Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
Those who want to garden but lack a plot of land may want to try out container gardening, Dr. Obadiah Njue, chair of the Department of Agriculture at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said. Growing vegetables, fruits and ornamentals in containers requires little space and less effort than traditional methods of growing plants.
“Growing plants in a container allows gardeners to easily grow and care for plants that would otherwise require more attention in an actual garden,” Dr. Njue said.
Dr. Njue said with this type of garden, plants are grown in containers appropriately sized to meet the needs of the plants placed in a single container. Depending on the setup, container gardens can be moved from one location to another.
“Container gardening offers many advantages for hobby gardeners looking to try something new,” he said. “Because they require minimum space and are highly adaptable to a variety of settings, they can be great options for senior citizens, school classes or youth clubs.”
Container vegetable gardens can be useful for low-income and elderly individuals and families whose health status could be improved with a ready supply of fresh vegetables, he said. Cost savings on fresh produce could greatly expand the available food dollars for a household.
“In addition to saving money, the practice of maintaining a container garden can provide important health benefits for the elderly,” Dr. Njue said. “The activity involved in growing these gardens can increase both mental and physical health, thus bettering a person’s quality of life.”
Dr. Njue said the first step in starting a container garden is selecting the proper containers. Potential containers can be made from clay, wood, plastic or ceramics. Bushel baskets, bushel whiskey barrels, 12-gallon dough drums cut in half or large pressed paper containers are ideal for growing tomatoes, squash, pole beans, cucumbers and a variety of other plants.
“The size of the containers used varies according to the crops planted and available space,” he said. “Remember that containers can never be too big for any type of vegetable crop. Small containers restrict root growth, dwarf top growth and reduce harvest.”
“Whether you are using the bottom of a drum or another large container, you must ensure the vessel has adequate holes for drainage,” Dr. Njue said. “A good rule of thumb is to place two 1/4 inch holes every 4 inches from the bottom of each container. It is important to ensure that adequate moisture in the growing medium is maintained throughout the growing period. Potting mix, available at most discount stores, drains easily, is lightweight and free from soil-borne diseases and weed seeds.
Containers can either be mobile or immobile and set in the ground or placed on a raised platform, he said. Immobile containers are recommended for soils that are very sandy, have a high drainage field capacity or a history of moisture depletion or severe flooding.
When selecting what to plant in their containers, gardeners can choose from a wide variety of vegetables, Dr. Njue said. He recommends tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, collards, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, yellow squash, beets, green onions and radishes. Container gardeners can also practice companion planting, the practice of mixing vegetables with herbs, spices or flowers in the same container.
Some vegetables such as lettuce can be grown as ornamentals in containers, he said. Annual flowers noted for their brilliant colors such as dwarf marigolds can also be planted among vegetables. Herbs planted in containers outdoors can be brought indoors during the winter so the grower can continue to enjoy their aroma.
“Plant spacing for most vegetables depends on container size and eventual size of the plant at maturity, Dr. Njue said. “Always plant a few extra seeds. After seeds have sprouted to foliage, thin the plants to a desired number, maintaining the recommended spacing between plants. Set your transplants in containers at the same time you would when planting a regular garden.”
When fertilizing the plants, beginning gardeners should follow the standard recommendation of one-half tablespoon of fertilizer to one gallon of soil mix, he said. For example, a five-gallon bucket of soil mix would require two and a half tablespoons of fertilizer. Add any common water-soluble fertilizer such as 20-20-20 or Miracle Gro 15-30-15 to containers during bloom or fruit set. For fertilizer recommendation, gardeners can contact their local Extension office.
“Most fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra require mid-season additional fertilizer, as watering releases nitrogen out of the soil,” Dr. Njue said. “Potting mixes do not retain nutrients very well because the water drains from the container quickly and frequent watering washes the fertilizer out of the plant roots.”
Plants in containers exposed to extreme weather conditions such as scorching sun and strong wind need frequent watering, he said. Water twice daily, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Plants recovering from drought use their energy to reestablish feeder roots at the expense of bloom and fruit set, Dr. Njue said. Therefore, gardeners should never allow plants in containers to dry out near the bloom or fruit set stage as this may result in stunted plants without flowers or fruit.
“With proper attention, container gardens can open up a world of gardening to those with poor soil or no access to a full-size garden,” he said. “Whether located on the front porch or back patio of a private residence or in the courtyard of a school or business, container gardens offer a versatile option for growing a variety of plants.”