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The Art and Science of Container Gardening

"Container gardening, as practiced today, is something that gardeners of all ages, from grandchildren to grandmothers and everyone in between, can carry out easily."
The Art and Science of Container Gardening

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- Ron Smith, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Extension Horticulture and Turfgrass

Container gardening is nothing new. It has  been around for as long as time itself.

The ultimate container garden was the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," where containers of every shape and size were fashioned  to fit the whims of King Nebuchadnezzar's wife. At the time, it was so majestic that is was considered the second Wonder of the World, with the Egyptian Pyramids being the first around 600 B.C.

Of course, such grandeur isn't necessary for the traditional North Dakota gardener. The expense and labor needed to create such and exhibit would drain the stoutest of bank accounts and send many aching backs to chiropractors.

Container gardening, as practiced today, is something that gardeners of all ages, from grandchildren to grandmothers and everyone in between, can carry out easily. Containers can be nothing special to something completely exotic. Old whiskey or wine barrels, bushel baskets, discarded watering troughs or attractive containers available at local garden center outlets work well.

All must have one thing in common; drainage holes. Without them, the crop or plants within are not long for this world. Free drainage is a must, and along with that, the media used in the containers must have certain characteristics.

Some beginning gardeners simply will dig soil out of a garden bed and place it in the intended containers, only to be surprised a few weeks later to see their efforts fail. Garden soil never should be used because the drainage characteristics are simply not good enough for container growing. Water moves into and through the soil via two forces: gravity and capillary flow. With containers, the water should enter rapidly and drain out as quickly, leaving the large pores (macropores) filled with are and the small pores (micropores) retaining some water for the plant to use. That water is being held there by the cohesive and adhesive forces interacting with the media being used.

What to Use for Container Media

The container gardener has several choices for the growing medium: Make up their own mix from scratch, purchase a commercially available one from the local garden center or make some modifications to the ones available at retail outlets. For most commercial mixes, a combination of the following media often is used: vermiculite, perlite, sand, sphagnum peat moss, fir bark and redwood sawdust. They can be used alone to a limited success, but the results are usually better when they are combined in some manner.

Perlite and vermiculite are very low bulk in density (light in weight) and drain well but have a couple of disadvantages. Perlite tends to separate from the mixes and work up to the top of the media, and vermiculite, in some cases, has traces of asbestos as a minor contaminant. If you choose vermiculite, be sure the bag is labeled as being asbestos-free.

The other organic products have the disadvantage of being very light in weight as well, so any commercial mix that contains just these and either vermiculite or perlite might be too light to provide adequate support for the plants or sufficient stability for the plants to withstand typical summer breezes. In this instance, the addition of sand would be advisable to correct these deficiencies.

When trying to decide what to use for the container and the media for growing plants, keep in mind that one of the advantages of container gardening is its portability. You can move the container into the sun or shade as the mood or weather conditions dictate to meet the plant's exposure requirements. While the idea of wading pools for container gardening might sound enticing, their size would keep them from being moved easily.

Modern potting soil media offer big advantages. They come pasteurized, with a balance of micropores and macropores to provide good drainage and yet hold sufficient water for plant use. In addition, most container mixes will have trace amounts of basic plant nutrients, just enough to give them a start without overstimulation of growth. Look for popular products such as Miracle-Grow or something similar.

Watering, Fertilizing and Pest Control

As soon as a plant is placed in a container, it takes on a different character altogether as far as water and nutrient needs go. The medium within that container is all that plant can draw upon for sustenance, so watering regimens and fertilizer additions are of crucial importance. Watering will be required on a more frequent basis (daily if the containers are outside) than with that same plant in the ground. The same is true of fertilizations; increased frequencies are needed to keep the plant vigorous, and if a vegetable or fruit, capable of producing.

More frequent and lighter fertilizations will do the job better than heavier fertilizations spread out through time. Start out with 50 percent less than the recommended amounts and adjust either more of less from there.

A big advantage of container gardening is the virtual elimination of weed competition. The medium used has been pasteurized, making it free of weed seed, and initially free of disease organisms and insect problems. If an unwanted insect or disease gets started on your containerized plant, control and elimination is much easier, than with in-ground plants.

Growing Vegetables in Containers

The "kitchen garden" is often a series of 3- to 5-gallon containers with popular vegetables growing in them. Tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, beans and herbs rank high in favorites to grow. A step or two out the back door gets you right to the produce for salad or dinner preparation.

Vegetables in containers need as much direct sunlight as they can possibly get to be productive. This might require the gardener to move containers to adjust to the seasonal locations of the sun; this is important for container gardeners to remember.

Vegetables typically are grown in dark poly 3- or 5-gallon containers that have at least three holes in their base. Keep in mind that dark colors will absorb the sunlight, raising the internal soil/root zone temperatures to near lethal levels, causing some root injury. This would cause the vegetable plant to be held back or reduce its productive capacity. If possible, on the hottest days with the most direct sunlight, move containers to a dappled shade area or construct a temporary screen around the container to intercept the sun's direct rays.

Expect the produce from container gardening to be mature earlier and of higher quality. In most cases, produce production also is higher per plant, compared with the same plants in the conventional garden. Because of their mobility, expect plants in container gardens to be able to bear longer into the fall as well.

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