any branches you have, and get it right down there at the soil level.” Then water until liquid comes out the bottom of the container. A layer of mulch on top of the soil will mean less water and weeds in large containers, she says. And keep the type of container in mind. Terra-cotta pots, for example, will dry out more quickly than plastic, notes Wade.
- Give it a boost. Containers depend on the gardener for nutrients, so McBride adds a slow-release organic fertilizer to her pots. She gives heavy feeders like tomatoes and cucumbers a boost of liquid fertilizer every month.
- Keep watch. Make it a habit to check on your plants for water and pests, says McBride. “I like to walk out in the garden at least once a day, check my leaves, check under my leaves, look at the plants. If there’s some pest, that’ll give you a time frame of when it started. Often we can have fungal diseases that just show up overnight.”
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Ask at your garden center or extension service for recommendations for container plants; there are new varieties every year as growers develop varieties that produce more in a smaller space. Experts say the following five categories usually do well:
“They can just go in little plastic pots. You can even use those little window boxes,” Will says. A container also will control an herb like mint that can become invasive in a garden.
The right container variety will produce plenty, says Will, who got 23 pounds of tomatoes from one Tasmanian Chocolate heirloom tomato plant, a variety designed for containers.
3. Lettuce and other greens
Lettuce is “really easy,” says McBride, and it’s great for spring and fall. Other greens such as kale, small-headed cabbage varieties like Katrina, and baby bok choy also do well in containers.
Strawberry plants are inexpensive enough to treat as an annual, Will says, and can even be grown in hanging baskets. Growing them yourself also means you control pesticides and fertilizers, she adds. “Here in Iowa garden centers, you get a six-pack of strawberries for $12.99. But then those strawberries will produce generally more than $12.99 worth of what you would’ve bought in the store, and it’s right on your patio.”
5. Fruit trees and vines
Wade and McBride both grow fruit trees in containers, including apple, plum, peach, fig and citrus, although admittedly they use large containers. McBride also grows grapes. “We actually have a variety called Pixie Grapes. They’re bred for containers; we get a few clusters every year,” she says.
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine as well as her local NPR station, among other outlets.