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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 01:01 am

Container gardening with flavor

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A container garden on your patio, balcony or roof top, a hanging basket or window box, all can be converted from flowers to edibles, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Don’t have the space to put in a vegetable garden? Is your large garden too much work but you still want handy fresh produce? How about planting your favorite veggies in a container?” said Martha Smith. “Who said flower pots are only for flowers? Vegetables are the last thing gardeners think of when they are creating container combinations. What joy to be able to step out onto a balcony or deck and sample fresh produce and herbs.

“With few exceptions, everything that’s grown in the traditional garden can be grown in a container. If you can grow geraniums in a container, why not peppers? Just like in-ground gardens, you have to work with the site conditions. The basic plant requirements are the same – sunlight and water and fertilizer. The limitation is only your imagination.”

Smith offered some guidelines.

What are the growing conditions for your container? Vegetables are full-sun plants. Is your patio or deck facing a sunny direction?

Watering is the major task – how close is a water source? Is there a hose handy, or will you have to haul water from the kitchen sink?

“Vegetable containers don’t have to be huge,” she said. “Salad greens, pepper plants, radishes and onions all will do well in a shallow container. One eight to 15 inches deep will accommodate most vegetables and herbs.

“The advantage of a larger container is that it will not dry out as quickly as a smaller shallow container. A larger container may have more surface area to plant, but it will also be deeper and will hold moisture longer. Some vegetables need deep soil. Tomatoes benefit from deeper rooting space. The only definite container rule is it must have drainage holes.”

Any good-quality potting soil is fine. Don’t use straight garden soil – it will be too heavy. You may need to move your container, and the added weight can be cumbersome.

“Care of your container garden is basically the same as your in-ground garden except watering demands are higher,” Smith explained. “As the summer heats up and the roots are filling the container, the soil will dry out quickly. July through September often require daily watering.

“Since you water more, fertilizers flush out as the excess water drains. As a result, you need to fertilize through the growing season. Select a potting soil with added fertilizer or incorporate slow-release fertilizers when planting. Both are released over time, slowly dissolving with each watering. Read and follow all label instructions. This may not be enough to get you through the season so you can supplement with a liquid fertilizer.”

Monitor for pests – just because the plants are on your deck doesn’t mean diseases and insects won’t find them.

“Pest control is easier with containers since they are raised off the ground and close by for daily inspection,” she said. “If you see a pest, consider pruning off the infested portion or knocking the insects off with a stream of water. If needed, choose and apply an appropriate pesticide as a direct treatment.”

What to grow? Seed catalogues are full of tempting choices. Plant what you like and what you can’t readily purchase locally. Try the unusual or gourmet varieties that, when available, are often expensive. Bush-style sugar snap peas, salad green mixes, Swiss chard, beets—the possibilities are endless.

“The only plants you should avoid are the large vine crops such as traditional watermelons, pumpkins and winter squash,” she said. “Corn and cabbage can also be too large for containers. Select smaller varieties that don’t need the space.”

Smith suggested considering a succession of crops.

“Cool spring temperatures are great for onions, potatoes, spinach or chives,” she said. “With warmer temperatures, rogue out what has been harvested and plant eggplants, peppers, tomatoes or green beans.

“In the fall, how about yellow beets, leeks, radishes or Swiss chard? You can tuck herbs in for color and accent such as parsley, purple-leafed basil, tri-color sage or yellow-leafed thyme.”

An excellent resource is The Bountiful Container written by McGee and Stuckey, Smith said. It offers advice and recommendations to help you create beautiful and flavorful containers.

Contact Martha Smith at (309) 836-2363.

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