Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Starting a Container Garden

Do you rent?  Do you have limited if any space to grow vegetables this summer?  Are you thinking about moving apartments in June or September?  Do you hesitate to garden because you might have to buy a lot of new supplies?

Good news: if you’re willing to be creative and resourceful, YOU can have an easy container garden this season!  There are a few key items that you will need, and a few key facts that will help your plants thrive.

Key Materials:
-SOIL: The most important and sometimes most expensive item for city gardeners.  I recommend mixing a bagged organic potting mix with compost to prevent compaction and promote more even water release.  Your mix can last up to two years, but after that should be dumped on a tarp or in a bigger container, mixed up with new additions of compost, and used to refill containers.  The best way to get compost is to have a compost bin or worm bin the year before you start to compost.  If you’re a Cambridge resident (or drag a friend who is along), you can get small amounts of FREE compost from the recycling center! I called to confirm that this program still exists – it does.  Just make sure to go during their open hours and bring your own container.  If neither of these options works for you, check out the organic bagged soil options at your local garden or hardware store – then at least your dollars support local businesses.

-CONTAINERS: We get free four and five gallon buckets from Tufts Dining Services for sap collection during the Somerville Maple Syrup Project.  Usually large food-grade containers (you wouldn’t want to garden in old chemical containers!) can be found in the recycling dumpsters by large food service operations.  Keeping an eye on the streets on trash day during the spring can be rewarding – neighbors buy large potted plants and plant them, leaving the plastic containers for the garbage truck.  Make sure to get a large enough pot for your desired plant with drainage holes (can be poked or stabbed).

-SEEDS or SEEDLINGS: Both Cambridge Whole Foods (River and Prospect St.) sell High Mowing Seeds, one of the only organic options in stores.  If you’re on top of your game, you can order from seed catalogues.  This year, we’re almost past that point.  If these options don’t work for you, get what you can find in the grocery or hardware store and plan ahead next year.  Local Farmer’s markets and seedling sales support local farms and community groups.  Locally owned garden stores are also good bets for finding vegetable seedlings.  If you get seedlings, find out what local community sales or sites are planned for the spring.  Buying from chain stores is as problematic as buying food from chain stores – seedlings come from far away and are all raised together, enabling the easy spread of disease across the nation.

Key Tips:
-Plants need sun.  Plants are extremely resourceful when living in questionable situations, but you should place containers in the sunniest place possible.  I’ve grown heat-loving plants like tomatoes under a porch roof with great success, but they are on the south-west edge of that porch and get great afternoon light.
-Keep containers evenly moist.  In the middle of the summer, on hot days, this might mean watering in the morning and at night.  It also means that you should make sure that excess water can drain out holes in the bottom of your containers, especially if containers are not under a roof.  I used an awl to poke holes in the bottom of my containers before filling them, and have them sitting in large, edged plastic plates.  This keeps water from leaking out everywhere – I water until I see it start to drip out the bottom.
-If planting seeds, make sure to follow guidelines on the back of the packet.  Depth in the soil, and planting at the right time of year is key for successful seedlings.
-Make sure your pots are big enough!  I’ve seen too many small containers on porches and front stoops holding struggling tomatoes and other veggies.  The root system of a healthy plant is as big as the above-ground growth.  Use 2-5 gallon containers for most veggies.  Some herbs can grow in smaller containers.
-Keep an eye out for diseases and pests.  Most can be treated easily if caught early.  IF you notice something unusual, google it and include “organic” in your search terms.  The internet can be a wonderful and free resource!  You’ll learn as you go, don’t feel like you need to read a lot of books and become an expert before you even start.

Check out other blogs!  There are a lot of innovative people experimenting with container gardening.  A few I’ve enjoyed recently include:

My first urban porch tomatoes, on Boston Ave. in Medford
Herbs, leafy veggies, and tomatoes in containers in back. Front: using the warm summer weather and direct sun to revive my indoor plants


Porter Square porch garden harvest

5 replies on “Starting a Container Garden”

[…] The wonderful thing about baby greens is that they can grow almost anywhere – from a pot on a windowsill to a plot in your garden or at the farm.  Read about how my seedlings inspired me while living in the city in this past post.  If you are interested in starting a container garden, now’s the time!  Learn more from this post. […]

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