A synopsis of container gardening and why it’s totally worth it even though it drives me mad. I started assembling a container garden a few years back. I think it was right after I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and not so long after Steve and I started dating. Probably it was both of these things that made me feel capable and domesticated enough to dare try to keep living things from dying. Or maybe it was the sheer reality of the 2008 recession and a ping of fear that I couldn’t live a day without grocery money even though my mother and grandmother were judicious gardeners. More than half of the backyard in my childhood home had been carved up into a garden. In the early spring mom’s basement dark room was transformed into a nursery where flats of tiny seedlings lived under white light. Once planted the garden was absolutely full. The whole back fence was a line of peas that I remember picking and shucking and gobbling up. This might honestly be the reason that when nobody is around I tend to eat a bowl of peas for dinner. I’ve also grown a funny affinity for sunflowers, they make me happy, and mom used to grow a row of enormously tall ones that symbolized the start and end of summer.
Thinking back to that garden I have no idea how we ate everything that she planted and I have no idea how she managed to run this extensive operation. We were young wild and fussy and somehow or other everything managed to be planted and watered and weeded and harvested without the help of elves. I imagined (fairly) that gardening was not that hard. Shit was I wrong. I’ve probably bought two plants for every one that survived.
I can’t say I’ve harvested enough to make any of it financially justifiable in the least. I don’t honestly know what’s wrong with half of the plants I have growing right now even though I’ve monitored them like crazy, watched them start to show bad signs, googled everything I could about them, torn off leaves and taken them to the nursery, and not ever found myself at a point of realization. I still don’t know what’s wrong. It’s taken a while to become ok not knowing what’s wrong and also not knowing where to get answers. It’s a grudge at this point that I’m always chipping away at. I can’t talk to my plants they can’t reason back with me and worst of all I can’t seem to google them. I usually end up with advice from New England, Colorado, or Florida. Or a bickering debate on a discussion forum.
The first big thing I learned was that “dead” is a gray area. Plants that I was absolutely convinced were already dead were not always dead. Weird things like…..maybe if I move this pot 5”…..could have a powerful affect on how dead or alive a plant was. Although the dill above was never saved, some things have completely re-bounded from the grave. I had a cherry tomato plant in 2009 that showed a yellow blithe streak within a week of growing. My grandmother told me to rip it out because it would never survive. I replanted it, gave it some nutrients, babied it, and it went totally wild. The blithe never did completely go away, she was right. However it struggled to keep up with the positive growth till the very end of the summer and was amazingly productive and delicious.
The winter growing season (a big benefit of living in LA) is about to start, but I find myself procrastinating. I’m trying to figure out what to grow, or re-grow. My step-mother gave me some fantastic lettuce seeds, but I’ve fought snails so many times that I’m reluctant. I’m also at a stage where I learn a lot in the first season and the second is much smoother. I’ve only got 12 containers to play with, so the natural inclination to try new things fights with the need to improve my gardening skill year over year. Not sure which strategy I’m going to take yet, but here are some of the things that I’ve learned from my garden:
Containers Have Unique Requirements
“Life On The Balcony” is a community of container gardeners, has been super helpful in providing a potted perspective on problems. http://lifeonthebalcony.com/community/. From this forum and my dad I’ve learned about rooting and filtration. At the end of the first two planting seasons I was able to remove a wad, that included the plant, roots, and dirt in one dense container shaped form. These wads were wound so tight that I could stand them up. After this dad gave me a hot tip. “Put a ~2″ layer of rocks in the bottom of the pot, cut a screen to match the circumference of the container at that height, and then put the dirt in.” This has helped tremendously. The water leaks out when I’m watering, the roots can reach down but not clog the water’s escape hatch at the dirt can’t mingle with the rocks (at least not too much). This worked so well that I re-planted everything (including the lime tree) last year. Bad move, the darn tree has never recovered, I think it was too young for such a shocker.
Organic = Fighting w/ Your Neighbors
I’ve always thought that organic gardening was a personal choice. I’ve learned that when an organic container garden is less than 12′ from someone else’s, less than 8′ from a bush deeply infected by aphids (so badly that it’s 1/3 dead), and less than 4′ from a snail haven hedge… that you’re really taking on the whole area’s ecosystem. A couple things that have worked for me:
- Neem oil in a spray bottle for aphids on tomato plants and mites on the lime tree
- Fly paper for gnats (but I also learned that this was likely my fault for overwatering)
- Cheap beer for snails (but, one too many times we’re out of snail beer and they get a shot of Fat Tire. I should also note that Steve likes to drink PBR and Highlife, so we struggle to agree on what gets to be snail beer)
- Plucking things I see off by hand, which is completely laborious, gross, and frightening, but also somewhat effective
Companion Planting Is Awesome… For Herbs
When I first started reading about companion planting I was excited to double the capacity of my limited gardening space. This would finally allow me to grow strawberries and onions in addition to the already jammed 12 containers of herbs, citrus, and lettuce. I bought double the plant count. I put a lavender bush in with my lime. I put onions in with my strawberries. I put oregano in the jalapeno pot. If there was an extra 4″ of dirt, it got planted. In retrospect I had way too much fun with the match making process. A couple of my favorite dating sites:
In the end, the herbs lived in harmony but most of the others had a bitter fight. The frisse shot up wildly and eventually went to seed , the cilantro splintered (due to heat) and took down its companion with it, a lavender plant nearly choked my already ailing lime tree. I felt like Darwin. Every time a clear winner was emerging I would try to trim him back to keep a fair friendly fight, but often found myself uprooting the shriveling loser a week later. I ended up divorcing my lavender which has since thrived and my chives who kept getting TKO’d. I still have a couple of great pairings. By far the best bunch is an herb pot of marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and sage. The four take turns being the gold medalist during rotating seasons. The rosemary wins in the winter, the marjoram wins in the summer, the thyme in the fall, and the sage in the spring.
The Best Part & The Biggest Limitation- Growing Food
Every time I don’t buy a 3 oz of packaged herbs at Whole Foods for $2.50 I am glad to have a garden. On the other hand nurturing and growing a tomato plant that produced 1 grocery run of fruit wasn’t as delightful or efficient. 3 years of lime tree growth has provided ~12 limes. However, the concept of growing limes was still fun enough to inspire the purchase of a lemon tree, which has been growing for a little over a year and is just now starting to yellow its very first fruit. A fruit that we’ve been watching grow for a solid 6 months now. I can’t imagine how tart a 1.5″ yellow lemon that took 6 months to grow will be. Surely irrational, but I can’t help but look forward to trying it.