My Vegetable Container Garden Featuring Squash and Tomatoes
What would you do if you moved during the hottest part of July, in the mid-Atlantic region, from an apartment with a north facing, completely tree-shaded balcony, to an apartment with a West, South-West facing balcony with wide open, brilliant sunshine?
What would you do if you thought, "Wow, this is THE best balcony for plants"? What would you do if common sense told you it was too late in the season to think about vegetables, and yet you tend toward being the impatient/impulsive type of person?
Well, you would do what I did. You'd immediately drive yourself down to the local DIY stores that have nursery sections and you'd get started. And this is exactly what I did, with my last last few dollars in hand. Ready to start a container vegetable garden. Whether or not it was the right season.
I am a 40-something year old woman. Who am I kidding? At the time of this writing I am 262 days from being 50. A half century old. Where did that time go? Perhaps this is why Im so impatient. I realize how quickly "tomorrow" comes and I still haven't done the projects Ive had on my to-do list. Im a Midwest transplant to the mid-Atlantic region. I left a home, yard, and garden and became an apartment dweller. For the first 5 years or so, I didn't miss the responsibilities of home ownership. Not one iota. Then slowly, I began missing being able to grill burgers in my yard, walk barefoot through a lush, debris-free lawn, and do my own landscaping. Oh, and shoveling snow. Believe it or not, Ive missed shoveling snow. But most of all, Ive missed growing plants. While Ive never had an amazing green thumb, and kill houseplants with an almost perfect kill rate, I did realize how much I missed growing my own veggies and outdoor flowers. Now with a sunny balcony, I was going to give container gardening a try.
I am far from expert. In fact, Im not even good at this. But while Ive surfed the 'net, I have found myself wishing there were more photos of what people are doing with their container gardens; indoors and out. So, I am sharing my experiences with you. This is less about advising and more about sharing my adventures. Maybe you will find something that works for you. Maybe you can pass on some hints that would work for me.
My little piece of balcony garden heaven.
Searching for vegetable plants in late July was fruitless (insert lame joke smiley face here). Had I been shopping for mums, I could buy one of every color on the color wheel. At several stores I found only mums and "windowsill herb garden kits". Similar to what I thought I wanted, but not quite. I wanted things I could sink my teeth into. Things I would use. I've had the experience of having huge outdoor gardens, and I once mistakenly planted 20+ tomato plants in a season that smiled upon tomatoes. I could have fed a small country those tomatoes and still had some leftover. Same with crookneck squash. So it seemed maybe I could figure out how to grow tomatoes and squash on my balcony. Or maybe I could give jalapeno peppers a try. After all, I've recently discovered that I love making bacon wrapped, stuffed jalapenos. Extra jalapenos wouldn't go to waste at my place. Fried green tomatoes, fresh red tomatoes, squash, and the makings for fresh salsa were all things I would use in my kitchen.
I searched 2 DIY stores, and only found a Meyer Lemon plants (more about that later), other citrus plants, and a single cart with some mostly wilted tomato plants, fiery hot red chili peppers, and one orange sweet bell pepper. I left with a lemon tree, orange bell pepper plant, and a tomato plant rescued from the inner depths of the cart. It appeared to be along the lines of a plum sized tomato. But I wasn't sure. My intent was to stay away from cherry tomatoes and stay away from the huge, beefy tomatoes. I wanted something in between. The pepper and tomato were Bonnie Plants brand.
I also bought some squash, cilantro, green bean, and spinach seed packets from the Burpee seeds display (all of the seeds were Burpee with the exception of the spinach which was Ferry-Morse brand). I was hoping to find jalepeno seeds but the display was fairly well plundered.
I used a 5 gal. "window" planter that I already had. And potting soil that I had left over from the failed attempts to raise houseplants at the previous, sunless apartment. I chose to leave the drain plugs in this planter and take great care with watering. At the previous place, I had attempted to grow flowers on the balcony. The drainage holes only ended up raining down onto the lower apartment balcony. While the neighbor either never noticed, or never complained, I sill felt irresponsible dripping down into his space. So this time, I'll water carefully and leave the plugs in.
I repotted the lemon tree into a slightly larger container of it's own. And put it into a sunny spot next to the rail. I potted the tomato and orange bell pepper at opposite ends of the window box. And noticed the tomato plant had one teeny tiny green tomato started. No blossoms… just one teeny tomato. I hoped that I didn't shock it enough to harm the tomato. I poked about 4 green bean seeds and 2 squash seeds between the two plants just for fun. I placed that window box into the sunniest spot next to the rail. I have to say that I completely love the size of this window box planter. At 27" L x 10 " H x 12" W, it doesn't seem too bulky, and yet holds several large plants and is a really nice depth. I hope to purchase more of these.
I planted spinach seeds and cilantro seeds into an existing ceramic planter I already had. The planter is far too large for what they need (I think my original intent was to use it for a fig tree), but it's pretty. And I like it. And the colors are great with the cilantro. Who said a container garden has to always be practical?
Some of the "potting" soil I had from previous purchases was a very heavy, clumpy dirt. After doing some research, I added some shredded paper (recycling from my own shredding) to the soil. It seems to help keep the heavy dirt from packing down. And may be helping to retain some moisture. I will continue to add shredded paper to my "dirt". And my goal is to start a small composting bin on my balcony.
Because of the lack of drainage holes, I water almost daily, every other day at the least. I make the soil wet but I don't drench it. I am concerned not to rot my roots. I check for dryness by poking my finger into the dirt before watering. I think this method takes more of my time and attention, but as I said previously, I don't want to risk raining down on the neighbors. I plan to eventually buy a tray that fits under the planter, and I will remove the drainage plugs at that time.
After a couple of weeks, it seemed like the tomato plant was doing pretty good. There were new leaves. But no blossoms and the tomato itself didn't seem to be growing enough to notice. The squash had sprouted and the beans had too, just more slowly. The pepper plant looked droopy but the pepper itself was hanging on. I went back to the DIY and bought a vegetable/flower fertilizer. I bought a brand that I'm familiar with from my past outdoor gardening activities. I chose the "shake 'n feed" pellets as opposed to the liquid because I'm too lazy for the fuss and muss of mixing the liquid with water. Soon after the "feeding" my tomato produced more blossoms than I can count and the squash leaves exploded. The poor beans were being overshadowed and probably won't do much. There are 2 bean plants remaining that are trying to compete for the sun. (note to self: if I plant beans and squash in the same spot again, let the beans have a lengthy head start so they can get sun above the squash leaves.)
The bell pepper problem:
The plant seemed to be doing okay, with it's one pepper still hanging on and growing larger very slowly. But the leaves always seemed to be a little wilted and the pepper got a little tan "bad" spot on it. After some internet research, I began to think that the pepper had gotten too much sun. It's called "sun scald" apparently. So I moved it to it's own pot and put it a bit more around the corner of the balcony, giving it fewer hours of direct sun. I had brought the lemon indoors (more about that later) and it was taking off like gangbusters. So I eventually decided to also bring the pepper indoors. Since I've brought it indoors, and "staked" it to the bar of the plant shelf to support it, it has started a new tiny pepper. Just yesterday I cut the original pepper off. The sun scald wound, or whatever it is, has grown proportionately with the pepper. So I chose to cut it off the plant so the plant can focus it's energy elsewhere.
Cilantro and spinach:
The cilantro is growing, slowly. The spinach is growing even more slowly in their shared container on the balcony. I've moved their pot farther from the balcony rail and into the slightly more shaded section. They both appeared as though maybe they were getting too much sun. They often looked droopy and the spinach would get little brownish spots. After I moved them, the cilantro seemed to be doing better; growing more quickly. And the spinach has lost those "spots". I very recently started a couple of spinach seeds in it's own pot, in the house, with the lemon nearby to keep it company.
Additional tomato comments:
In an outdoor yard garden, I would have planted the tomato deep. I would have stripped off many of the bottom leaves, leaving just the uppermost branches and leaves. And I would have buried it deep in a hole. I have had the experience that this makes a much better root system and the plants take off. I have friends and relatives who disagree, but that is the technique I preferred and with it I had quite a bit of good luck. I was concerned to not be able to plant deep in this planter box. But the tomato seems to be doing fine. It also seems to help that the tomato is on the "corner" end of the rail. This is acting as a tomato cage and is keeping the plant upright and supported. I don't know it would be doing as well if I had planted shallow and didn't have the rail as support. I still think I should strip off many of the "sucker" leaves so that it has more energy to feed the blossoms. But it's such a bushy, lush plant that I just can't bring myself to thinning it out.
I moved on July 20th. I bought and potted the plants approximately one week later. It is now a month and a half later. We've had mostly hot (unseasonably hot) and dry weather. The tomato and squash plants are doing much better than I had ever hoped for. I didn't think I'd get anything before the cold came, except for a hobby to occupy my time and a few sprouts. This is what they look like so far. I probably won't get enough produce to make salsa. But, I've got a good start on understanding what will do well where on my balcony.
While I am waiting to see what I manage to grow on my balcony, I've ordered a Burpee seed catalog, I've researched where to buy more Bonnie Plants in the spring, have researched indoor lights and container vegetables, and am ready to start more plant experiments. I've read about indoor carrots, potatoes, and strawberries. I've set up my indoor shelf and lighting in a way that at least my lemon loves. So we'll see what happens next.
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Squash, Tomatoes, and more...oh my!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Links to informative and interesting Lenses
I enjoy reading about how others are successful with gardening; especially container gardening. I found these lenses to be particularly helpful.
Other places on the internet to visit
It is the first week of October. We have eaten this lovely tomato from my plant. Initially, the remainder of the blooms weren't turning into tiny tomatoes. So I helped them along with a cotton swab, gently moving it from blossom to blossom. Now my plant is loaded with little green tomatoes. Since I got such a late start (moving in July and planting after that) I am concerned that my little green tomatoes won't have time to ripen. If it gets too cold, I'll just bring my plant indoors.
Please share your gardening adventures, thoughts about this lens, and comments about container gardening in general.