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The portable springtime garden

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass
ALL |

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” A friend of mine has a son named Clayton. When he’s particularly happy with his son’s efforts in life, he’ll smile and affectionately say to him in passing “Clay, your name is mud.” When he is frustrated with his son, he calls for Clayton.

It’s definitely spring, a time known here affectionately as “mud season.” This spring the ground has remained particularly unworkable for gardeners. If you’re unfamiliar with an alpine spring, sporadic snow is also typical of May. Our last frost date precedes summer by a mere five days. If you remain undaunted by that, another hard fact is your backyard may be approximately vertical and composed primarily of a large rock.

Plainly put, if you live here, you’re probably a candidate for container gardening ” which is probably why four people this past week asked me to write about container vegetable gardening.

All of the aforementioned obstacles are not difficult to overcome, and may require all of two minutes planning. You can grow most garden variety produce as easily in pots as in the ground ” except maybe a field of sweet corn and, of course, walnuts.

Seed companies have been working hard to market vegetable- and fruit-bearing produce plants that take up little space to urban residents and condominium and apartment dwellers for some time. It’s a big potential market, and they’re getting better at serving it. However, a large percentage of plants labeled as good for container gardening are just that, good for container gardening. They grow neat and tidy in small spaces. That does not mean they taste good.

That also doesn’t mean they’re all bad. But, there’s a reason a top-selling tomato like Better Boy remains a favorite despite its rangey habit. They do taste good and perform well. Word travels. I don’t think anyone wants to tend a plant all summer only to serve up a tomato that tastes like foam packing peanuts. With some cages, stakes, and plant ties, you don’t have to limit your gardening to only those varieties and types marketed as good for container gardening. The size of your patio might, but the size of your imagination and the scope of your engineering skills is more likely to be your limiting factor.

If you need to economize on space, seek plants that grow into a rounded bush form rather than a rambling vine. Bush-type anything you want to grow will help keep things neat and tidy. The label will state whether a plant is determinate or bush-type, which are terms synonymous to each other. Determinate plants actively grow uniformly from multiple growing points as opposed to one dominant growing point.

They have one potential drawback, though. Their fruit tends to ripen all at the same time. That’s great if you want to can produce one weekend. Not so great if you want homegrown tomatoes in your salad all summer. Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peas all can be purchased in bush form and will stay relatively small and compact. And that’s typically what the seed companies are aiming at when they suggest one plant over another for container gardening – bush-iness.

However, with a trellis or cage affixed to a pot – look out. Now you can expand into the really big vines and larger stuff. With a little engineering, you can maybe grow walnuts – if you’ve got that kind of time. I think not.

There is no one pot size for all plants. As a general rule, to determine the size pot best suited to the crop you want to grow, hark back to your childhood when it was first pointed out that a tree was just as large underground as it is above ground. To size the pot, envision the plant as full grown, or read the label to determine your chosen variety’s full mature size, and use a pot that would accommodate the above ground portion of the plant when it’s fully grown. If you don’t mind watering often, or have irrigation, you can compress that by 25%, or so. The larger the pot, the less frequently it will need watering.

For example, leaf lettuce and spinach can be grown exceedingly well in a six-inch pot. Tomatoes will do better in a pot that’s 20 inches deep and nearly as wide. Peppers require a pot in the 12 inch range. Personally, because you’re going to have to move the pot in and out for a month or so, I’d err on the slightly too small side.

The real advantage of gardening in pots is, to state the obvious, pots are portable. Think of them as mobile homes for plants. If you don’t like the forecast, head ’em up and move ’em in. It’s that simple. Plastic is much lighter than clay or ceramic. Use plastic pots. They’ll be heavy enough to stand without blowing over once you’ve filled them with wet soil. Live on a windy ridge? To add weight, toss in a stone, but you’ll need to increase the size of the pot to make room for the soil displaced. Roots don’t penetrate granite particularly well, and granite doesn’t hold much water.

You’re probably going to be moving your garden around some, maybe into your living room. Plan for that. Spend the extra bucks for the matching saucers, or find one’s that clash but accommodate the bottom of your pots plus two inches, or so, all the way around. Otherwise, plan now on spending any of the grocery money you envision saving on carpet cleaning or floor re-finishing.

There’s dirt involved in vegetable gardening. Most of the time I push people into commercial potting mixes composed primarily of peat moss, but no actual dirt. Earth, real dirt, there for the taking in your yard, or there for the buying at less than $5 for a cubic foot bag at garden centers and box stores everywhere, imparts flavors.

Don’t ask me why dirt makes the taste. There’s a myriad of reasons and I’m not aware of most of them. Kansas State University has an excellent four year program in soil science that will lead you to the questions that may lead you to the questions that may lead you to the gas chromatograph that points in the general direction of the possible answers.

I do know this, though. A Vidalia onion, a trademarked sweet and mellow yellow onion, is nothing more than a Granex Yellow #2 onion grown almost anywhere on Earth. But, if grown in the red, sulfur- and iron-laden clay soils of Vidalia county Georgia, it’s a Vidalia. And that makes all the difference.

Rocky Fork melons, Palisade peaches, Hatch chiles, Olathe sweet corn, Napa Valley cabs and Oregon pinots, need I say more? Put some dirt in those pots – at least 25 percent real earth mixed with a commercial potting mix will impart a little more magic. Using 50 to 100 percent real dirt will probably lead to problems with rooting and disease. But a little dirt is a necessary thing when growing for flavor.

Flavor is what this is all about. Money-saving? Nah. But you never know. Plastic clam-shells of herbs don’t come cheap. If you use herbs regularly, and possess a moderately green thumb, pots of basil, thyme, oregano, cilantro, and rosemary will probably save you a few dollars. Otherwise, you’re probably ahead to shop.

The ability to snatch a few seasonings from a pot growing near the kitchen is more than gratifying. Undoubtedly, you will be a better chef in your own mind, and most likely in the minds of others who have a chance to dine on your freshly-herbed fare. Every home should have a pot of fresh herbs. Period.

One last thing, the high quality of the light at this altitude tends to thicken the skin of fruits and vegetables, as does the cool temperatures. It doesn’t hurt to provide a little shade, filtered light, during the brightest part of the day. Placing a pot near a wall and under an overhang will provide some radiant heat at night. I like to say, anything can be grown with morning light. A little shade past noon will improve the quality of your produce. Not full shade. Think filtered light and utilize heat sinks.

Oh, and think warm thoughts. It can’t hurt.


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