Gardening for the overbooked
March 7, 2014 12:11 PM   Subscribe

We've just started renting a house, so we can grow delicious things to eat! However, I need to unpack (and write, and cook, and teach, and...) rather than garden. I am willing to throw a certain amount of money at this problem. What should I look for at garden stores?

Details: We are renting a house in eastern Contra Costa County in northern California. It has a backyard and two concrete pads in the backyard; it's on the west-northwest side but gets good midday sun. We don't know how long we'll live here. We want to grow things to eat (vegetables, herbs, peppers, etc.). Our climate zone is 8b*. I don't want to have to dig/replant anything this year if I can avoid it, even in containers. Is this possible? Can I just go to a gardening center etc. and buy things already in containers that I can just set outside and water and that will live and grow for at least year? How can I identify things that will grow as-is?

If I'm delusional, let me know, but if we can find even a couple of things to grow, I will be so happy to not have to put it off yet again.

* "Summer daytime temperatures are high, sunshine is almost constant during the growing season, and growing seasons are long. Deciduous fruits and vegetables of nearly every kind thrive in these long, hot summers; winter cold is just adequate to satisfy the dormancy requirements of the fruit trees." -- Sunset.

This year it repeatedly got down to freezing and I actually saw frost, which is sort of unusual. We do not get snow or ice. We do get really, really hot in the summer, and extremely dry. The only time it rains or is humid is in the winter (late fall to spring). There's actually a lot of farming out here; for example, I live about 9 miles from the apparently legendary Frog Hollow Farms.
posted by wintersweet to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Fresh herbs are going to give you your best deliciousness:effort ratio. In my experience you can buy the 4" pots of herbs and keep them like that and they'll be fine, even if it's not optimal.
posted by quaking fajita at 12:14 PM on March 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Get a bale of hay and two potted (determinate) tomato plants. Remove the pot and dig a roughly same-sized hole in the hay. Water regularly. Voila, tomato garden.

Note: if you have a frost warning again you can carry the bale into your garage/house/whatever for protection.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:19 PM on March 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Can I just go to a gardening center etc. and buy things already in containers that I can just set outside and water and that will live and grow for at least year?

If time is so precious, you'll want to repot most things because otherwise you'll be watering very frequently; a small amount of dirt holds little water, and stressed plants are unproductive. Depending on the nursery you might find a few things already potted in larger containers, but probably not many; large containers, the dirt to fill them, the space to store and display them, and the labor to move them are all considerably more expensive. They know they can't sell many such plants at the necessarily much higher prices they require, so they won't stock many (or any).

Few edible plants live a full year. There are perennial herbs, asparagus, rhubarb... but most familiar garden veggies have life cycles that run their course in a considerably shorter period.
posted by jon1270 at 12:34 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely the straw bale - those things rock and they hold moisture like crazy. You need to water them for 10 days before planting anything and throw some fertilizer on them too.

Also, soaker hoses are great for this - especially if you put them on a timer.
posted by dawkins_7 at 12:43 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ideally garden plants should receive 12 hours of direct sunlight. Each hour less than that will diminish yield but many plants will produce with much less. Your yard description doesn't mention bare dirt, if you have dirt you can grow more stuff than you can in containers on concrete. A quick minimal work way starts with a couple (or several) bags of complete potting soil or vegetable planting mix. Pick your spot in the yard and lay one bag flat. Cut a big X across the bag and turn it over. Cut anther X across the up side of the bag. You can then cut small openings in the bag and transplant herbs directly into it. If you want to grow onions from sets cut lines and cross cut to allow for watering. For bigger plants like tomatoes, chili plants, tomatillos stack two or even three bags onto each other. Cut large enough openings on the facing sides of each bag to water to percolate through and for root growth.

To make irrigation easy use battery operated hose end timers connected to micro tube with emitters.

If you use straw bales just lay the growing medium sacks directly on the bales, make X cuts in each corner quadrant and another in the center. The cuts should be big enough to for good drainage and root growth but keep enough of the bag together and not falling apart. The straw will become good for composting next year's garden.
posted by X4ster at 2:23 PM on March 7, 2014

Best answer: You can just guy things already in pots set to go. A lot of garden centres will sell things like large tomato plants etc that you can just keep in the pot they are sold in, or at least my MIL does. You want to buy the herbs and veggies in as large a pots as you can because in summer you will be watering 2 times a day at least if you keep the plants in small pots. If you want food plants to last until next year you'll want to look at herbs or fruit plants.

If you are willing to spend say 20 minutes half an hour to set up an Earthbox or 2 you will be guaranteed a much better survival rate, and a lot less work on a daily basis. The instructions say to include dolomite and fertilzer etc when planting, but I have grown stuff in them with nothing but Miracle grow potting mix with perfectly good results, and pop in a some seedlings or even older plants and off you go. I've had good results with herbs and tomatoes. This year I am thinking of trying some flowers in them. You can't over water, you just top up the tank every day. They aren't super cheap but the containers do last very well. I know you say you want to avoid digging, it's just normal pots in summer are hard work to get a good result out of if you don't want to spend all your time watering them.
posted by wwax at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2014

Best answer: I don't know of pre-planted options, but here's the most efficient plan I could suggest (though on preview, X4ster's plan might be even more efficient).

Go to Home Depot or Lowe's and buy a few long rectangular planters (maybe 1-2 that are shallow and 1-2 that are deep?), six 5-gallon pots, and six tomato cages.

Then go to a garden center (somewhere that has more organic options would be my recommendation) and buy a few big bags of potting soil, a few big bags of compost, a six-pack of lettuce, a six-pack of whatever deeper-rooting plant you want (e.g., broccoli), and a six-pack of tomato plants. (Adjust as necessary based on the planters you bought.)

Go home, fill the containers with approximately 1/3 compost and 2/3 soil (you might read the compost package to make sure that's the right mix), plant the seedlings, and call it done!
posted by slidell at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2014

Best answer: I live in central Contra Costa County. I did straw bale gardening for the first time last year and did very well with various hot peppers, banana peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, and basil. The sweet peppers, unfortunately, were scorched by a series of above 100 degree days and did not produce well. The yellow squash never took off although I've had good luck with it in previous years. But boy did the zucchini make up for it!

Most decent veggie crops take a lot of water, especially when it gets as hot as it does in our area. I'm thinking about skipping the garden this year because of the drought. It's likely that we'll have voluntary water reduction goals, and possible that there will be mandatory rationing. If I do plant this year, I'm thinking about trying to capture some gray water from household use for some limited veggies. It's worth considering this before you plant.
posted by rekrap at 3:09 PM on March 7, 2014

I always do the same thing anywhere I live. 4 8 foot boards screwed together into a square that you lay on the ground. Dig it up and mix in a 3*2 of peat and 40 lbs of cow manure and you can grow anything.

You can nail 1*1s into the corners and mesh around it with a staple gun if you have rabbits or a dog that can't tell a green tomato from a red one.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:15 PM on March 7, 2014

Response by poster: I'm familiar with the concepts of DIY container gardening thanks to AskMeFi and some books, but I'm looking at some ways to NOT do that for now, even if I can only get a couple things growing. Another person's couple-hour project is my whole-afternoon-gone. :/

We are renting, and planting stuff in the ground/substantially altering any part of the back yard is not going to work.

There is nowhere in our yard that gets 12 hours of sunlight (though the right half of the patio is probably good for at least 8), but that doesn't seem to stop the neighbors' tomatoes from going nuts. They still had a couple edible ones in December.

I'll look into EarthBoxes again; they might be the best compromise.

rekrap, I nearly posted an addition about water concerns. It's definitely something I'm keeping in mind!

Thanks so far. :)
posted by wintersweet at 4:01 PM on March 7, 2014

Best answer: I have a small garden and get sun in summer from about 1pm - 6.30pm (because of my building's orientation and the neighbors) and less in winter. Things that have worked well for me with minimum work:
Tuscan Kale - plant lasted for over a year despite dreadful neglect, and would just grow back if heavily attacked by pests.

Redskin Pepper - I bought this as a plant, and it has lasted through three summers and two winters with better peppers each year (looks half dead through winter, but revives itself).

Early Long Purple Eggplant - this is seasonal, e.g. only summer, but great crops for little work.

Dwarf beans - Just push a few more beans under the soil when you think about it and no staking required for dwarf versions (but need a reasonable number of plants to get a good size crop).

Garlic - easy, but it is a slow growing crop, mine is usually in the ground for almost six months.

Beetroot - seemed fairly forgiving of my absent-minded treatment of it and you can either eat the greens or wait for the roots.

Tamarillo - will take longer than a year to get to fruiting but seem reasonably tolerant of heat and cold.

Also herbs - parsley, rosemary and thyme are easy, coriander is terrible (bolts to seed very quickly in the heat), basil is also pretty easy.

Things I have grown that I felt needed more work: citrus trees (various pests, diseases), tomatoes (not hard work but need to get them in at the right time etc).
posted by AnnaRat at 5:28 PM on March 8, 2014

Response by poster: A little note for anyone else with a similar problem: Plants in biodegradable containers (from Home Depot) so that they can be planted as is, with minimal digging and no consulting about depths and stuff. This is our plan (peppers, Japanese eggplant, tomatoes, etc). and it seems like the best compromise at this point.
posted by wintersweet at 1:20 PM on March 27, 2014

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