GARDENING : You've Got No Place to Grow Produce? Can It!

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you look out over your homestead and see that you have little or no land, you may think that growing crops is impossible. But don't despair.

Just about any fruit or vegetable can be grown in containers.

"There are dwarf vegetables specifically bred for containers," says Bill Sidnam of Santa Ana, who tests seed varieties in containers for wholesale seed companies.

"The mini zucchini, Green Magic, produces a great deal, and the Pixie and Patio tomatoes both do very well in containers. You can usually find the Patio at nurseries. The Pixie and many other mini-vegetables must often be purchased as seeds from seed catalogues."

The production of mini-vegetables varies, according to Marie Bouse of Santa Ana, who is president of the Organic Gardening Club of Orange County and who grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in containers.

"Some of the plants specifically bred for containers bear just as much as full plants, while others do not," she says. "But they are always improving on them and coming up with new types."

Whether you plant mini or full plants, there are many vegetables that do very well and sometimes better in containers.

"Carrots grow exceptionally well in containers because the soil isn't too heavy for their roots to penetrate, and they can get very large," says Sidnam. "You can grow as many as 100 carrots in a whiskey barrel. Potatoes also do very well."

Other plants that thrive in containers and add beauty to landscape are artichokes, which turn into large purple flowers if they aren't harvested, and eggplant.

"The eggplant has gorgeous foliage and beautiful lavender blossoms," says Sidnam. "Peppers also grow well and are attractive with their green shiny foliage and white blossoms. And many herbs can be grown in containers, adding fragrance to any patio."

There are some crops that don't do as well in containers. "Beans and peas aren't very practical for growing in pots because you must plant many for a decent harvest," says Sidnam. "Watermelons need a lot of water and pumpkins require a great deal of space."

You may want to try some of these crops if you just want a small harvest, however. "I grew a pumpkin vine in a container one year and ended up with one perfect, round 10-inch pumpkin," says Grace Gelling of Fullerton. "That one pumpkin was all I needed and wanted."

Container gardening has benefits over traditional growing methods.

"You have more control over plants in containers," says Kelly Kong-Green, manager of Flowerdale Nurseries in Costa Mesa. "There aren't problems with soil-borne diseases because you start with sterilized soil. You also have less problems with pests, and light can be controlled more easily. If a plant isn't getting enough sunlight or too much, it can be moved."

The type of containers you choose depends on the plants that go inside them.

"Keep in mind that the container must be large enough to allow the plant room to grow a healthy root structure," says Kong-Green. "If you get too small of a pot and the roots aren't able to grow, the growth and production of your plant will be affected."

Consider the root space of the plant when it is mature and use that as a guide, says Bouse. "You don't need to determine full root size when planting a tree, because you can re-pot it as it grows, but annual vegetables should spend their life cycle in the same container."

Bouse grows shallow rooted plants in 1-foot containers. "These plants include lettuce, radishes, short 'dwarf' carrots, little ball beets, green onions and many herbs," she says. "Other plants need more root room, such as cucumbers and peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini."

Some gardening experts prefer to use larger containers with plants that don't need much room. "The larger the container size, the better plants grow," says Sidnam. "Whiskey barrels are a good size. You can find this size range in wood and less expensive plastic, which lasts much longer."

Helen Mikas of Tustin says she uses both halves of a 50-gallon drum. "We used to have trees in wooden whiskey barrels, but found (the barrels) deteriorate over time," says the Orange County Organic Gardener of the Year in 1989. "The drums are longer lasting and the perfect size."

The soil used can either be a commercial potting soil or home made.

"When you buy soil, make certain it is potting soil, and not planting mix, because there is a big difference between the two," says Bouse.

Sidnam suggests heavier mixes that contain sand. "Stay away from the really light ones, because they create problems," he says. "For instance, if soil is too light, when you go to stake a tomato, the stake will fall over."

Expert gardeners suggest that if you want potting soil that contains all of the right ingredients, you should make your own. Mikas suggests using one part perlite, one part vermiculite, one part peat moss and three parts of compost. "The compost feeds and loosens the soil," she says.

Always plant seeds in moist soil, and then sprinkle them lightly with water until they are established, says Sidnam. "Also make sure to transplant in the late afternoon," he says. "You don't want tender plants to have to endure the harsh midday sun. Once they're planted, water them well."

Container plants need to be watered more frequently than their ground counterparts. "You can lose a container plant very quickly if it's not watered enough," says Sidnam.

In the summer, water containers at least every other day, sometimes more during hot spells and Santa Ana winds. The soil should always be damp, but not soaking. To check plants, poke your finger in a quarter to a half an inch deep. Water if the soil is dry.

"Never let the container dry out completely," warns Bouse. "If this happens, the moss creates water channels. Then when you water, the water just passes through these channels and out the bottom of the container, bypassing the plant's roots."

If soil dries out, remove, moisten and re-mix it to rid the container of water channels.

Plants in containers must also be fertilized more often than ground plants. Sidnam uses the time released fertilizer Osmocote, which he mixes into his potting soil before planting.

"It releases fertilizer over a period of eight or nine months," he says. "It isn't organic, so many organic gardeners don't use it, but I think it's the most practical fertilizer because it doesn't leach out of the container."

Organic gardening requires more fertilizing. Bouse includes compost in her potting soil and uses a liquid fertilizer every week, applying either fish emulsion (found at many home supply stores) or chicken manure tea (made from EZ Green chicken manure).

She also makes sure to give her container plants trace elements every month in the form of liquid seaweed or sea kelp solutions.

Certain plants also need specific fertilizers. Strawberries and blueberries, for instance, like a very acid soil, so Mikas adds Agricultural Sulfur. Artichokes and asparagus need an alkaline soil, so she adds Agricultural Lime.

Support climbing plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes, melons and berries with either a trellis or reinforcing wire.

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