Published on 05/21/02

Container Gardens: No Tilling and Portable

Sylvia McLaurin has been successfully gardening in containers for three years. Struggling to grow vegetables in her dark, cramped backyard in Athens, Ga., McLaurin moved her garden to containers along her driveway, where it thrives.

Plants need soil, water and sunlight, she says. If they have that, they don't care if they're grown on a mountainside or in an asphalt jungle.

In 25-gallon plastic tubs, she grows endive and chicory, kale and squash. Other tubs have mosaics of herbs: parsley, rosemary, thyme and basil.

"On the downside, with containers you never really get that much," she said. "But it's just so nice to be able to grow enough fresh vegetables for one meal."

Container gardens are fairly low-maintenance. There's much less weeding to do than in traditional gardens. And you don't have to till any hard soil.

Containers are portable, too, which is handy if you have to move. Like any garden, though, gardening in containers requires planning.

"There are three S's to container gardening: soil, the size of the full-grown plant and the size of the container," said Wayne McLaurin, Sylvia's husband and an Extension Service horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Container gardeners get better results, he said, if they start with a good growing medium. After all, the soil is going to be your plants' home, food and furniture. "That 40-pound bag of soil for 99 cents is probably not the way you want to go, " he said.

He suggests trying soilless potting media composed of peat moss and vermiculite. These mixes are dark, spongy and lightweight, which is important if you must move your plants around. They're free of diseases and weeds, too.

McLaurin recommends buying transplants from a local nursery. They're usually hardy for your area and save time over germinating seeds.

Determine the size your plants will be when mature and whether they favor full sun, partial sun or shade.

Bush and dwarf varieties take less growing room. But they also mean a smaller harvest. "You might get as many vegetables off one normal-sized plant as you get off two or three dwarf plants," McLaurin said.

Leaf lettuces, radishes, strawberries, cherry tomatoes and herbs are naturally smaller plants and ideal for container planting.

The possibilities for containers are endless.

"You can plant in anything that can hold soil," said Brenda Beckham, a master gardener. "Containers need to be big enough to hold the plant's root mass and small enough to be portable. And they need drainage holes."

Smaller terra-cotta pots are cheap and lightweight. They're perfect for a single strawberry plant or some herbs. But Beckham suggests using plastic pots if you're going to plant a larger plant.

"They're lighter, cheaper and come in larger sizes than standard terra-cotta pots," she said. Many plastic pots are made to look like terra-cotta, too.

Look around for free containers, Beckham said. You can even go potless, growing plants like radishes, spring onions and leaf lettuces in a bag of media, just cutting slits in the top to insert your plants and in the bottom for drainage.

Sylvia McLaurin points out that plants grow only in about the first 6 inches of soil. To reduce the weight, she turns small nursery containers upside down at the bottom of the half-barrels and fills in with soil around and on top of them.

If the base of your plant is too light and the plant starts to get top-heavy, fill the bottom few inches with sand.

Once she brought in her first crop of tomatoes and endive, all McLaurin could think about was fitting more into next year's garden.

"I've never met a gardener who didn't want more room," she said. "Container gardeners are no different."

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension before joining Terry College.