Urban Container Farming

Container Farming           Jody Lannen Brady     MG Class of 2012

I have a little, shady square of land behind my rowhouse. Unfortunately the ground is full of rubble dumped inside retaining walls. I wouldn’t want to eat anything I managed to grow in that soil.
It’s a common urban predicament: little space, poor soil and limited sunlight. What’s a vegetable gardener to do? Think “containers.”

Vegetables can grow in just about anything that provides enough depth and drainage. Last year I grew peppers and eggplants in wash tubs, herbs in large clay pots, tomatoes in buckets and lettuce in hanging baskets. You could also repurpose plastic bins, trash cans, wood planters or plastic bags for your “farm.”
Match the right plant with the right size containers. Extensive Service guidelines suggest at least 5-gallon containers for tomatoes (one plant per container) but a two-gallon container can support a crop of bush beans planted just a few inches apart. If the container doesn’t already have drainage holes, you’ll need to make them. For the planting medium, you’ll want a lightweight, porous potting mix. “Large pot” mixes   come with coarse material that won’t degrade as fast as peat moss, and they often include water-retaining crystals to help hold water. Garden soil isn’t a good choice for containers because of weight and drainage issues.
The small space requirements of carrots, radishes, lettuce, green onions and herbs make them ideal choices for a container garden. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants require larger containers but many varietals will produce well in pots, buckets and tubs. A series of  Extension Service publications lists suggestions. Vertical growers (cucumbers, peas, pole beans) are good limited-space choices, as well.

Watering is crucial; soil in a container will dry out much faster than garden soil. On hot summer days, some plants may require twice daily watering; though checking moisture levels once a day is usually enough. I’m looking into self-watering options for my garden this year: timed drip irrigation, underground olas and containers with water reserves.
With all that watering, adding nutrients is essential. Pelleted time release products like Osmocote can be added at planting. When the plants are in production mode, weekly liquid fertilizer that’s high in potassium and low in nitrogen can boost yields. Organic options include fish emulsion, kelp meal/extract and bone meal.
To keep pests under control, IPM tools suited to the container garden include proper spacing (allow for air flow between plants), mulching, companion planting, floating row covers and timely harvesting. Find these tips and more in the “Growing Great Container Vegetables” guides available on the Penn State website.
We ate from our container garden all summer long and into the fall. What will I do differently next year? Add wheels to the bottom of my largest—and heaviest!—containers. It took two of us to move the wash tubs last year when we needed to find them a better patch of sun.
 Happy container gardening!

Both hyperlinks: http://extension.psu.edu/vegetable-fruit/fact-sheets/growing-great-container-vegetables