Newbie Lessons about Growing Vegetables in Containers

by Susan Harris

I have a confession to make.  In decades of gardening I never grew a single vegetable or kitchen herb.  I blame this shocking omission in my gardening life on the fact that I don’t enjoy cooking (that’s confession number two, and counting).  But I DO follow what’s going on and in 2009 that included a White House Garden joining the organic and local food movements and the recession to produce lots of new gardeners, mostly kitchen gardeners.

The First Year
So last year I gave in decided to grow my first vegetables, and the best place in my garden for doing that isn’t in the garden at all – it’s on my large, sunny deck (neighbors have dubbed it the “aircraft carrier”).   Til then, my container plantings had been perfect for a “low-maintenance gardener” (someone my mother would have called lazy)  – all succulents.  Anybody can keep them alive, right?  (Very little schlepping of water was required. )  But vegetables?  I’d heard they needed actual watering.

So I bought some “self-watering” containers, which actually don’t self-water but DO hold a lot of water in their reservoir, which allows a gardener to, say, leave town for a weekend without hiring a waterer.   On my deck, with no hose  nearby, a lot of schlepping was still required to fill those reservoirs, but it was totally worth it for the glorious produce and fun of it all.

First, about the fun.  Even this supposedly seasoned gardener was floored by how fast these plants grow, and how exciting it is to watch them do develop.   And it turned out that – knock me over! – I found picking and cooking home-grown vegetables to be one of life’s cheapest and best thrills.  (My favorite “recipe”?  Simple broiled eggplant.)

Now for the produce.   The sugar-snap peas were the absolute best snacking I’d ever encountered.  Could NOT get enough of them, picked fresh off the vine.  Plus tomatoes, eggplants, squash, zucchini, red peppers, cucumbers, melon, assorted herbs, and salad greens in spring and fall.

Year Two – the Improvements
My biggest mistake last year was in growing plants that were too darn big to stay upright in their containers.  In the garden I could have pounded sturdy supports into the ground and tied everything up but in containers, no can do.  (I posted about the dilemma here. )  So I asked Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Seeds, what I should do and her answer was to grow container-sized plants.  Yep, they actually exist, or at least Renee sells them.  So this year it’s “Super Bush” tomatoes, “Bush Slicer” cukes, “Little Prince” eggplant.  There are even container-size sunflowers and zinnias. 

Something else I learned from the very patient Renee is that most vegetables are really and truly easy to grow from seed sewn outdoors – after the ground has warmed up in early May.  However, we can get a head start on growing three vegetables – tomatoes, peppers and eggplants – indoors in early spring.  Good to know!  So this year I’m doing just that.

Now for my last confession, I bought this nifty seed-starter but NOT one of those grow-light contraptions.  Yes, they’re mandatory according to almost everyone, but just enough people have reported good-enough seedlings from simply moving their little seedlings to a bright window, so that’s what I’m doing.

Wish me luck.   I promise to report the results, even more confessions are required.

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