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Gardeners: Contain yourselves

Nancy Brennan shops for plants pulling a wagon at Levi Runion's Garden Center in Sabin, Minn. Chris Franz / The Forum1 / 3
Finished containers are displayed at Levi Runion's Garden Center. Chris Franz / The Forum2 / 3
A pair of old boots are used as a pot at Levi Runion's Garden Center in Sabin, Minn. Chris Franz / The Forum3 / 3

Paula Lovgren was sick of getting so-so results from her garden.

The soil around her house was too heavy and needed so much work to yield decent plants.

But when she and her family built a new house, her gardening skills went to pot.

Literally.

Lovgren began growing flowers, herbs and even vegetables in containers - with enviable outcomes. This year, she's filled 36 planters with flowers, herbs and vegetables.

"I just think it's easier, and you get better results," Lovgren says.

Now Lovgren has become the self-proclaimed "Container Queen" at Levi Runion's Garden Center near Sabin, Minn.

The master gardener teaches classes and dispenses advice on the art of the pot-au-greens. Throughout spring, Levi Runion's hosts "planter parties," in which friends and groups get together to group plantings in containers.

She's even created a blog, www.potsnpansies.com/, on this type of gardening, and has become known for her striking "container combos" at Levi Runion's.

"If you can grow it, I'll put it in a pot," she says.

As Lovgren and many other local gardeners have discovered, the advantages of container gardening are many. It's a way for anyone - even someone whose "great outdoors" consists of a tiny balcony - to grow flowers and fresh veggies. It's also easy to control the growing conditions: If a spot is too hot or too shady, you simply move the planter.

And for the gardener with limited mobility, it's a great way to garden. There's no need to trudge out to a distant plot or bend over plants as you tend them.

Todd Weinmann, Cass County Extension horticulturist, says container gardens have really bloomed in popularity in the past few years.

"Food prices are up, so more people are gardening," says Weinmann, who recently taught a class on container gardening at the Head Start main office in Fargo. "More want to know where their food is coming from. And if they can grow even one thing, like lettuce or tomatoes, they enjoy it."

The pot of the matter

When it comes to choosing pots, there are a few must-haves to consider:

  • It needs to be roomy enough to allow for healthy root development - especially for vegetables. In general, the larger the plant's root system, the wider and deeper the container should be.
  • It must have adequate drainage or your plants will develop root rot.
  • The material of the pot can also be considered. Small terra-cotta plants may dry out too quickly in the hot sun. Metal containers can get too warm and even cook the roots, Weinmann says. If the plantings will be in a very sunny, hot place, consider a light-colored container, which will absorb less heat.

A dirtless secret

Which brings us to the most crucial ingredient in the container garden: Gardeners should never use regular garden soil or even potting soil in a container.

Garden and potting soil are too heavy. They also can introduce diseases and pests, which will be magnified in this miniature environment, Weinmann says.

Instead, he and Lovgren recommend a pasteurized potting mix. It's a soilless medium that contains ingredients like sphagnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite, which will provide a light, well-drained environment for young roots.

Potting mix is available at greenhouses and big-box stores under brand names like Jiffy Mix, Bacto and Promix.

To lighten it up further, you can fold additional peat moss into the potting mix, Weinmann says. Aim for a ratio of about one part peat moss to two parts mix.

But steer away from any growing medium that contains water-holding gels, Weinmann says, as they can keep the planter environment too soggy and lead to problems like root rot.

Feed me, Seymour

In a closed system like a pot, plants have to depend on you for all their nutrition.

For that reason, it's a good idea to feed them with a timed-release fertilizer like Osmocote at the time of planting, Weinmann says. It won't burn plants, but it will provide balanced nutrition for up to four months.

Containers also need diligent watering, as they dry out quickly. Try to water them once a day until the water runs out of the bottom of the planter, Weinmann and Lovgren say.

Rain water is best, although regular old drinking water will do. If you're concerned about fluoride levels causing leaves to brown, let tap water sit out overnight. Some of the fluoride will evaporate, Weinmann says.

Plant options abound

Now comes the fun part: plant selection and planting.

Almost any vegetable - with the exception of asparagus and corn - will do fairly well in pots.

As fresh summer tomatoes are so highly coveted, many people will at least try to raise a tomato plant in a pot. Look for smaller varieties like grape and cherry tomatoes, Romas and Early Girls (the latter will produce fruit in a very short growing season).

Hybrid tomatoes often fare better in containers than heirloom varieties do, Weinmann says. One planting trick: Snip off the bottom leaves so you can plant the stems deeper. The tomato plant will develop more roots, which results in a healthier, stronger plant.

You also want to be careful about not overplanting vegetables in containers. Too many pepper plants, for instance, will produce bushy plants but little fruit, Weinmann says. During his container-gardening class, he planted one cilantro plant, one chives plant and two rows of spinach seeds in a rectangular container measuring 3 feet long and 12 inches wide.

In general, don't expect your potted plants to produce quite as many vegetables as you'll get from a traditional planting. They just can't develop as much of a root system in such snug conditions.

Save broad, flat containers for herbs or greens like lettuce, as they have shallower roots. For larger veggies like tomatoes and eggplants, the pot should be at least 20 inches in diameter. You can even raise potatoes in a container, as long as it's a 20-gallon, food-grade one. (If you're doing this on an apartment or condo balcony, check with your landlord first.)

Lovgren likes to compose her planters so they look lush, but not overcrowded.

"There are two schools of thought on that," she says. "Some want to pack it full so it looks good right away. I don't like that. I prefer to give them room to grow."

Planter-friendly plants

Here are some container-friendly vegetable varieties and the minimum size of container they require:

  • Broccoli (any variety but Crusader), at least 20 inches deep.
  • Brussels sprouts (all varieties), 12 inches wide and 12 inches deep.
  • Cabbage (especially Baby Head, Dwarf Morden, Minicole, Fast Ball, Flash), 10 inches wide and a foot deep.
  • Carrots (Short & Sweet, Gold Nugget, Nantes, Best of the Bunch, Little Finger, Baby Spike, Thumbelina), at least 10 inches deep.
  • Cucumber (Salad Bush, Burpee Hybrid II, Bush Crop, Spacemaster, Burpee Pickler, Pot Luck), 20 inches wide, 16 inches deep.
  • Eggplant (Dusky, Morden Midget, Bambino, Millionaire), at least 16 inches deep.
  • Lettuce (Black-Seeded Simpson, Red Sails, Salad Bowl, Tom Thumb, Green Ice, Little Gem), 8 inches wide, 6 to 8 inches deep.
  • Onion (bunching types, such as White Pear and Crystal Wax Pickling PBR, work best), at least 12 inches deep.
  • Peas (Little Marvel, Sugar Bon, Sugar Mel, Melting Sugar, Laxton's Progress, Sugar Rae, Burpee's Blue Bantam, Early Patio, Snowbird), 12 inches deep.
  • Peppers (any variety), at least 16 inches deep.
  • Radish (Cherry Belle, Early Scarlet, French Breakfast, Sparkler, Burpee White, Comet), 4 to 6 inches deep.
  • Spinach (any variety), 4 to 6 inches deep.
  • Tomatoes (Patio VF, Pixie, Small Fry VFN, Yellow Pear, Sweet 100, Tumbling Tom, Container Choice, Rutgers, Tiny Tim, Husky Red, Husky Gold, Yellow Canary, Whippersnapper, Basket Pak, Red Cherry, Gardener's Delight, Sundrop), 12 inches deep for dwarf and 2 feet deep for standard.

Source: Ohio State University Extension

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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