In the Garden:
Lower South
April, 2009
Regional Report

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This flowering planter makes a beautiful addition to a balcony. It is lined with coconut coir fiber and planted with an assortment of colorful annuals.

Balcony Gardens

Just because you live in a home without a large plot of land for a garden is no reason to have to give up gardening. You can grow a lot of vegetables or flowers on a patio, balcony, or rooftop if you provide them the few requirements plants need. These are sunlight, quality growing medium for the roots, adequate root space, soil moisture, and nutrients.

Containers are great for a wide variety of vegetables and flowers. If you get a large enough container you can grow a good harvest of almost anything with the possible exception of sweet corn. Gardeners with limited sun may find that sun-lovers like tomatoes and other fruiting veggies are possible again when you plant them in containers, which can be easily located in that rare sun-baked spot out on the patio, on a balcony, or along the driveway.

Gardeners can even turn a balcony or rooftop into a garden by building a large box on the ground with timbers and then filling it with a quality potting mix to create what amounts to a large container. If you build such a container make it about 18-30 inches deep and at least 18 inches wide.

Even vining crops can be grown in large containers. Allow them to drape over the sides or provide a wire structure for them to climb onto. Some gardeners will set a container next to a porch post or railing for support.

Here in the South where the summer sun can be blazing hot we need to choose containers that are larger to accommodate the plants' need for a larger root system. If you confine a plant too much you may be watering it 2 or 3 times a day to try and keep up with the demands the sun is placing on it.

It is important to select containers of adequate size for the plants you wish to grow. Small, shallow-rooted veggies like lettuce, radish, and spinach and many small-statured annual flowers like alyssum, narrow-leaf zinnia, pansy, blackfoot daisy, dwarf marigold, and viola will do fine in a container as small as 2 gallons. Larger vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, or flowers that reach a height of 2 to 3 feet need a minimum size of 5 gallons to perform. Larger container size is even better, and will allow grouping of plants. Half whiskey barrels and large terra cotta planters are great for this purpose. Grouped plants provide an especially striking accent.

I love the wonderful choices of container available today. Terracotta, plastic, metal, and decorative styrofoam containers provide a variety of options. Hypertufa containers are popular too. Made from a mix of concrete and peat moss, these containers look just like hewn rock troughs or heavy concrete pots but are almost 10 times lighter.

Most plants do not care what they are growing in. It is important that the container has a fairly good width to height ratio (not too tall or too shallow) and provides adequate bottom drainage. Some containers come with holes in the bottom. If a container doesn't, make sure and drill or punch out holes to provide drainage before planting.

Use your creative side and mix container shapes and sizes for attractive arrangements. Include a few hanging baskets or containers set on stands. Consider using some half-round containers attached to a wall or fence to bring a cascade of color to an otherwise plain, flat surface. Set a large container near a trellis or porch pillar and plant a vine to grow on the structure.

When selecting veggies for containers, look for bush-type tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash rather than vining types unless you have a means of supporting their sprawling growth. Remember most veggies need lots of sunlight, so locate their containers in a sunny spot.

Garden soil is generally not the best choice for container growing. A media (artificial "soil" mix) composed of ingredients such as compost, peat, sand, vermiculite, and perlite are usually used for best results. These give the characteristics needed in a growing mix: good aeration and drainage, as well as good water- and nutrient-holding capacity.

Container media dries out quickly and requires regular watering. This may be daily or twice daily if the weather is hot, the location sunny, or if the plant is a bit large for the container. Fertilize plants weekly with a liquid fertilizer following label instructions. Fish emulsion and seaweed work fine for an organic liquid fertilizer. Slow-release fertilizers are also good and provide extra nutrition over a period of time. The goal is to keep your plants healthy and growing.

Some crops can really sprawl out and become a hog for space in the garden. You can turn these from horizontal to vertical and significantly reduce the space needed. Cucumbers, vining squash, muskmelons, pole beans, Malabar spinach, and even watermelons can go vertical with a strong trellis.

Use a strong section of wire for supporting vertical vines. Sections of livestock panel cut with a bolt cutter work very well and last forever. Small-fruited crops need no support for the fruits, but larger-fruited veggies such as most winter squash, muskmelons, and watermelons require something to support the heavy fruit. Sections of hosiery, mesh citrus sacks, or any strong, porous material can be used to form a sling to support the fruit.

There are some vegetable types or varieties that are more suited to a confined space. For example bush types of squash, dwarf okra ('Bubba' is one such variety), and bush-types of tomato varieties all understand the need for staying compact in their growth habit.

In addition to container vegetable gardening I absolutely love growing foliage and flowering plants in containers. They are a great way to add instant color and pizazz to the landscape, and provide gardeners with limited space a chance to garden. That porch, patio, balcony or driveway can go from drab to dazzling with the instant impact of flowering containers.

One final note is to always keep the soil mix in your containers moist. It can dry out quickly resulting in damage to your plants and significant reductions in their productivity. Most containers require daily watering. If the container is large and set in an area out of direct sunlight you can probably get away with watering every other day or so.


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