It only takes a small patch to start a container garden. A bit of yard, or a patio or balcony provide room for several potted plants. That may not sound like much, but you’d be surprised how much food you can grow in such a small area, if you pick the right plants for the amount of sunlight they’ll be getting. Because produce is so expensive and not every area has an abundance of local farmers growing stuff the right way, container gardening is a way to save money, know exactly what you’re eating and take pride in your ability to provide (at least somewhat) for yourself and your household.
I’ve been looking into this for myself. This article started out as a collection of notes I made for getting started on container garden, and it grew from there
Tips for container gardening
- Most plants need a minimum of five hours sunlight per day. If you have a constantly shaded yard or balcony, or live in an area that just doesn’t get that much light reliable, choose leafy vegetables like cabbage and lettuces that grow well in shade. You can actually grow sunlight-craving plants indoors, if you have room, using fluorescent bulbs as their light source. (There are also more expensive bulbs that simulate full-spectrum daylight, but many people get good results with plain, cheap fluorescents, so give those a shot first. The more expensive bulbs will still pay for themselves, compared to buying the produce from a grocery store.)
- The best pots are glazed ceramic. Cedar and redwood are rot-resistant and therefore good choices if you want wooden containers, as long as you make sure they’re not treated with anything that could hurt the plants. Plastic is to be avoided, as some of it could leech stuff into your soil.
- Research each plant you’re interested in growing to determine what soil mix it needs, what its watering schedule will be, what fertilizer to add to the water and what sort of container it should be in. Here’s a very general list of plants and their particular needs. Scroll down on this page for a nice chart listing how much sun and other information about a long list of plants you can grow in containers in or around your home.
- Go to your favorite search engine and query “container gardening los angeles”, except replace Los Angeles with a name for your region. Pick a city nearby that has the same climate (“container gardening buffalo ny”), or use your state’s name, or use a regional name (“container gardening southern california” also brings up great tips for me). Not only will this bring up online articles from local newspapers and other region-specific tips, but it may direct you to offline resources, such as gardening groups you can join. Don’t expect the best results to be on the first page. You may need to dig a bit.
- Of course, the library/bookstore is your friend for this research, too. I’d try the library first because they could have out-of-print books that might be better than what’s currently in print. If you prefer buying to borrowing (and since you may need these books again every year, that could be a wise investment), you can buy out of print books at used bookstores or online.
- Some plants may attract insects, so you need to learn what you can spray on them or plant next to them to repel insects without putting damaging chemicals on your future food. You also need to learn which insects are not your enemy – many of the bugs that plants attract are beneficial in some way, and while you don’t want them eating your whole harvest, a few bug-nibbled leaves here and there don’t necessarily mean you need to go on the war path against bugs.
- Log everything you do, and the results you got from it. This will help you refine and improve your methods as time goes by. Chances are you won’t remember from one spring to the next exactly what you did.
- You can compost to make quality soil for your garden. But remember: to make your compost organic, you can’t put chemically treated crap into it. There’s a general consensus that if you carefully wash the skin of a vegetable that wasn’t grown organically, it’ll be okay for your compost. But if you want to be absolutely safe, just buy some organic soil for your garden at first, then begin composting strictly from the garden and any organic produce you buy (and those of you with yards can include your yard waste if you know there’s nothing nasty being sprayed on it). In short: to keep your compost organic, don’t put non-organic produce or non-organic yard waste in it.
Saving on water
After you get a container garden initially set up, your biggest expense is likely to be water. Fortunately, there are so many ways to be frugal about that. First of all, with a few caveats, you can use “gray water” – that’s all non-toilet water produced from tubs, showers, sinks, washing machines, and dishwashers. But you need to be aware that this water can contain residue from soap, conditioner, grease, etc. Remember: what’s in your water is going to end up in your food. Traces of soap will be consumed safely by organisms in the soil, but larger amounts of soap or grease will change the condition of the soil, and that’s not what you want.
The cleanest gray water is what’s leftover from showers and baths:
- When you shower, catch that first stream of water you run until the water’s hot enough to turn on the shower. This is completely fresh, clean tap water, which makes it even more desirable than gray water.
- When you bathe, and you weren’t especially filthy, don’t let the water out. Scoop it up in a bucket and use that to water your plants.
- If you can find a way to capture some of your shower water without capturing a lot of shampoo suds, conditioners and whatever else we use in our showers, that’s great, too. If you don’t wash or condition your hair every time you shower, collect all you can from those showers.
- Gray water from other sources in the home get a little more tricky. Read here for more information.
There’s another great ways to collect free water: collect rain water in a “rain barrel.” Set up a sizable plastic or metal container to capture rain (you can buy a specially made one that even has a hookup for your hose), and save it until the next time you need to water plants. Even apartment gardeners can sometimes capture rain from a balcony or patio.
Got more tips? Add them in the comments.