4. Where and How To Plant
Alright, tired of facts and figures? Ready to shake off the winter doldrums and get started? Put down that laptop and get dressed! OK, let's consider your situation. Maybe you're working with a few square feet of balcony space in your apartment. Or perhaps you've got a little patch of dirt in your yard that could use some livening up. Let's first take a look at the container garden.
As long as your deck or balcony gets at least 6 hours of full sun daily, you'll be able to grow some fine vegetables in pots. If not, don't despair; you can still grow some of the shade tolerant plants we mentioned earlier. The first thing you'll need is some nice, big plastic pots. Plastic pots are our my (mark's) containers of choice for several reasons; they are light, they don't crack or break, and they don't absorb water. Terra-cotta pots my be more attractive but they can be cumbersome to move around. They also leech water from the soil, water which is then lost to the air through evaporation. If you're growing tomatoes, you'll need to use a 16" diameter pot or larger. This may seem excessive but it's essential for good fruit yield. We've grown cherokee purple tomatoes in 12" pots on our deck with disappointing results. Bell peppers and eggplants will also appreciate the extra space in a 16" pot. 12" pots are fine for plants like hot peppers, basil, lettuce, and flowers.
Along with the pots, you'll also need a high quality potting mix. There is a dizzying array of bagged 'soil' available commercially, how do you make a decision? In our experience, the best potting medium is light when lifted and does not clump together when dry. This is essential for good drainage, a must for all potted plants. Our personal favorite bagged product is ProMix, although you may have to visit a professional garden or nursery supply to find this. We've also had good results with Miracle-Gro Organic Choice which is more widely available. Any product that feels light in the bag and does not contain artificial fertilizer should work well; some of these are even labeled as 'container mixes'.
Now that you've got some potting soil and containers, the next consideration is what to feed the plants. Here is one important rule we have to insist on: avoid chemical fertilizers, i.e. Miracle-Gro, like the plague! You're probably familiar with these unnatural-looking, shockingly blue crystals that are supposed to be dissolved in water and dumped on unsuspecting plants. These products are a lot like fad diets; they induce rapid, unhealthy green growth in the beginning but ultimately provide no real nutrients required for flowering and fruit production. The limited amount of available growing medium to a potted plant can quickly become over-saturated with these fertilizers, which can become toxic in large doses. The best (and usually only required) food for all plants is compost. Compost is the organic product of natural decomposition of plant matter. We make our own compost from shredded leaves and kitchen scraps but often need to supplement with more from our local source, Ag-Choice. If you can't find local compost from a garden center, check to see if your county offers compost made from fall leaf collection as ours does. If all else fails, there are a number of commercially available organic fish- or seaweed-based product that will do the trick. Just stay away from the blue crystals! Your vegetables aren't ravers, after all.