Many Americans want to take part in the harvest revolution and eat foods that were grown at home to ensure freshness, taste and cost. But what if you live in an apartment or high rise? Are you out of luck? Actually no. Many people that live in urban America are taking part in the local food craze by growing food in containers. Before you run out to the nursery and grab your planting pots and dirt you must check with your local officials. You see some locales have strict rules that regulate who and who cannot grow food when living in urban areas.
Let’s assume you live in an apartment and have a small balcony or roof top. While you may think having a container garden would be harmless consider the following. When you add soil and water to a large container it can easily weight 50-100 pound or more depending on the container size. Now let’s imagine you have 10 containers, is the deck or balcony or roof top designed to handle this extra load? Maybe, maybe not. It makes sense to check BEFORE you start.
Once you have clearance the next decision is what to grow. Some plants are perfectly suited to containers others are not. I like to advise people to create a kitchen garden in containers that can produce herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers. These crops can thrive in containers and provide allot of food and tons of recipe diversity.
For one thing, growing herbs are a must because they are too expensive to continually buy in stores and usually not that fresh. I suggest growing basil, thyme, oregano, chives, parsley and sage. These will cover most of your culinary herbage needs and they are all easy to grow. Some of the “woody” herbs like thyme, rosemary and oregano can overwinter outside in a pot and come back strong the next year. Better still if they are outside facing south they can produce just about all year long. I have thyme and rosemary on my farm that have come back year after year living in containers outside even through cold winters that get below freezing many times. They are facing south and get sun all year long, even in the dead of winter.
If you live far north you may consider bringing herbs inside and placing them in a window sill that has natural light. If that is not possible, a simple fluorescent light hung over the container will allow it to keep growing inside.
When it comes to tomatoes, a 10-15 gallon pot with a few stakes is all you need to harvest beautiful tomatoes all season long. I like to plant cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes, plum tomatoes and a few types of heirlooms. Tomatoes are easy to grow too. When it comes to lettuces, it could not be easier to grow them but one must keep in mind that they do not like too much sun or too heat. Lettuce is a snap to grow, just toss the seeds in your container (i like half whiskey barrels) water and wait 7-10 before the sprout. You can continue to harvest lettuce by cutting it about 2 inches from the soil, it will keep growing and growing providing tender greens for months on end.
Depending on what you’re growing you must take into consideration the light requirements of certain plants. Tomatoes, herbs, peppers etc. prefer 6-8 hours of direct sunlight in order to thrive. Tomatoes in particular will not do well if they have less then 6 hours of sunlight. Also, daily watering is key to keeping plants stress-free and happy which equals a good harvest.
Another consideration is the size of the containers you need. That depends on the final size of the plant your growing, for tomatoes and bell peppers a 10-15 gallon container is needed. Herbs can usually get by on a 5 gallon container. I recommend building your own self-water containers that work well and help reduce water usage and time spent watering.
When it comes to soil, I prefer making my own by collecting the ingredients and mixing up the perfect potting soil. I use the following ingredients with rations indicated by weight:
-spaghnum peat moss 40%
-potting soil (organic) 20%
– composted manure 10%
All these products are available at any garden center or big-box home store. I simply mix them up in a clean garbage can, wet very well, then load up the containers. Keep in mind this mix is very light and airy. Spaghnum peat moss, perlite and vermiculite absorb tons of water and hold it near the plants roots. You will need allot of water for making the mix moist. Do not transplant young plants into soil that is too dry, or too wet. Needs to hold together in a ball when squeezed, if it falls apart add more water.
Once the plants have transplanted and seem healthy I use a watering can and an organic soil feed from Miracle Grow that is concentrated and takes about 1 capful for two gallons. This mixture of organic food and water will allow your plants to grow fast and healthy. Never allow them to dry out.
If you follow these simple steps, your small balcony or deck can be a great kitchen garden that produces valuable and healthy foods you can consume with great pride knowing you grew them. When that bountiful harvest leaves you wondering what to cook, visit Harvest Eating.com for recipes and videos.
Chef Keith Snow