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Container Gardening 101

by Suzette Haden Elgin

I have fresh-picked lettuce and cherry tomatoes on hand all year long, with almost no effort or expense; much of the year I also have have summer squash, full-size tomatoes, and cucumbers, on the same basis.  No matter where you live (even in Maine, even with no land to call your own) you can raise the salad makings; if you have a balcony or small porch or a bit of flat roof or a tiny yard you can grow the larger vegetables as well. It's possible to make container gardening very difficult and expensive, and any gardening magazine will tell you how. The way I do it is different; it's truly easy, and the result is as close to free food as it's possible to get.  You can't plant just any old seed any old way; that takes a green thumb, and not everybody has one. But anybody, whatever their thumb-tint, can succeed by following the steps below.

Raising Salad
1. Buy Sungold tomato seed, either plain (orange) or Sungold Red, or both. The orange one has a bit more tang, but both are wonderful. Buy lettuce seed from these three varieties: Lollo Rossa, Merveille de Quatre Saisons (Marvel of Four Seasons), or Tom Thumb. You're not likely to find these seeds at your local grocery, but you can order them easily. Two good sources I can recommend are Thompson & Morgan (1-800-274-7333), and Johnny's Selected Seeds (207-437-4301 -- online at

2.  Purchase two large plastic -- not clay -- flowerpots. I can hear you saying, "Define 'large'," and I understand that; I define it as one-gallon pots.  (If you have room for larger ones, that's also fine; larger pots -- or more pots -- will of course let you plant more seeds.) Fill the pots with ordinary potting soil from the store (not the fancy dirtless kind, just plain vanilla potting soil). Water the dirt thoroughly, letting the water soak in but not creating a swamp. Then put three tomato seeds in one pot and roughly ten lettuce seeds in the other (I like to mix all three kinds together, myself). Put the seeds on top of the dirt and press them in lightly so that they're just barely covered. Cover each pot with a piece of plastic wrap or a clear plastic bag held on with a rubber band, to keep the seeds warm; set the pot in a shallow dish or container for watering.

3.  Put the pots under fluorescent light. You don't need a fancy "grow light" of any kind, just a fluorescent. A shop-light in a closet (or anywhere that's convenient for you) will do nicely; my lights are over my freezer. Or you can use a lamp with the new fluorescent bulbs. You want the pots to be right up under the light, no more than two inches away from it, until the plants come up and get their first leaves. That usually means stacking up stuff for the pots to sit on, and that's fine; it's temporary. I use cardboard boxes. [Note: If you have a  really big roomy window that gets plenty of sun all day, you can perhaps manage without the lights. It will be much harder, though. Especially without a green thumb.]

4. Now you wait. Check daily to be sure the dirt doesn't dry out; if it does, water it, very gently. (Spraying the water is best, but pouring gently will serve if you don't have a sprayer.) In about five days the seeds will come up, at which point you take the plastic covering off the pots. Make sure the baby plants stay moist;  keep increasing their distance from the light as they grow taller. After they've been up a week, pull up any extra plants so that you have one tomato plant to a one-gallon pot and no more than four lettuce plants to a one-gallon pot. Fertilize with any plant food you fancy, following the instructions given on the box or bottle. The tomato plant is a vine, which means you'll either have to add a stick or a string for it to climb on, or put the pot high and let the vine hang down; the lettuce needs no special arrangements.

5. When the plants are a few inches high, start watering them by pouring water not from the top but into the container underneath, so they absorb the water with their roots.

6. When you have ripe tomatoes, pick them; more will come to replace them. The warmer the area where you're growing them is, the more tomatoes you'll have. When the lettuce leaves get about four inches tall, pick them -- very carefully, preferably by cutting them off with scissors -- leaving the smaller leaves to keep growing. Finally:  You can cut off a healthy branch from your tomato plant when it gets big (or seems tired) and put that branch in a jar of water under your lights; it will put out roots, after which you can plant it in a pot of dirt. A well cared for Sungold tomato plant is eternal. You can always use your extra seed (which will keep for years in your refrigerator) to start plants as gifts; I'm still getting fine strong plants from packets of seed that I've had for four years.

Raising Larger Vegetables
1.  Do your growing in 5 to 6 gallon containers made of a really durable plastic. The ones I use start out in life as industrial soap containers (like car washes use) and cost about a dollar each at flea markets, recycling centers, and the like. You can use any plastic container that size, but most of them won't last more than one season. Mine have been used for five years and show no signs of needing to be replaced. Poke three drainage holes, at least 1/4 inch big, in the bottom of the container; a hammer and a big nail will do this if you're not into using power tools to drill holes.

2.  Fill the container with a light-weight potting soil that has plenty of perlite and vermiculite in it, usually available in sixteen-pound bags anywhere garden supplies are sold. The point of getting that kind of soil instead of the cheaper kind is that with the lighter soil you will be able to pick up your plants in their containers without hurting yourself; that's important.

3.  Get your seeds, and either plant them directly in the soil or start them in tiny pots and transplant them later. I like to start the seeds and transplant later because that gives me a head start on the growing season and I have better luck protecting infant seedlings, but you can go the direct route if you like. For best results, plant Better Bush tomatoes and
Sunburst squash. (You can also get huge crops of cherry tomatoes this way, using the Sungold seeds.) And I strongly recommend planting the wonderful Lemon Cucumber, which doesn't have to be peeled and makes perfect instant refrigerator pickles: Just slice thin into a scalded screw-top jar filled with your favorite salad dressing, put the top back on, and refrigerate; these will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks.

4.  For all of these plants you'll have to put a tomato cage in the container to support the weight. The plants are vines, they bear very heavily, and they'll fall over and break off if they aren't supported. You also need some string for the vines to climb; just tie one end of the string to the cage and fasten the other end to whatever is overhead -- tree limb, porch roof, whatever. And unless you live somewhere truly mild of
climate, you need shade. Out in the garden, which is where my containers are, you can just fasten up an old bedsheet overhead (or you can use actual "shade cloth" -- 50 to 75 percent, from garden supply places). If you're planting on a porch or deck or similar location, you may already have more
than enough shade from a roof or from trees.

5.  Once the plants are high enough to have two or three real leaves, begin fertilizing them every ten days to two weeks, using any good fertilizer that says 20-20-20 on it somewhere (Peters, for example) dissolved in roughly 1/2 gallon of water. Increase the amount  to a gallon once the plants start bearing -- as soon as tiny vegetables appear.

6.  Make sure the soil in the containers doesn't dry out. When you're around, that just means checking them daily and adding water as needed. If you have to leave them for a while, put each container in a tub of water full to the top. I use plastic concrete mixing trays (about $5.00 at Lowe's or Home Depot). This will water the plants adequately for at least three days; in cool weather, for even longer. And this is one reason for the lightweight soil; you'll have no trouble lifting the container and plant(s) in and out of the watering tubs.

     That's it!  If you have only yourself to feed, you need only three containers -- one for a Lemon Cucumber plant, one for a Sunburst Squash plant, and one for a Sungold or Better Bush tomato plant. You'll have all the vegetables you can eat, for the entire growing season. For more people, you want more containers. I have almost no trouble with plant diseases or with insects -- even squash bugs -- and I use no insecticides or other chemicals; if you feel that you do have to spray, use the mildest product you can find.

Final Note
Much of what I've told you represents my way of doing container gardening, but by no means the only way. If you want to experiment, you can safely do so. But if you buy a different variety of seeds, all bets are off. The seed varieties I've listed -- Sungold/Sungold Red/Better Bush tomatoes; Tom Thumb/Lollo Rossa/Merveille de Quartre Saisons lettuce' Sunburst Squash; Lemon Cucumbers -- are the only ones I consider reliable, and I've tried many many others over the past twenty-five years. Take the time to order those varieties instead of just picking up whatever you see on the rack at the store; you won't be sorry. If you have problems, feel free to e-mail me about them and I'll be glad to help.



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