Thursday, January 19, 2012
Since gaining our allotment last year, our patio container garden has fallen by the wayside a little, which I have spoken about before.We have lots of large deep pots standing empty for much of the year, being dug over by cats and colonized by weeds. I have been debating how best to use the patio for some months.
Patios have their advantages and disadvantages as growing spaces. Whilst you are restricted to growing a relatively narrow range of compact crops in pots, high maintenance plants that require specialist feeding or frost protection can lend themselves to container growing. Patios tend to regulate heat over the course of a day, the slabs warming up faster in the day and losing that heat slowly overnight. They may even provide a longer growing season than bare earth.
Our allotment also has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it has deep open rich soil in which most things will thrive with a little attention. On the other hand is a paradise for winged things - everything from sparrows to Canada geese; and the evidence of the war on birds is everywhere. Metres and metres of netting cover fruit trees and in some cases, whole plots are caged. Apart from two very thorny gooseberries that should look after themselves, we have declined to install any other fruit on our small plot.
Back to our patio - there are no winged things, or rodents. Thanks to the huge cat and fox population, my neighbours elaborate bird feeding station has been visited only by a very aggressive magpie. Which makes our neighborhood perfect fruit growing territory from a pest point of view. All manner of fruit can be grown in containers. The cats are less likely to dig over containers with large, perennial plants in than they are seedlings. The trees and bushes will add some vertical interest to the garden and make the most productive use of space. Unfortunately, there is a lag time of a few years before trees will produce fruit, making me wish I had made the investment years ago. As that did not happen, there is no time to start like the present.
The initial investment in large containers, soil and plants is large in comparison with a packet of seeds, but the pay off is a relatively low maintenance, high output garden. Apart from regular watering and some seasonal pruning and possibly some pest or frost protection, the 'gardener's shadow' is less important to success than growing annuals.
This year we have invested in an apple on a dwarfing rootstock, which will restrict its height to a maximum of two metres and a cherry tree of similar stature. Thanks to their height, they can sit against a short north facing wall and catch the sun, turning a cold and dark edge of the patio into something more productive and pretty. This year we plan to add a self fertile kiwi which will be trained up a rose arch. We have added a grape that will be trained as a standard and are now considering a fig tree, which fruit best when its roots are restricted. If I had space to overwinter one indoors, I would consider a citrus tree also.
On a personal note, there is something wholesome and soothing about a tree, especially a fruit tree, something that stirs in me when I look out over the garden and see the twigs starting to bud. Which is a good enough reason as any to go forth and plant.
Friday, June 4, 2010
Living The Frugal Life
It's likely we'll soon see the first tiny harvests from several of the perennial plants we put in over the last couple of years. We took just a very modest harvest of asparagus in April, since our plants are now only two years old and so cannot support a full harvest. Cherries, blueberries, grapes, elderberries and pears should also grace our table this year - sometimes in very small quantities.
I counted seventeen cherries on our Mesabi cherry tree. It's covered in netting to keep the birds away. At this stage they look like Maraschino cherries. I hope they darken a little more.
This will constitute our entire blueberry harvest this year, provided the birds don't get them first. I pinched off all the blooms last year, the year we planted our first blueberry plants. I probably should have done the same this year, to let the plants put all their energy into just growing. A harvest of seven blueberries (there are a few behind the visible berries) is hardly worth the name anyway.
On the other hand, seven pears from our Collette pear tree is worthy of the name "harvest." These beauties are so tantalizing. I know there are still plenty of things that could happen to these fruits before they ripen. But I'm hoping, against my better judgment.
One of our two elderberres is blooming, and another is getting ready to bloom. Oddly, the blooms on this particular plant have little fragrance. This plant died but then grew back from the rootstock. So we really have no idea what qualities the fruit will have. I've begun harvesting the blooms in stages, as they open fully, to make elderflower cordial. I'll let a couple of blooms from each plant set fruit if they can, to see what we get from each one. Again, removing most of the blooms allows these young plants to concentrate most of their energy on development of roots and branches.
The grapes have decided to produce this year. We'll see if any fruit makes it to a harvestable stage. My husband put in five wine variety grapes two years ago. This will be our first harvest, and possibly our first small batch of real homegrown wine.
The figs are growing exuberantly in their self-watering containers. No sign of fig drupes yet, so we may not get the promised small harvest this year. But at least the plants look healthy and happy. So do the hazelbert plants in the same containers; we don't expect any nut crop this year though. That's one of my self-watering. potato buckets next to the fig, with shallots and garlic behind them. The garlic plants are still sporting their scapes, soon to be harvested. And almost totally obscured in the back right, some of our raspberry canes - more perennials. These produced insipid fruit last year. They're getting one more year to prove themselves since they were young and 2009 was a bad year for gardening. If the fruit isn't much better this year, they'll be replaced with something else.
While I caution my eager gardener's heart not to count on these tiny first harvests, it is satisfying to see our work in establishing these edible perennials begin to bear fruit. It has been a heavy workload over the last few years. The motivation that I used for myself is that though the perennials take more effort to plant, they only need be planted once, and then will give returns for many years. We're still not done planting all the perennials we'd like to have, so it's a relief to see the returns starting.
Any perennials in your garden? Or plans for some? What perennial food crop would you most like to add to your garden?
Friday, April 16, 2010
From Spiral Garden
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 is written by Michael Guerra, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, ISBN 0-684-85461-9
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
A recent craze that I have been very interested in lately is the Upside-Down Tomato Planter. There's a good chance you have heard of this before, known someone who has tried it, or even done it yourself. I thought I would add my two cents worth about them here.
The first time I grew a tomato plant out of the bottom of a planter was over 15 years ago, but in the past year or two it has become wildly popular. This is due mainly to the highly marketed Topsy Turvy Upside-Down Hanging Tomato Planter.
Before I tried the Topsy Turvy, I thought it was all hype. I tried it this year however and it actually does work well. You can read more about it on my blog. The fact of the matter is that you don't need a Topsy Turvy to grow upside down tomatoes. You can make a planter yourself and I've seen much written about different designs. Some of course are better than others but I've seen people use hanging baskets, buckets and two liter plastic bottles. The key to success when making your own is to have enough soil volume. The Topsy Turvy works because it is cylindrical which gives the roots more room. I'm fairly sure a two liter bottle does not allow enough root space.
If you have never grown tomatoes or any other vegetables from hanging planters before, you probably have some questions about doing it. I will attempt to address some here:
Why would I want to grow upside down tomatoes? Are there any benefits to doing so?
If you have plenty of space in the ground to grow your vegetables and you are not curious about growing upside down tomatoes then their is no benefit for you. If you don't have much room to grow crops in the ground however, then this may be great for you. Here is a picture of an inner-city dwelling that has zero yard associated with it. By using patio containers and hanging containers, they have a great little garden!
Half of their hanging planters are Topsy Turvys and half are made from buckets. As you can see, the results are about the same from both:
They also have chili peppers growing from one and cucumbers from another. Notice the cucumber hanging at the bottom of the planter on the right below:
These city dwellers illustrate the main benefit of using hanging containers for vegetables - They are a creative use of growing space. Other benefits are that you don't have to bend over to harvest your veggies and you can locate the planter close to your kitchen door and close to a water source. With tomatoes, upside-down planters are better than regular patio planters because there is no need for staking or caging the tomato plant. Last but not least, they are fun and great for kids too.
What kind of soil should be used in hanging containers?
Regular garden dirt should not be used in containers because it will compact too much. You should use a loose growing medium. I use organic potting soil with compost and coir (coconut fiber) or peat mixed in to hold moisture.
What about watering?
As with all container gardening, watering is the most difficult part. Vegetables need even more water than flowers, so you have to keep up with the watering. Just watch for the soil to be dry on the top few inches. If the plant begins to wilt, add water. Be careful not to be over zealous here though. Watering every day, even if the plant does not need it may cause more harm than good. Tomatoes especially don't like to stay wet and too much water can cause fungal problems.
Do you get more or fewer tomatoes with an upside-down planter?
That depends on a lot. If you are able to keep it growing well, a tomato plant will produce the same amount of fruit hanging upside down as it does right side up. The container aspect is what may change the outcome. I don't think you can expect as much harvest with container grown plants as you get in a garden bed. The roots do become restricted more in a container.
What are the drawbacks to upside-down planting?
As mentioned above, getting the watering correct could be considered a detriment. In addition to striving for the right amount of water, watering can cause another problem. When you water your hanging planter, excess water runs out the bottom of the container and gets the leaves wet. Tomato leaves tend to collect water because it is the underside of the leaves which can form a cup. This standing water can also cause disease problems on those leaves.
Another drawback for some people is that you have to find somewhere sturdy to hang them from. If your container has the right amount of soil, it gets pretty heavy and of course must hang for the entire growing season. Most people use a carport or porch roof to hang them from which can over-shade your planter. I have had success with hanging them from my deck's pergola.
The Topsy Turvy people offer a nice solution to the problem of where to hang the planters in their product, Topsy Turvy Tomato Tree which is offered on Amazon. This is basically one of their planters on a central stand and it is terribly expensive. A better looking solution but even more expensive is The Upside-down Tomato Garden. These are nice but at those prices, I suggest that if you don't have a place to hang upside-down planters - don't use them.
The final reason some people don't want to grow upside-down veggies is that they think it is ugly. Suspending a plant upside down is so unusual, it looks pretty strange and unattractive.
So what is my verdict? I like my upside down tomatoes and will continue to grow some. It is a bit of a challenge which I don't mind, and it is fun for me. I WILL NOT stop growing tomatoes in the ground the old fashioned way and don't suggest that for anyone.
If you have no ground growing space and want a tomato plant, I would give this a try. Upside down planters are also good as an addition to your regular garden, especially if your vegetable garden is on the smaller side.
So now its your turn - what do you think about upside-down tomato planters? Have you tried it? Do you want to try it? Do you think the drawbacks outweigh the benefits or does the fun and novelty outweigh the drawbacks? I'd love to know your thoughts.