I haven’t always lived in a house with such a big backyard, and I haven’t always had successful crops every summer, but I have always kept trying.
The first trick of having a green thumb is to never give up. I think gardening is the number one way to learn to deal with failure. Honestly, think about it, the odds are against you. You are competing with factors like the weather, wildlife, insects, your schedule, and just pure luck. Some seeds simply never grow, that is why a plant produces so many to increase the odds. Every moment you spend taking care of a plant makes you a better person, because you are willing to learn and try and adapt for the betterment of something outside of yourself.
I started in the gardens of my family where I was tasked with chores but never had to think about the soil or timing or weather. The real decisions were made by the adults above me and I followed simple directions, not really interested or learning anything. I worked in community gardens after that, and was hired in the gardens of many aging professors. Still my first year or two I followed directions and the tasks handed out to me. It wasn’t until my third year that I started to plan beds, understand season cycles and plan for overwintering. My final year I took care of a professors garden all summer while she taught in London and I had to make decisions based on the years of lessons she had been giving me. It was the first time I saw how much work, but also how much beauty an entire yard full of plants could be.
Unfortunately, I moved and moved again during the first few years out of college. Some places with small gardens, others with none at all. The three summers I spent in DC I had my biggest space, a narrow raised bed we all installed together. Yet, how I survived my travels was really container gardening.
Container gardening makes things a little easier.
Firstly, you can control the number of plants you grow.
You are likely to have fewer weeds.
You can grow even when you don’t live in the ground floor.
Most importantly, you can start to learn how to garden before you have the time and space for something bigger.
A few Container Garden tips
1. Size – each and every plant has a prefered depth and distance.
If you are planting from a seed package it should be printed on the back. If not a quick google search will give you the plant spacing, add 1 or 2 inches and this is container diameter or the whole length across the middle top. As a general guess or starting point, you can multiple by 2 and this is the minimum height your container should have. Trail and error will teach you a lot if you think the plant is growing too small it needs a bigger pot.
Tomatoes are spaces at 24 inches, so your container should be at least 25 inches across and 48 inches tall. So while it’s true you can use a 5 gallon bucket (usually measures around 12 x 22) you will get a plant that is ½ the size of it’s potential.
Eggplants should be 4-5 inches apart and their rows should be 24-36 inches apart.
So your container should be 6 or 7 inches wide and at least 14 inches deep.
However, I grew eggplants in this size and my plants were smaller than expected, but they produced fruit perfectly.
If you are given a row spacing on the plant I suggest you use this for the minimum depth of the pot.
For eggplants I suggest a container that is at least 8 inches wide and 24 inches deep but bigger will give you a bigger plant.
Lastly, some plants can cheat space:
Quick grow and harvest lettuce is a perfect example. If you plan to cut baby lettuce for salad, you can plant many seeds in any container size (a general rule for this is 1 seed for inch of container).
Once the plants are 5 inches tall you can start to pick off the biggest outside leaves.
Once they are 10 inches tall you can start to cut any amount you need for salad until they stop growing back.
If they get too crowded cut all your greens from one plant to make a little of room.
This method is not suitable if you want to grow large lettuce plants, only for baby greens.
2. Pots – Use anything!
I suggest non toxic materials, and something you can poke drain holes into the bottom of.
If you are using the container inside and you can control water, you may be able to use an old pot or metal pan that isn’t easily perforated. I have found my coconut oil containers are the perfect size for an arugula plant, I can feel less guilty buying a plastic container because each purchase means another home for someone in my garden or balcony. Get creative I’m sure you already have containers perfect for gardening going unused in your house.
3. Light – does your plant like sunny or shady or somewhere in between?
Just like size, light is a huge factor in growth. If you are familiar with plants each seed package will come with the plants preferred light conditions, if you are buying a seedling plant make sure you ask about light conditions before you leave. You will start to get to know your plants and you will see when they reach up asking for more light, or when the curl away saying it’s been too much.
On my very sunny balcony I have to partially cover my plants when it is too sunny because the pavement heats them up more, in grass or next to the house at ground level the temperature is normally much cooler and they don’t need as much cover.
4: Soil and Compost – The most important part
You want to use a good quality soil or potting mix because container plants tend to lose nutrition much faster than ground plants. The nutrition is easily washed out of the small space. You can eliminate part of this problem by watering once a month with compost tea, but you should also start with the best quality dirt you can find. Another way to add back in nutrients into the soil is to take a walk and collect a bag full of dry leaves. Continuously mulch the top of your plants with these dry leaves as often as needed to keep it covered.
5. Water – the fact of life
Plants, like you need the right amount of water. On hot and dry days they are going to need a longer drink than on cool and overcast ones. The best way to gauge water is to put your index finger into the soil up to the first knuckle (about 1 inch). If the soil is dry and doesn’t stick to you, water your plants. If the soil is wet and sticks to your finger you can wait until the next day. Some sunny climates will need daily watering while other places your plants will only ask for water once or twice a week.
The most important thing though is to go and see your plans everyday. Check the leaves for pests or problems, make sure they look green and happy, and check the soil for water needs. If you spend this 1-2 minutes each day (per plant) you will always have a green thumb, or at least will soon learn to have one.
Happy gardening my friends, indoors and out.
Let me know in the comments if you have any questions.
I’ll do my best to answer them.