We all want more space. We mostly want more space to grow more stuff, which is especially true for the modern homesteader, mainly because space can be hard to come by. If you live in a city with bustling sprawl, but are looking to live the life of a homesteader, this feeling is probably common.
This is why I rely heavily on container gardening. I don’t have a lot of space, but what I do have is a lot of ambition. And I have the internet, where I can see the ingenuity of others using their space in ways I might otherwise miss, which is exactly what container gardening did until a few years ago.
Growing vegetables in containers provides, if I’m allowed to make a bold statement, the most control you can get from your gardening experience. You can control the exact soil and water conditions, the exact amount of sun, wind, and rain the plant receives, and whether the free-charging creatures are able to make a meal out of whatever you decide to cultivate.
You can grow food anywhere that is large enough to hold a 5 gallon bucket. This opens up many places where a raised bed wouldn’t do well and a ground level garden isn’t an option. In a perfect world, every unused parking lot in mainland North America would host a container garden, but we’re not there yet, so let’s start with the space we have and the varieties of vegetables available to us.
The best products for your pots
Vegetables have come a long way, and these days it’s possible to find a variety of pretty much anything that will grow very well in containers. Pumpkins, eggplants, cucumbers, carrots and even corn can find their place in vegetable gardens. In fact, rather than taking up space in my gardens by planting rows of potatoes, I choose to plant them inside bins with a few dozen holes drilled in the bottom to allow for drainage. Carrots, beets, beans, radishes, kale, lettuce, squash, the list is endless. We don’t even get into the topic of tropical and non-tropical fruit trees and shrubs.
The reality is that through genetic diversification, plants that once needed a lot of space have been transformed into plants that don’t. You may find that container-specific vegetables fix the space problem by sacrificing the size of the individual vegetable harvested. So how do you create a successful setup?
First, we need to understand what makes a given pot or container ideal for growing vegetables. I use the term “container” loosely because just about anything that can hold soil could potentially be classed as a container. For example, while I use a lot of 5 gallon buckets to grow my tomatoes each year, which leaves more room in my raised beds for other vegetables, I also tend to plant my potatoes dirt in my Rubbermaid trash cans, which I mentioned earlier. The potatoes are doing very well, the space in the beds is saved and everyone is happy. Recently I have also started using empty chicken feed bags as containers, with great success.
But let’s just say you have a bunch of big pots from a local garden center. Next comes the task of figuring out what you want to grow there and making the necessary purchases. Different plants have different requirements, but I’ll use the example of carrots to better articulate what needs to be done.
Carrots are a relatively deep rooted plant. We know this because we know what the root looks like, so right away we also know that we need a vertical container. We find our perfect container and learn what carrots need for ideal growth. Carrots do best in loose, well-drained soil with mixed sand and compost in the top 10 inches. Next, we find our ideal carrot variety, perhaps one that doesn’t root as deeply but has a fairly thick diameter.
A packet of seeds, a few bags of soil and compost later (don’t forget a few handfuls of sand have been mixed in) and the carrots are planted. Four weeks later they’ve sprouted a lot and we’re thinning them out to discourage competition that might result in smaller carrots.
Soil and Sun Autonomy
One of the best things about growing food in containers is that you have complete control over soil conditions at all times. This is even more important when looking at soil sensitive plants like blueberries. In recent years, container-specific cultivars like Top Hat Blueberry bushes have appeared on the scene. Because blueberry plants require low pH soil (around 5.5), these requirements are much easier to maintain when the plant is potted in a container. There are also new varieties of blackberry and haskap plants that are perfect for growing in containers, opening up a whole host of new opportunities for the urban homesteader with more concrete than dirt.
The ability to control the exact soil conditions alone makes container gardening a classic method, but add to that the value of mobility. Is the sun drying out the soil too quickly? Simply move the pot to another location where it won’t receive as much direct sunlight during the heat of the day, which is often as simple as moving it to the side of the house. Are pests chewing up those jarred snow peas during the midnight hour? Put them on the deck at night where hungry rabbits can’t reach them. It’s not uncommon for my potted vegetables to move more than half a dozen times during the growing year based on specific requirements that aren’t being met.
Container gardening is a multi-faceted win for the farmer. That being said, since it pays to look at the unused space around your home and consider what you could grow there, chances are that container gardening can fill that space quite well, and the rewards are always worth it.