Every week I hear these same words: “I can’t grow anything!” “I have a black thumb!” “Everything I touch dies!” Well, YES YOU CAN! Even if you are an apartment dweller It’s easy to grow a few herb or vegetable plants in containers, but if you have a little more space, larger planters, such as raised garden beds, can provide a substantial amount of food for your family. You’ll find that once you have success growing a few plants, you will be hooked on the many enjoyable benefits of gardening! Besides giving you wonderful food — because you know what’s IN it — gardening is also relaxing, therapeutic, and good exercise.
Watering: Irregular watering or lack of watering are common reasons that plants fail to grow properly. It’s hard to water properly by hand with a hose because the water tends to either run off the bed or not soak in deep enough to wet the soil to the proper depth. The start to setting up a worry-free garden is easily done by installing an automatic watering system.
- Battery-operated timers are available at many local retail stores for around $30. The timer connects to a hose bibb, and after installing 1/2″ black poly hose and low-volume emitters or drip tape for each plant or row, you will be able to leave for work or vacation and not have to worry about watering your plants!
Soil: Just like us, plants need food too! So it is very important to make sure the soil mix you have in your containers or garden beds has all the nutrients the plants need to grow.
- Organic potting mix is available at almost all garden centers and nurseries. Mix this with some of your native soil, and add an all-purpose organic fertilizer such as Dr. Earth Organic Fertilizer for Vegetables, Tomatoes and Herbs according to directions on the bag or box. Another wonderful addition is worm compost (Vermicompost), available locally from SLO County Worm Farm. Vermicompost is rich in nutrients, as well as a valuable source of organic matter.
- NOTE: The reason for gardening organically, besides not using commercial fertilizers or pesticides, is that the health of the soil is dependent on all the microorganisms that live in it, and they actually make the nutrients available to the plants in a form that the plants can use, and the relationship of all the billions of soil organisms to the plants creates a living soil. Healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy humans! We ARE what we eat!
Container size: Herbs can be grown in fairly small containers (6” to 1 gallon) until the roots become dense at the bottom of the pot, then they can be repotted into larger containers. But vegetable plants (which grow much faster) have larger root systems and therefore need plenty of room.
- If you live in an apartment and want to grow vegetables, use the largest container that is easy for you to move around, such as a 15-gallon nursery can or 14” tub, either of which can be easily moved with a hand dolly. If you don’t want to buy new containers, inexpensive used containers are available at some nurseries, or landscape companies. Another option is wine barrel halves, but be sure to drill drain holes in the bottom of the barrel. Livestock troughs make durable planters as well, and even plastic storage containers work fine, but remember, all containers need holes for drainage.
Critter control: The easiest way to deal with critters that eat your plants or dig in the beds is to EXCLUDE them!
- I make hoops over each garden bed or nursery bench, with 1/2” x 10’ gray PVC electrical conduit. If you have a raised wooden garden bed, you can easily install the hoops with two 1/2” galvanized clamps screwed into the wood on each side of the bed, which will hold the hoops securely. For a container, you can install a tomato cage or any other type of support and, depending on the season, bird net, floating row cover or shade cloth can be secured over the structure using clothes pins. If the birds, critters and pets can’t see the plants or can’t access the nice soft earth, they will usually stay away.
- TIP: The secret is completely enclosing the container or bed the day you plant it — BEFORE the pests discover the new plants — and securing the covering so it won’t blow open or off in the wind! But remember to think ahead — prepare your soil, install the irrigation, and plan your pest-proof covering BEFORE you plant!
- TIP: I use a redwood stake on each end of the garden beds, install the PVC hoops about six feet apart and, using tomato twine, I string together the hoops on the top center, each shoulder, and another string all around the bottom of the bed. The string adds support and strength when tied to the hoops and stakes.