Originally published in Natural Life magazine.
It is vitally important that our children have access to fresh, wholesome, affordable and tasty food. The freshest food is local food. Food from the earth, not wrapped in plastic from a store. The most local is our own backyard, balcony, or a school or community garden.
Potted gardens are quick to establish. They are ideal for those renting, living in small spaces, with changeable weather or anyone just starting out. This is possibly the perfect ‘garden’ for small children because they are so defined and more easily controlled than a traditional vegetable plot. You may have some space on your rooftop, balcony or steps to begin or add to your garden right away with pots.
On our family’s farm with hectares of arable land we grow a lot of our food plants in containers because they are easy to manage. I can move them around to suit the weather, the drainage is excellent, they are more easily protected from free-ranging chickens and wildlife, there are virtually no weeds to deal with, and they are an ideal size for little ones to access. We also have gardens in the ground and some raised beds, but plenty of our food is raised in pots and boxes right now.
You can use regular plant pots and hanging baskets – often available through Freecycle or otherwise recycled. Polystyrene or waxed boxes in which produce is transported, or other re-useable containers from around your home are also suitable. Plants be raised to different heights, depending on each one’s needs. Containers can also be decorated with paint and other water-resistant finishes if required.
If you have the space and want to progress to bigger containers, old bathtubs and cut-down rainwater tanks make excellent vessels for almost every type of vegetable plant. I have admired container gardens created with old boots, tea pots, sinks, troughs, watering cans, bowls, baskets, parts from large appliances, wheelbarrows, wading pools, pipes, cars, barrels, toilets and buckets. It’s amazing how attractive ‘garbage’ can be with trailing nasturtiums, sweet fat strawberries begging to be picked, or a jungle of green leafy vegetables and herbs to snack upon. Choose containers to compliment each plant in function and aesthetics. Set them up securely and safely so that no one will trip on them, and so there’s no danger of small children or pets toppling the pots over.
Regular garden soil alone doesn’t do well in pots. We use a combination of planting material, placed in layers. At the base of a vessel some sand or gravel will ensure proper drainage. Another benefit of gravel is that it is usually rich in minerals. On top of that we add some well-rotted manure, leaf mulch, hay from the hen house, dried grass clippings or compost. Next, I mix in some local soil because of the microbes it contains. Finally, I spread some quality organic potting mix on the top because it’s the ideal medium for sprouting seeds. If I had enough compost, I wouldn’t need to buy the potting mix, but creating enough compost is the struggle of many a gardener!
I feed the plants in our pots and boxes every two weeks throughout the growing season. A seaweed concentrate is the most efficient and readily-available fertiliser for this type of garden. I also use store-bought organic manure and mineral pellets with success. Here we’ve been experimenting with using manure from our own animals, comfrey and ‘weed’ teas as well.
Ideal first foods to grow include peas and beans, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, radish, herbs, salad mixes and fruits such as gooseberries and strawberries. Simple varieties, properly cared for, will ensure a quick harvest. This enhances the gardener’s understanding, self-confidence and enjoyment.
When watering container plants the best method is to give plants a good drink when the top centimetre of the soil feels dry. With a spray attachment on the hose or watering can, water gently until the soil seems soaked through. It’s best not to allow much water to collect in saucers underneath. Water requirements will be obviously more in hot weather, and it’s important never to let the containers dry out. Smaller pots and hanging baskets require more regular watering, so planting several types of plants in a larger container will be more time-efficient with regard to daily care.
Combining various species within the one box will also ensure you take advantage of space, enable companion planting, and can look more attractive. A medium bush variety of tomato, staked in the centre of a large pot would do well with some parsley, shallots, petunias and other low-growing plants placed around it. In our symbiotic container garden, mint rambles around the base of pineapples, miniature lettuce crowd around purple climbing beans, perennial spinach creeps under broccoli plants and cress crowds some cabbages. The nitrogen-fixing plants feed other species, and the herbs and onion species keep pests away from the leafy greens and soft fruits. Another benefit of containing some plants is that you can prevent them from spreading through garden beds.
Even if you’ve never grown anything before, learn beside your little ones. Sharing this knowledge now could foster a lifelong interest in gardening, a forgotten skill that could soon become essential.
The Edible Container Garden by Michael Guerra, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, ISBN 0-684-85461-9