Container Gardening Phase One
February 15, 2017 1:13 PM   Subscribe

I finally have the space and sunlight for a container garden! Yay! Now I need the know-how... I have a notoriously brown thumb. I'm looking on resources/advice for container gardening (mid-Atlantic), including the set-up of containers and the stand.

We moved in last July, and I experimented with a late-season window box herb garden on the balcony, with relative success. This year, I want to start early and expand my garden.

I have an (south-ish) east-facing 9th floor balcony in Philadelphia. It is fairly small balcony, and we are not allowed to have any outward-facing window boxes, but I have an easel-style bookcase that I can use at one end - it has removable shelves that are more like trays with a slightly raised edge. I want to put pots/containers on these shelves from bottom to top, and use the bottom (larger) shelf for storing the watering can, tools, etc. The balcony is concrete and solid to around waist height, so there is good sun up top and partial sun at the bottom of where I want to put my garden.

Step 1 is prepping my bookshelf and containers. The wood has a slightly waxy coating - is it better to stain or paint, and how to prep for each? I was initially going to use outdoor paint once the temperature gets high enough to do this outside, but I'm thinking a stain and sealant might be better and then I could paint the containers themselves if I want to add some color.

Step 2 is prepping containers. I was thinking I would just get clay pots and put them straight on the shelves. What are some good resources for setting up containers? I am also concerned about giving the plants proper drainage without spilling over onto the balcony so we don't end up with sediment-laden drips marks on our balcony.

Step 3 is choosing what to grow. I am planning on some herbs and some veggies. What vegetables do well in containers, in partial or full sun, in the mid-Atlantic, with a so-so gardener? I figure I can try a couple vines, using the bookshelf frame as support.
posted by DoubleLune to Home & Garden (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Youtube + Sunset magazine
posted by Freedomboy at 1:38 PM on February 15, 2017

Best answer: Strongly recommend not using a porous container, but rather use plastic/melamine/similar self-watering pots or containers with a built-in reservoir. Even in very humid climates pots lose moisture quickly, stressing the plants, and terra cotta actually just bakes the water out when the sun hits it (but coir is just as bad). Also, your plants might survive a windstorm knocking them over but they are less likely to make it if their pot shatters.

If you could get away with it in your space, I'd actually recommend these, which will raise up your growing level like you need. I use the low version (note: Lowe's/HD have those for $28 rather than $48), I have eight of them on my patio. That gives you just shy of 2sqft per box, which makes it easier to do a simplified Square Foot Gardening.

And I do recommend you do a simplified Square Foot Gardening, which you can find all over the internet and youtube. I recommend getting pots with roughly a square foot of surface area, but you'll be a little bit at the mercy of what you can buy where you are.

DO NOT OVERTHINK YOUR FIRST GARDEN. You will want to. You will buy $55 worth of seeds (don't buy seeds, use plants) and plant starts for an amount of space that can handle maybe $18, and something horrible will happen, and you will grow one tomato and 35 tons of an herb you don't like*, and that means you are a bona fide gardener. It's like being hazed by Mother Nature. You learn to garden by screwing up and occasionally accidentally succeeding.

*You should see my cilantro, it's glorious. Also, several hundred jalapenos when we eat maybe two a month. I make guests take jalapenos with them when they leave.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:48 PM on February 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: As for what to grow? Even a grape/cherry patio tomato really wants 4+ gallons of soil (like, a Home Depot Homer Bucket, which is 5gal) and I'm not sure your bookcase is going to handle that. Get herbs, you can cram those in pretty tightly in one or two pots. I segregate mine, so that the similar-looking ones (parsley vs cilantro, regular vs garlic chives) are separated, and then tuck in sage and basil (trim basil weekly once it gets going) and oregano or marjoram. I used to grow a ton of thyme, but I hate thyme. Trim your herbs pretty often, and you can freeze what you don't use right away. You can grow little onions and garlic in pots, but those are half-year-plus projects and I think you're supposed to do them over the winter.

You might be able to do some pole beans or snap/snow peas, they're pretty to grow too, but they don't like the heat much so that's very much a spring crop*. A very small tomato in the biggest pot you can manage, or some of the smaller peppers (baby bells are good, there's some other varieties of small sweet peppers, or you can go full throttle for jalapeno or habanero or similar). Chard is actually very easy to grow and impressive-looking, but the downside to chard is that you can saute your whole crop and fit it all in your mouth at once, and that's also mostly a spring thing.

Strawberries are fun, but the yield is not going to be huge. I struggle with cucumbers even in my large containers, but maybe the little Persian ones.

*Find the website of your local extension service, they'll often have to-the-date planting guides for your very specific growing area. Also find your local non-big-box garden center, as they'll usually stick to stock that actually grows well where you are, and get it in at the right time. Those places often have classes and stuff too.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:02 PM on February 15, 2017

You can compost in small spaces (an example here). Good compost and compost tea will be the best thing you will ever do for your container garden . It will norish your plants without burning them (too much nitrogen) or depositibg too much salt in your limited amounts of dirt. Seriously, if you want to succeed with containers, learn to make compost and compost tea.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 3:07 PM on February 15, 2017

Best answer: Radishes are easy to grow and are harvested early... Very satisfying if you are inpatient.

Mint, chives, parsley, and basil are easy for beginners and can be harvested all season, which is fun.
posted by mortaddams at 5:59 PM on February 15, 2017

Best answer: Salad greens are some of the best bang for the buck plants to grow. A small window box can easily grow a persons worth of lettuce for a while especially if it is the cut and come again varieties. It is ridiculously easy to grow and also very expensive to buy at a store. I would get two long windowboxes and start one when you are able to start it and cut when you want lettuce. I'd also start another window box about 4 weeks after the first and pull up the first one and reseed 12-16 weeks after the first planting and do the same with the second box 4 weeks later. I find greens start to not taste as good after a while so you will want to have some good succession planting going to eliminate glut drought cycles.

Spinach is good as well as Swiss Chard, and if you like it kale. Kale should survive well into the winter and only be killed off when there is a period of weather below 25F.
posted by koolkat at 3:55 AM on February 16, 2017

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