Monday, August 13, 2012

Container Vegetables: Learning from Mistakes

Container Vegetables: Learning from Mistakes

A gardener learns more in the mistakes than in the successes. ~ Barbara Dodge Borland

Yesterday I had the realization that through my gardening, my blog and my work with Access to the Garden, I am changing. I’m changing in a healthier kind of way. I told my husband that I only wanted a homegrown organic tomato in a recipe we decided to try! After eating our own fresh tomatoes all summer, I couldn't think of using anything else. This isn’t to say that I will not have an occasional relapse and eat french-fries, but I’m striving to do better with my diet. When people recognize that they can make a change, even within themselves, great things can happen.

I am living in an area where there are actually two growing seasons for vegetables. As usual, I’m a little behind with my container vegetable plantings, but I’m certain that I’ll learn something from this experience as well. I have chosen to use Terracotta containers and my previously purchased elevated beds for my vegetables because they are easier for me to tend to from my wheelchair.

I have purchased a soilless mixture, also known as synthetic soil, and I’m ready to use it in my shallow containers that I’ve had stored away. This does not mean that my soil is artificial. It is simply a mixture of organic and mineral components. There are organic potting mixes for sale, but usually at local garden nurseries and not at the large garden centers. I also now know how to make my own for future use too. I’ve learned to use coffee filters over the holes to retain the potting mix.

The organic part of a mix may be peat moss, coir (coconut husk), bark of hardwoods or conifers, or a combination of these organic ingredients. The mineral part may be vermiculite, perlite, pumice, builder’s sand, granite sand, or simply a combination of them. The most commonly used minerals for soilless mixes are vermiculite, perlite, and fine sand. The mix you buy may be 50% peat moss and 50% vermiculite, or 50% ground bark and 50% fine sand, or several other combinations of the organic and mineral components depending on what you are using the soil for.

The ingredients in the mixes vary, but the principle behind all mixes is the same. Soilless “soil” must provide:
* Fast drainage of water through the media
* Air in the media for drainage
*A reservoir of water in the media after drainage

Most important in any container-growing medium is the air in the soil after drainage. Plant roots require air (particularly oxygen) for growth process respiration. In a heavy garden soil, there is little remaining pore space between soil particles. When the water is applied to the soil, it drives out air filling the small pore spaces. A container mix has small and large pores (micro pores and macro pores. When the mix is irrigated, water is held in the micro pores but quickly drains through the macro pores, allowing air to follow.

The size of the container will be determined by the vegetable grown. Generally, most vegetables grown in the soil can be grown in containers as long as ample space is provided for root development. Shallow rooted crops like lettuce, peppers, radishes, and herbs need a container at least 6 inches in diameter with an eight inch soil depth. Bushel baskets, half barrels, wooden tubs, or large pressed paper containers are ideal for growing tomatoes, squash, pole beans, and cucumbers.

Several other sources on the internet provide very helpful information as well. I have shared many on my facebook page. Most importantly you should know which variety of vegetable that you’ll be planting, especially with tomatoes. Fertilization is generally 5-10-10 and is required more frequently with containers because it leaches out faster.

Which vegetables are best suited for a potted vegetable garden?

With the exception of a few space heavy vegetables like corn & pumpkin, almost all types of vegetables can be grown as potted plants. Just be sure to buy the dwarf varieties in each vegetable. Several seed packets now indicate if they are good for container use. A few examples of dwarf varieties available in each vegetable are given below. (I have seen corn grown in containers too!)

• Beets - Little Egypt, Early red ball
• Brussels sprouts - Jade cross
• Carrot - Short & sweet, Tiny sweet
• Cucumber - Patio pik, Pot luck, Spacemaster, Bush pickle
• Lettuce - Salad bowl, Bibb, Buttercrunch
• Onion - White sweet Spanish and Yellow sweet Spanish
• Pepper - Sweet banana, Long red cayenne, Jalapenno, Apply red cherry
• Spinach - Dark green bloomsdale
• Tomatoes - Tiny tim, Toy boy, Small fry, Spring giant, Pixie
• Eggplant - Slim jim, Black beauty
• Snap Beans - Tender crop, Bush romano
• Green Beans - Kentucky wonder, Blue lake
• Radish - Icicle, Cherry Belle
• Cabbages - Red ace, Dwarf modern
• Broccoli - green comet
• Squash - Gold Rush, Scallopini

The information that I’m providing is fairly basic. There are a lot of different opinions regarding container vegetable gardens. Even with the selection of containers, there is uncertainty. How do we know that the plastic is free of harmful chemicals, or if the metal is lead free? How do we know if there are dangerous preservatives in the wood that we’ve used? Use cedar or redwood when possible. These are each naturally rot and insect resistant. I recently read that you could use organic potting mix, organic seeds, with organic fertilizers and yet, if you are not using a PVC free or natural rubber garden hose, you could end up with Bisphenol A (BPA) in your food.

It is important to be aware of what’s going on with plastics, and to buy PVC free products that specifically say they’re safe. Pictured above is a polyurethane pvc free coil garden hose. Do your research regarding consumer safety before you buy any garden products, and choose what you feel comfortable with using. At least you’ll know that the food you grow isn’t genetically modified. (Scary stuff.)

Container vegetable gardening is a relatively new experience for me. I hope to add some raised beds in the fall to be able to grow even more vegetables by next spring. My neighbor recently told my husband that she knew that I really loved my flowers and that she enjoyed looking at them too. Little does she know that by next year I’ll be sneaking some veggies into my borders too!

With the abundance of information available on container and raised bed gardening, hopefully our gardening mistakes will become less and less! It is important for us to learn from them and to utilize the resources that are available to us. When someone can admit to making a mistake, so much can be accomplished. This is true in and out of the garden.

When an entity can admit that they can do better at providing equal access, or they can acknowledge that a situation is indeed potentially dangerous for a person with a disability, so much can be accomplished too. Progress can only be made with the acceptance that more can and needs to be done to improve any situation. A telltale sign that an entity hasn’t provided equal access is when someone says that no one with a disability has ever been there. There’s generally a good reason for this, and it’s usually because they can’t easily or safely get there.

Get out, garden, and get your hands dirty. Life is too short not to be surrounded by gorgeous flowers or to be stocked up with healthy food. They make you feel good. I’m certainly convinced! Please join me on facebook at Access to the Garden. Lots of great people, with lots of great ideas and beautiful flowers too!



2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 small tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 medium yellow summer squash, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 medium Yukon Gold potato, sliced 1/4-inch thick
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan


Heat oven to 375 degrees. Heat oil over medium and cook onion until tender and lightly golden, 6 to 8 minutes.
Arrange the onion on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Overlap tomato, squash, and potato on top of the onion. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with thyme and Parmesan, and drizzle with more oil.
Bake covered for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until golden, 30 minutes more.


  1. Who would think that just because we grow our own food that A. The soil we use could be the wrong kind. B. The water hose could be made of unsafe materials? Crazy to think about it, but I like anything else you have to do your research to make things safe!! Excellent!!

    1. My daughter likes to grow annual poppies in her vegetable gardening . You can see photos of them in this post