Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Gardening With Limited Space

Container Gardens Can Be Prolific

For many years now, I have had no yard space available for my own garden. At previous homes, I had been able to cut out a section of dirt in my yard to section off for growing vegetables. With my current home, however, I do not have an area in the grass that I am comfortable removing or that would afford the necessary amount of full sun to grow what I want.

This posed an interesting problem when I moved here because I definitely wanted a garden to grow my own produce. Yet the only area on the property that truly seemed to have the proper conditions for sunlight was my driveway. Because I do not use the garage for parking a car, it seemed reasonable to re-purpose a section of the driveway for container gardening. But I wanted something big enough and deep enough to grow the plants I had in mind. It's a no-brainer that tomatoes can do well in containers, but I really wanted to expand into pumpkins and root vegetables and other plants that need a little more room to maneuver. So several years ago I sat down with a measuring tape and some paper and figured out the dimensions for a box that could fit alongside the driveway in the narrow space next to the fence.

I discovered that there was plenty of room for a quite sizable box garden, which could be deeper than any of my other containers and offer the space to plant several rows of vegetables. The first year, I even grew corn. 

Building a container is fairly easy, though you need to start with the proper materials. Buying wood for the frame that is not chemically treated is essential, because those chemicals do not belong in your food. Check with the local lumber store to find out which of your locally available wood options will resist rot the best. Untreated pine seems to do a fine job. And it looks good naturally, weathers well and is very easy to work with.

Framing a box container can be very simple. It really only requires a few nails or screws. (I prefer screws, personally, because I find that they allow you to easily get a tighter grip.) A couple of right angle brackets will hold your boards nicely. If you have the luxury of being able to put the container "in the ground," be sure to dig a trench to hold the bottom in place and then fill in a couple of inches around it. A larger container will be relatively stable and secure whether or not it is dug in, but preparing a small trench is still a good idea and will assist in the building of the structure.

Once the frame is complete, it is important to fill it properly. While almost any clean dirt will do, you really want to exercise some care with your source. I got lucky because my neighbor was excavating her garden and needed to get rid of a large amount of dirt, but it turned out to be full of clay and would not have been very good on its own. Fortunately for me, I had been composting for over a year at that point and had a good amount of quality organic material to mix in. Ultimately, that gave my garden a huge spike for its inaugural season. But even with the free dirt and compost I had available, I still needed to supplement with a few bags of soil from the local garden supply store. 

Other Containers

Besides building a container yourself, there are plenty of natural options available to purchase. Personally, I do not care for plastic containers. They are durable and weather resistant and can hold your soil just fine, but I am always suspicious about whether they leach into the soil during hot days. Most of them do not disclose their chemical makeup, so there is no way of knowing by looking at them what kind of plastic they are made of. For this reason alone, I generally avoid plastic completely if I intend to eat what I grow.

That leaves the options of terracotta or wood, essentially. Terracotta tends to be heavy, easy to break and might even be messy to transport, but it still remains quite durable and much of the time ages in a uniquely beautiful manner. For small or mid-sized pots, this is what I prefer. There is an endless range of design options on the market and these beautiful pots add a particular warmth to their environment. 

When a larger pot is needed, although there are usually terracotta options for this, I suggest searching out cut barrels. Whiskey and wine barrels have already been aged nicely, which naturally treats the wood to preserve it. They are frequently burned a little on the inside, or have soaked up enough of their previous history to offer a fragrant scent when they sit in the sun. Washing them out with some fresh water before filling them with dirt is always a good idea, because the wood will leach some of its history into the soil when it gets hot and wet. However, you will have a hard time finding a better planter for your container garden if you have the space to put a half-barrel.

The advantages to a barrel include a greater depth than most comparable planters, which is especially good if you aim to grow root vegetables. Additionally, they also weather in a uniquely beautiful manner. Some people feel that these planters drain in a more favorable way, allowing for a natural seepage to occur rather than just draining out of a singular hole in the bottom, but it should be noted that wood swells when it is moist and the barrels generally will hold the water inside just as a terracotta pot does. The downside to this is that, especially if the barrels are left in a predominantly dark or shady location, there is the possibility for wood rot and mold over time. My barrels always stay where they get at least a few hours of full sun every day.

Existing Structures

Never forget the potential of creatively re-purposing what is already there. While a retired wheelbarrow may not be appropriate for a vegetable garden (the flaking paint and rusting metal are not ingredients you want in your organic food), it might make a good base for some small containers. (Don't forget to pound a few drainage holes into the bottom to prevent it from rusting through too quickly.) Of course, for decorative gardening, a wheelbarrow full of soil and flowers might be just the touch.

I had built a sandbox that was no longer being used as a play area and felt that it could be re-imagined as a child's garden. Replacing the sand with soil was the hardest part. The wood had already been heavily weathered but was holding up nicely. Although the soil was only about five inches deep, the garden soon became a mecca for strawberries and lettuces and different types of tomatoes and beans. It was remarkable how well it thrived (although the attempts to grow any type of squash were a disaster). After three years of trial and error and letting nature run its course, we have decided to leave it mostly to the strawberries and lettuces and to keep the taller plants in containers that allow the roots to grow down deeper. Still, every now and again, a dormant seed of one sort or another will surprise everyone and thrive.

Natural Selection

Even with container gardening, although typically with larger containers, nature can surprise you. I do not completely remove and replace entire plants each season, but I have tried keeping the soil healthy through "crop rotation." That is to say, I pull dead roots and I cut back plants as necessary, especially when it is time to plant something else. I put different seeds down in each location when I think I can grow something new there or when space frees up. And I let over-ripe or rotten fruit fall into the soil and stay there, just as it would in nature. This allows some surprises to occur, whether it is a resurgence of last year's crop or simply a nice mix of plants that find synergy in the same pot. Being open to this has been a nice aspect of the gardening experience, even as part of me always sets out to control the rows and plant proper mounds that are properly spaced at the proper time of the year...

Experiencing what nature offers goes beyond just eating the fruits of your labor, and it goes far beyond the confines of traditional gardens. Whether there is only access on a small patio, in a window box or across a vast concrete slab, the gardening experience can be contained and controlled or allowed to run its wild course with simple options a little work and just the right amount of care.

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