This story was originally published in May of 2017.
BANGOR, Maine — Not everyone is lucky enough to have to have a spacious backyard to accommodate an expansive vegetable garden. But for those lacking in space or perhaps those who are new to planting their own crops, container gardening can be a simple alternative to traditional row gardens or raised beds.
“Not a lot of people have access to good soil, good sunlight in the right spot, [and] even access to water can be tough. To consider growing the […] crops that you really need in small containers can be a really good option, especially as a stepping stone to get people into gardening,” University of Maine Cooperative Extension horticulturist Kate Garland said.
Planting in containers will save you space, and it will save you some money, Garland said. Because of the low cost for containers and need for less soil, planting in containers is less expensive than investing the resources in purchasing loam and constructions materials for raised beds.
“It’s a really low-cost way of getting into gardening,” Garland said.
A whole host of vegetable and herb plants can thrive in a container gardening setup long as they are given the proper sunlight, hydration and spacing they require. While larger crops such as tomatoes or peppers do take longer to grow in containers, Garland said they’re still certainly worth planting, and can be supplemented with vegetables that have a quicker turn around such as lettuce and microgreens.
To start growing all you need are containers, a trusty potting soil and plant seeds or seedlings. Garland said the containers you use to plant don’t have to be fancy at all — the most important thing is that they have good drainage at the bottom of the container. Common containers used for planting are gallon buckets that have had holes drilled into the bottom for drainage.
If you’re planting a crop with shallow roots, Garland suggests putting capped, empty water bottles in the bottom of the bucket before filling it with soil. This fills up some of the excess space and allows for better drainage. When choosing a potting soil, you want a mix that is well-drained and not compacted and hard, which prohibits proper root growth.
“You don’t want to dig out the soil from your own landscape because that will get really compacted,” Garland said. “It will also not allow for good water movement throughout the container.”
While plants can either be grown from seeds or seedlings in container gardens, Garland said to keep in mind that given Maine’s shorter growing season plants that take longer to grow such as tomatoes or eggplants will not come to fruition if started as a seed in a container.
The last week of May or first week of June is a good time to start planting your container gardens outside. While warmer weather may come earlier then that, the urge to start planting outside should be resisted to prevent from losing any plants to unexpected cold temperatures.
“I tend to encourage procrastination as much as possible, because it’s very common to have your heart broken at this time of year with a late frost or even just late cool nights down into the 40s,” Garland said. “It is something to be very mindful of not to plant too early.”
However, a benefit of container gardens is that, since they are relatively portable depending on the size of bucket you’re using, they can be started inside or in a garage and moved outside once stable temperatures have arrived, Garland said.
Just like when planting in the ground, proper spacing requirements for the crops you’re planting should be followed. Garland said one of the most common mistakes in container gardening is over planting in one container. Larger plants such as cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers will require their own container per individual plant; smaller plants such as herbs can be paired together.
The most important upkeep in container gardening is watering. Garland recommends placing your container gardens in a place you see frequently so you can check on the soil’s water level.
“Watering is the biggest thing,” Garland said. “People over water in a lot of instances, especially when plants are young. Avoid keeping it saturated and also letting it dry out, so keep it to that Goldie Locks in-between [stage].”
Another option for gardening on a smaller scale is the use of a straw bale garden. To start this type of a garden, the straw bale must be first seasoned for a couple of weeks. To do so, turn the bale onto its side so the cut ends are facing up and water it on a daily basis, Garland said. To begin the decomposition of the straw in the center of the bale, sprinkle a half-cup of urea, a nitrogen-containing substance, over the surface of the bale on days three to seven of the seasoning process. On days seven to nine, scale this amount back to a quarter-cup, according to Cooperative Extension instructions. Blood meal can be used as an organic alternative to urea. To plant, pull out the sections of the straw that has broken down, fill that area with potting mix and plant your seedlings.
Planting on this smaller scale will not provide you with as much yield as if you had spacious rows to tend to, but it’s a good first step into growing your own produce and gives you the freedom to plant in whatever space you have.