Why Grow Tomatoes in Containers?

This is the first year that I am growing the majority of my tomatoes in containers, and wow, are they doing well! I decided to go with containers because I’m using my raised beds for a cutting garden, and I’ve found that growing tomatoes in my regular garden beds results in slow growth and late-season diseases. I planted one tomato in the ground and it is definitely lagging behind the guys in the containers.

Why grow tomatoes in containers? A few reasons:

An 18-inch container may be a little tight, but most tomatoes do well in 18- to 24-inch containers.

1. You control the soil. For my container tomatoes, I used large containers and a high-quality potting mix.  The mix has most of what the tomatoes need in terms of nutrients and I will add some bone meal or liquid fish emulsion as the tomatoes produce fruit to keep the calcium and fertility levels up.  The potting soil also lacks all the soil-borne diseases that tend to hang out in the ground—that’s a good thing!

2. Decent drainage. We’ve had a pretty wet early summer in Minnesota. (We had a solid 3 inches in the past week and many areas of Minnesota had much more.) Unlike the ground, which can get water-logged, containers drain well. (I’m considering adding pot feet to my containers to ensure even better drainage.) They have holes in the bottom so excess moisture moves away from the roots, preventing root rot. One disadvantage of container tomatoes is that in dry spells you have to stay on top of watering. Tomatoes need consistent—but not excessive—moisture throughout the growing season to perform best and avoid blossom end rot.

3. Air circulation, easily. Every time I plant tomatoes in the ground, I end up putting them too close together. They look so little when they go in the garden and it’s hard to imagine how big they will get — and how entwined in each other.  With tomatoes in pots, I can move the pots if they get bigger than expected and start encroaching on their neighbors. Air circulation is another important factor in the health of tomatoes.

4. Easy to cage. The pots I chose for my tomatoes are all 18 inches in diameter. For really large tomatoes, you could go even bigger, but the 18-inch pots are a perfect fit for the standard size tomato cage, which I put on the tomatoes a few days after planting. Don’t wait to cage your tomatoes.

Green tomatoes already on some of the plants!

5) Easy to pick. Container tomatoes are elevated by the height of the pot so it’s easy to see when fruit is ripe. The elevation also makes it harder for rabbits and voles (though unfortunately, not squirrels) to get at the tomatoes. For squirrels — a bit more engineering may be necessary.

Many of the usual instructions for growing tomatoes apply to container tomatoes — place them in a very sunny spot, plant them deeply in the container to allow roots to form, and pinch extraneous foliage to keep the plant focused on producing fruit. Generally, determinate tomatoes are recommended for container growing, though I’m growing several types of heirloom tomatoes and I think most of them are indeterminate.

I will report how things go as the season progresses! Do you grow tomatoes in containers?

 

 

Holiday Mini-Container, Book Signings and a Very Chilly Dog

It’s a big weekend ahead for me, with two book signings and lots of holiday decorating to do around the house. I love putting together holiday containers for outside my front door, so I thought it would be fun to do a mini-container to take with me this weekend to spruce up my table at the signings.

The first event is from noon to 4 at the Warden House in Stillwater, where I will be one of several authors signing books of regional interest. Stillwater is a fun town for shopping and wandering around—it reminds me of another terrific Minnesota town: Northfield! I hope folks will come down and check it out. The second signing is at the Minnesota History Center, where it is double discount days for members of the historical society. I’ll be hanging around on Sunday from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. signing books. A whole bunch of the Minnesota Historical Society Press authors are being featured this weekend.

Once everything was assembled, putting this together took about 10 minutes.

Because it’s nice to have something to talk about with people (besides the book, of course), I put together this simple pot. The container is a small terra-cotta pot that I painted red and black, and filled with dirt. I found the reading Santa figure at Joann Fabrics for 60 percent off and he seemed like an appropriate addition. I glued a large nail to his base so he would be anchored during transport. Then, I surrounded Santa with greens, mostly from my yard, such as spruce, arborvitae, rhododendron and sedum. The boxwood and other greens came from a bouquet I purchased at the store, most of which is available for other decor.

We really do not keep our house as chilly as Lola’s blanket might indicate. She watched the container decorating with interest.

Once I had painted the pot, snipped the greens and bought the Santa, the whole project took less than 10 minutes to put together, under the watchful gaze of Lola, the dog, who is not enjoying our recent cold weather. While I like the way the pot looks, I may add a bow or something to brighten it up.

I’m working on a bigger container for my porch, which I hope to get finished soon since the holidays are coming on fast.

What are your favorite holiday container ideas?

Beauty in the Vegetable Garden

During these last cold days of winter (hope, hope, hope!), I’ve been taking refuge in the garden photos I took last summer. Among the images are many from vegetable gardens that are truly beautiful spaces as well as nourishing.

mixed lettuce bowlMy vegetable garden usually has the shabby chic look (or maybe just shabby), but I’ve found that lettuces planted in pots or window boxes can be very attractive, especially those with rose-tipped, ruffly foliage. But a couple of the gardens I visited last summer took vegetable gardening beauty well beyond that.

vertical cabbageThe vegetable garden at Squire House Gardens in Afton, for example, was lush, colorful and full of texture on the warm August afternoon when I stopped by. Planting green and purple cabbages together created a round contrast. Big ripe peppers hung from plants, like green ornaments, ready for plucking. A tall trellis covered in green beans created a produce wall at the back of the garden. The gardeners included a water feature and garden art, too, which encourage visitors to linger. Even the asparagus plants, long past their picking prime, added soft texture with their mature fronds.

Amy archwayEarlier in the summer, I visited the garden of Amy Andrychowicz, proprietor at the Get Busy Gardening blog. You can read all about Amy’s garden in the March/April issue of Northern Gardener, which will be out in about two weeks, but suffice it to say, she has a way with vegetables. The big arch covered with squash is like a grand entry to the garden, and she mixes annuals, such as nasturtiums among the vegetables to add color and encourage pollination. It’s a lovely garden and I was delighted to be able to write about it for Northern Gardener.

For more photos of vegetable garden prettiness, see the gallery below. What will you be planting in your vegetable garden this year?

Final Exam for New Introductions

pw pots1I’m one of those lucky garden writers who gets sent plants to try out about a year before the plants are introduced to the public. This is fun for me because they’re free (thank you, Proven Winners and Sakata!) and because I get a chance to see what kinds of color trends and plant styles will be on the market next year.

For the plants, this is their final exam before graduation. They’ve been tested like crazy in greenhouses and growing ranges, but always under the care of horticulturists. Now, they must undergo testing by regular gardeners — avid gardeners, of course, but ones that have other jobs, families and the usual distractions from plant maintenance. Good luck to them all!

I got my Proven Winners plants first, so this post deals largely with them. The box included a mix of annuals and perennials, and I put most of them into containers. I especially like the container pictured above with this dark purple coral bells (Dolce® ‘Blackberry Ice’), and a new pink mini-petunia (Supertunia® ‘Flamingo’). I added a side-oats grama, a Minnesota native grass that will be part of my meadow planting. I love the textures of the three plants together and think the pink and purples complement each other.

pwpots2The package also included some new begonias (Surefire™ ‘Rose’), so I combined them with a red calibrachoa (Superbells® ‘Pomegranate Punch’) in a two matching lime green pots. I’m hoping these will do well in the sunny area in my front garden. I used the same combination, along with a dainty ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia in another container near the front entry.

Not all the new plants went into containers, however. A diminutive sedum was planted in the front garden, where it will echo the shapes and colors of my other sedums. A couple of new bright purple verbena (Superbena® ‘Violet Ice’) were planted in my Mom’s garden, where they will probably get better care than any of my plants. That lady definitely has a green thumb!

Finally, I have two plants I’m still figuring out where to put. One is a new goji berry—Sweet Lifeberry® (Lycium barbarum) which is said to grow 12 feet tall. I think I have a good spot in back for it, but any time you have a 12-footer, you’ve got to stop to think. The last one is a plant I’ve never heard of—Creme Fraiche™ deutzia. I like its variegated foliage and hope to find a nice spot where it can complement the plants around it. The Proven Winners website recommends it be planted near yellow-flowered perennials or annuals.

As the summer goes on, I’ll report from time to time on how my trial plants are doing — including a post on my Sakata plants.  Which are your favorite of the new plants introduced this year?

Straw-Bale Gardens Are Looking Good, Too

I still get a mushroom or 30 in my straw-bale gardens from time to time, but overall, I am really pleased with how they are growing. The four tomato plants I put in two of the bales are getting tall and sturdy. The zinnia seeds I spread across another two bales have all germinated and are putting out leaves, and the potatoes planted in the last bale are growing so tall I’m trying to figure out a way to add more soil around them, so I can get more potatoes.

It probably helps that the bales are watered every day (or at least every other) and that, per the instructions, I poured a weak solution of diluted fish emulsion over all the bales for fertilizer a couple of weeks ago. While I’m not thrilled by the appearance of the bales (and, just to tease you a bit, there will be a great article on how to improve their appearance in the July/August issue of Northern Gardener), I love their productivity. The rabbits haven’t figured out how to get up on them, either. So, go bales!

How are your straw-bale gardens growing?

Deck Vegetable Garden is Looking Good!

Lettuce in deck boxes, May 27

Like a lot of gardeners in the North (and South and everywhere else, it seems), my garden has been under constant attack from rabbits this year. I’m working on some fencing, but in the meantime, I decided to plant lettuce in these window boxes, which are on my back deck. The rabbits are huge, but not big enough to get up the deck steps, and consequently, the lettuce looks great.

I bought these boxes on steep discount when a local hardware store went out of business a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been using them to grow annuals. This year, I decided to try greens instead. I bought a six-pack of romaine lettuce starts and used a mix of commercial potting soil and compost for the growing medium. We have had plenty of rain since I put them in, so with just a little supplemental watering they have grown really well.

Deck garden lettuce, June 5

Harvest begins in the next few days. To keep the harvest coming, I’ve seeded the pots with another lettuce mix and I will probably buy a few more starts at the local farmers’ market, if I can find them.

I’ve written about deck gardening before and it’s consistently been one of my most popular blog posts. Do you garden on the deck? Flowers or veg?

Taking the Straw Bales’ Temperatures

I have been checking the internal temperature of my straw bales to see if they are starting to decompose inside. According to the information from Joel Karsten at strawbalegardens.com, the bales should start to heat up about now.

I checked yesterday — in the 40-degree cold rain — and found that most of the bales were only about 60 degrees internally. Today, some were even colder. Because we have had a lot of cold rain and weather affects how quickly the bales start decomposing, I decided to put on the recommended plastic sheeting to warm the bales more.

I’m on the seventh day of the 10-day conditioning program, and the bales still need to heat up (they are supposed to go as high as 145 degrees F) and then cool down before I can plant. Hopefully, the slightly warmer weather this weekend and the much warmer temperatures next week will get things cooking.

Have any other straw bale gardeners had similar experiences?

New Straw Bale Garden

Straw bale garden
Bales with espalier for climbing vegetables.

Last week, I attended a presentation on straw bale gardening with my friend, Penny. We both left Joel Karsten’s talk very excited to try this new type of container gardening. So over the weekend, I located a farmer near New Trier who had some big, beautiful bales of wheat straw that I used to set up my straw bale gardens.

The concept behind straw bale gardening is fairly simple. You “condition” the bales by flooding them with water and fertilizer (you can go organic or traditional — I’m trying both ways) for 10 days. During the conditioning, the inside of the bales starts to decompose and within a couple of weeks you have a very fertile medium inside the bales. You can plant seedlings directly into the bales or add potting soil or compost to the top of the bale and use seeds. When the season is over, you harvest your crops, take the twine off the bales and knock them over. Viola! Compost!

That’s the simple explanation, but there is a recommended process for doing this, so check out Karsten’s website or take one of his many classes around Minnesota before you get started.

I had a spot in our meadow area that was very prone to ragweed and other nasty business. I’d already cut the weeds down so I covered the area with a couple of large appliance boxes. I’m hoping that the cardboard will smother the weeds while I grow cutting flowers and vegetables in four of the bales, which are sitting on top of the cardboard with some additional wood mulch surrounding them for paths. I had one additional bale that I put on cardboard on top of one of my regular raised vegetable beds. This bed seemed a little depleted last year, so I’m giving the soil a break. I plan to grow potatoes in this bale, then after the potatoes are harvested, I’ll leave the bale/compost on the bed.

I’ve done a bit of research on straw bale gardening and the only concerns I’ve heard about it are that, if you do not get clean straw, your bales end up looking like chia pets with lots of little weeds sprouting out of them. The farmer I bought my bales from assured me they were “very clean.” I’m trusting him on that. The other concern is aesthetic. As the season progresses, not surprisingly, the bales start to sag and sometime look a little scraggly. Given that the alternative in the location I’ve chosen is a huge stand of ragweed, I’m not that concerned about looks.

We’ll be running an article on one person’s take on straw bale gardening in the July/August issue of Northern Gardener. Have you tried this method yet? Did it work for you?

 

 

Best Container Plant for 2011

Supertunia 'Bordeaux' with sweet potato vine and mixed pansies

There’s no prize with this award, just my unending admiration for a plant that bloomed, bloomed, and bloomed again throughout the cool, hot, humid, slow-to-start, slow-to-end summer of 2011. And the winner is: Supertunia® Bordeaux petunia.

I bought several of these from Eco Gardens in Northfield back in May for my front porch pots, and almost from the moment they were planted until I took them out of the pots on Saturday, they performed beautifully. They grew but did not get leggy, and their blooms were lovely both from the street and up-close. They looked especially nice with two kinds of sweet potato vine: ‘Marguerite’ and ‘Blackie’. The lime green and deep burgundy contrasted beautifully with the violet to deep-purple blooms of Bordeaux.

I’ll be buying Bordeaux again next season. What plant was the star of your containers this year?

Can You Eat a Sweet Potato Vine Tuber?

Sweet potato vine tubers with Chinese lantern flowers

While taking apart my front porch container plantings this weekend, the question came to mind: Can you eat these cute little tubers that the ornamental sweet potato vine made?

Short answer: Yes, you can.

Longer answer: Yes, you can, but you probably don’t want to. Ornamental sweet potato vines are selected for their foliage — the lush leaves that tumble out of pots and window boxes so decoratively. The tubers are not even a consideration, and so don’t usually taste very good. If you want delicious sweet potatoes, it’s best to grow plants designated for eating.