||Last Updated: Mar 27, 2013 - 9:10:04 AM
Lush gardens and a well-manicured lawn are quintessential to the beauty and charm of this island that we are happy to call Home. But not all soil is created equal!
They say the grass is greener on the other side - and sometimes the flowers are bigger and the veggies more plentiful. But even under ideal conditions, in-ground gardening can be difficult to master, especially in an area such as the Lowcountry where our soil quality ranges from rich to sandy, clay to mud. So before you go running the gamut of soil testing, or resign your gardening aspirations to a Topsy-Turvy® tomato hanger, read through these tips about the fad of container gardening – a fun and versatile way to flex your green thumb regardless of climate or yard space!
We all tried to grow an avocado when we were kids. Skewered with toothpicks and suspended over a glass of water, most avocado pits never made it past their first few stem sprouts before being mysteriously swept away with the rest of the kitchen scraps. Seedlings deserve to be treated better!
Below are just a few tips to help you successfully store and sow your seeds:
• Seeds decline in germination more quickly in humid conditions. To get the most out of your seeds from one year to the next, store the packets in sealed jars with a drying agent, such as rice or table salt, poured into the bottom. Another idea is to label re-sealable sandwich bags with individual seeds, and store the sealed bags in the refrigerator.
• A simple math problem can help you test the viability of old seed packets. Label a re-sealable sandwich bag for each variety of seed that you need to test, writing the current date and name of the seed. Fold ten seeds of each variety into their own damp paper towel, and place into their respective sandwich bag. Once you can count the seeds that have begun to germinate, multiply that number by ten to determine the percentage of successful germinations. If it is below 40%, it’s time to toss the remaining seeds; between 40-60%, the seeds are viable, but should be sown thickly; 70% or higher is ideal.
• A common difficulty that novice gardeners face early on is the transfer of their seedling plants into bigger pots or other containers. Instead of using flimsy plastic trays, use the rind of a lemon, orange or grapefruit! Simply cut the citrus in half and scoop out the fruit, leaving the peel intact. Generously fill the rind with potting soil and your seeds, and set aside. Once the seedlings begin to sprout, you can put the entire thing into the soil of your larger container. The peel will compost directly into the soil, providing additional nutrients for your plant as it grows.
CONTAINER GARDENING – General Things to Know
Whether you are working with the space of an apartment balcony, or you simply enjoy the look and hobby of container gardening, there are a few basic tips and tricks that you can follow to help ensure that your efforts yield the most return – from fresh cut flowers to your own vegetable crop!
The number and mature size of your plants will determine the size of the containers that you will use. In general, you will want containers anywhere from 15 to 120 quarts in capacity.
• Wood: Containers made out of wood have good water retention, but may also become prone to rotting. If there is a wooden container that you are just in love with, treat it with preservatives but be careful to avoid penta, creosote and other toxic compounds.
• Terra Cotta: These containers are very popular for their aesthetically pleasing qualities, but it is terra cotta’s porous qualities that dry out soil, thereby making it a poor choice. Glazed ceramic containers will work well – just be sure holes are drilled in the bottom to allow for drainage.
• Fiberglass/Resin: Lightweight, affordable and cold weather-resistant, containers made of fiberglass and resin are a nice option and come in a wide variety of styles and designs.
• Plastic: Semi-flexible and excellent at retaining moisture, plastic serves better as a container liner than as the main container, due to its quick deterioration in UV sunlight.
Container gardens heat up, and therefore dry out, much quicker than in-ground gardens. Even when a plant’s care instructions recommend full sun exposure, most container gardens will benefit from a break of the mid-day sun. Additionally, container gardens require more frequent watering; during the hot summer months, some gardens may need to be watered twice a day. To ensure that adequate drainage occurs, set containers on blocks, pavers or bricks (this may also help to reduce rot in wooden containers).
The roots of contained plants are obviously limited in where they can seek out additional foods and nutrients. When starting your container garden, use a good potting soil mix (not garden soil) with peat or vermiculite for extra moisture retention, and a time-released fertilizer to make up for the nutrients that your plants’ roots would otherwise be able to find on their own.
You can grow just about anything in a container garden, so if you have bad luck with the traditional flower route or you just want the freshest produce around, vegetables tend to be hardy plants that often bode well in a container setting.
Cruciferous veggies, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbages, grow best in a ratio of one plant per five-gallon pot. Beets, most beans, carrots, radishes, yellow and white onions, spinach and a wide variety of lettuces all tend to thrive in five-gallon window boxes. Peppers, squash and zucchini all grow well in two-gallon pots; cucumbers need only one gallon, while eggplants typically require a three-gallon pot.
Tomato plants require more attention than other vegetables, but under the right conditions, they can really flourish. Below are five quick tips for growing abundant tomato plants:
• Container tomato plants can grow two to three feet in height (or more, depending on the variety), so you will want to invest in large containers for these guys. Look for containers that are at least one to two square feet in size.
• Plant your tomatoes deep. Roots will sprout along the buried stem, providing the extra strength needed to survive hot temperatures and to support more fruit. If you are working with a shallow pot, you can lay the plant on its side with the growing end pointed up, and bury it five to six inches deep into the soil. If you have a deep enough pot, bury the plant two-thirds of the way down into the potting soil (for example: if you have a ten-inch plant, only three inches should show above the soil).
• Add a slow-release fertilizer to your tomato plant’s potting soil. Espoma Tomato-tone® is an organic fertilizer designed specifically for tomato plants, and can be bought at Walmart or Home Depot stores.
• Tomatoes are picky when it comes to their water; the soil should be kept moist, but not wet. Water in the morning when outdoor plants use their water more efficiently. Be sure to water the actual soil, not the plant.
• Tomato plants love the sun! Place your container in an area that will receive six to eight hours of full sunlight each day. It is important to note that tomato plants also enjoy heat, so they should not be placed or left outside if temperatures are going to dip below 50°F.
An herb garden is probably the simplest and most quickly rewarding of container garden projects. While they thrive with eight hours of sunlight outdoors, they also do well indoors, granted that they are placed in a sunny spot. Most herbs require drier soil conditions, and yield their strongest flavors and fragrance when grown without the use of fertilizers. Using a soilless potting mix provides essential drainage, and allows room for roots to spread.
If you are planning an outdoor herb garden, plastic containers work the best. Clay and ceramic pots are susceptible to cracking with changes in temperature, so save those materials for the indoor container herbs.
To get started, here is a list of herb standards that are sure to get your container gardening project off to a bountiful start!
• Rosemary: Dry, sunny and hot are this herb’s preferred conditions. The key to steady growth is a quick-draining potting soil.
• Mint: This is a very adaptable herb that can thrive in many different types of soil, and in partial shade or full sun.
• Marjoram: A sweeter version of oregano, this herb does well with full sun and quick-drying soil.
• Lavender: This aromatic perennial prefers drier soil and full sun. Fertilizer should absolutely be avoided.
• Chives: These hollow-leaf perennials are a fairly hardy herb. They prefer full sunlight but can happily grow in some amount of shade. Organic-rich soil will boost their growth rate, and as an added bonus, the pink flowers that bloom in spring are edible!
• Cilantro: Also known as coriander, this herb requires a container at least twelve inches deep, due to its long taproot. Well-drained soil and a fair amount of sun complete cilantro’s ideal conditions.
Without a doubt, the most popular type of container gardening in Charleston has to be the flower window box. Window box arrangements can be found in all parts of town, whether lining the sides of a centuries-old church, welcoming guests to a historic hotel, adorning the fronts of antebellum homes, or clinging precariously from the bedroom windows of college housing.
Follow these suggestions to arrange and grow your own flower window box!
• Drainage holes are essential. Whether you are using a distressed wooden box or a basket lined with sphagnum moss, your arrangement needs to be able to drain excess water. Most store-bought window boxes will already have the drainage holes drilled out. Add a one-inch layer of rocks along the bottom of your box to assist with the drainage process.
• Depending on their size at maturation, plants should typically be placed two to five inches apart. Tall plants should be placed along the back, closest to the wall that the box is braced against, while trailing plants should go along the front or sides. The rest can be filled in with fluffier foliage.
• The key to a great looking window box arrangement is crowding – the fuller, the better! Start now with spring flowers such as daffodils, lilies, hyacinths and tulips. Violas and pansies add a nice pop of color and fill in spaces nicely. As plants finish blooming, don’t be afraid to replace them. And as the spring gives way to the summer, switch up the arrangement completely! White caladium, ivy and white petunias combine for a fresh and classy summer look.
• Get creative! The possibilities with a window box arrangement are virtually limitless, and not just with the expanse of flowers that are available through local florists. Add berries and vines for a unique look, or plants with bold leaves and other uncommon foliage to add a variety of texture. You could even plant an all-herb window box! The one thing you do not want to do, however, is to combine plants that have different cultural requirements: exposure to light, watering needs and pH balance. Living together in such close quarters, window box plants need to be of similar culture in order to survive.
• Whatever you choose to grow, you must tend to your window box just as you would any in-ground garden with regular waterings and fertilization. Similar to other container gardens, window boxes have the tendency to lose moisture quicker than in-ground plants.