I often have dirt under my fingernails. Fortunately, my husband doesn’t care. He doesn’t care that unlike most of the women living in this southwestern suburb with us, I don’t have fake fingernails. He doesn’t care that I like digging and fertilizing and mounding up dirt, burying seeds and planting seedlings so that we can enjoy a summer harvest of fresh vegetables and fruit. My wonderful husband doesn’t care that I come in flushed and sweaty from watering plants and snipping herbs under a brutal Sonoran desert sun, and I am grateful for that!
It might sound like hard work, and it is, but it is completely and totally worth it. I guess it sounds like we’ve got a good deal of land to play with, to till up and furrow and weed and plant. But we don’t! We actually have a smaller-than-average yard for the area we live in. We are going to harvest almost every vegetable and fruit we grow from containers. The members of our family are big believers in small-space container gardening.
In late fall, winter, and early spring, we grow lettuce, spinach, radishes, and broccoli in a five-by-seven-foot raised bed on the side of our yard. The rest of our crops – zucchini, cucumbers, various herbs, green onions, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, yellow squash and strawberries, to start with – are being grown in a plethora of pots, buckets, two-liter pop bottles, and even a kids’ wading pool that are happily scattered around our patio and yard. Some are right-side-up and some are upside-down. All of them are bursting with the promise of a healthy and inexpensive harvest to supplement our family’s diet, something we desperately need as food prices increase more every month. I would like to share with you some solutions that we have discovered and implemented for small-space container gardening.
First of all, I refuse to be picky about what I put a plant in! Some of the pots that we used this year are terra-cotta, left over from years past when we could afford to pay $30 or more for a clay pot. They’re handy, they tend to hold moisture well, and I’m glad that we saved them, but I would never pay that much for a planting vessel now! The majority of our plants have found a home in re-purposed containers.
Here are some ways to think about gardening “outside the box.”
Children’s Plastic Pools
We live in the desert southwest, which means that every year local stores make a killing on those cheap little plastic wading pools. People buy them for their kids, their dogs, and – believe it or not – even their drinks when they have backyard barbeques. Then, around October, they toss them out by the front curb for the bulk garbage pickup. That is the time to go foraging for free gardening containers! You may find them earlier in your area, like around August or September, but if you’re interested in small-space gardening, don’t pass those free pools by. I pick them up and toss them in the back of my van. When it’s time to plant in them, use a 1/2 inch drill bit and drill several drainage holes in the bottom of the pool. If you’ve got gravel handy, you can strew a layer in the bottom of the pool (about 1 inch deep); then fill the rest with your favorite mixture of gardening soil, incorporating some fertilizer into it as you mix it up. These wading pools are perfect for raising a few zucchini plants for a prolific summer squash harvest, two to three bush cucumbers, or two to three bush bean plants; maybe even more, if you get one that’s on the bigger side. These little pools are a perfect way to grow plants that are just a little too big or sprawling to fit comfortably into a large pot. Their inexpensive plastic will eventually break down around the top with several seasons’ exposure to the sun and elements, but that’s all right – just get a new round of tossed-away wading pools, and transfer your soil before your next season of planting. Not only are you container gardening, you’re also recycling!
Every time I go to my local “warehouse store,” Wal-Mart, or the grocery store, I drop by the bakery to see if they have any plastic frosting buckets that I can have. If they do, they’ll give them to me for free. All I have to do is take them home, wash them out with warm water and soap to get all of the fat from the icing off, and get them ready to hold some garden goodness. Again, just drill a few 1/2 inch holes in the bottom of the bucket, add a layer of gravel to the bottom for drainage, then fill it up with dirt and whatever type plant you want to put in there. Currently, my sweet red bell peppers and an aloe vera plant are growing in these re-purposed frosting buckets. Their carrying handles are a convenient bonus if you need to move your plants around the yard – where we live, we need to move them several times in the summer season to make sure they’re getting enough shade so that they won’t get completely scorched by the hours and hours of direct sun our area gets. (Note: You can also use these buckets for food storage since they’re food-grade plastic containers. Wash them out very well with hot water and lots of soap, then dry them thoroughly before fitting them with a Gamma Seal lid and pouring in whatever bulk food item you’d like to store. You just can’t beat free!)
You can also create hanging buckets, a la Topsy-Turvy tomato containers, with these plastic frosting buckets. My husband, who is much more handy with the power tools than I am, used a 3/8 inch drill bit to drill a series of holes in the shape of a circle, essentially “drawing” an approximately two-inch circle in the middle of the bottom of the bucket. We then had a lot of fun banging it with a hammer until it fell out while our children looked at us as if we’d gone completely insane. The end result was a bucket with a hole in the bottom. I cut an X in the middle of a coffee filter and threaded a tomato seedling through it, then centered the coffee filter over the hole in the bucket, with the plant hanging down (it’s easier to do this if you place the sides of the bucket on two chairs pushed quite close together). Then, all we had to do was fill the bucket up with soil, leaving about two inches of space on top for mess-free watering. Hang your bucket up on something that will support its weight and you’ll have a homemade upside-down tomato container!
You can also make hanging containers out of two-liter sodapop bottles. These are great for growing plants that remain relatively small, like hot pepper plants and strawberries. Making them is quite simple. First, use a solid, sharp pocketknife to cut the spout off of the two-liter bottle. Then, cut the bottom of the bottle off. Poke three small, equidistant holes about a half inch down from where you cut the bottom off the bottle; these will be used to thread wire or monofilament through to hang the bottle. Cut an X in the middle of a coffee filter, and thread your plant through it; then place the coffee filter into the pop bottle, threading the plant gently through the opening where the spout used to be. Fill the container with soil. Then hold it between your knees as you insert a length of thin wire or monofilament through each of the little holes you drilled through the former bottom of the bottle (which is now the top of your planter) and twist or tie it off. You’ll wind up with three lengths, which you will twist or tie off at the top in order to create a hanger for your pop bottle planter. There are some great videos on YouTube regarding these planters, if you’re more of a visual learner; just go there and search “Upside Down Tomato Planters.”
So as you can see, your ability to garden in a small space is only limited by your creativity in utilizing the space you have, both on the ground and to hang containers from. Container gardening is just as rewarding as gardening on an acre plot of land (and you don’t have to deal with as many weeds!). For people who are gardening on limited land, container gardening – in just about any container you can get your hands on – is a great alternative to totally relying on grocery store or even farmer’s market produce. And in a crisis situation, it can provide not only nourishment, but essential vitamins and minerals, variety for the diet to prevent appetite fatigue, and a renewable supply of seeds to prevent hunger in the future. As we gradually learn more and more about gardening in our hot little neck of the woods, I will definitely be on the lookout for anything I can pour dirt into and grow plants in. If you wish you had acreage but you only have a yard – or a terrace or a patio -- try your hand at container gardening. It’s well worth the effort and your family will thank you for it!