Since ancient times, gardeners have grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs in containers for practical and ornamental purposes. Early terra cotta pots were used to grow crops like pomegranates, fennel, …
Since ancient times, gardeners have grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs in containers for practical and ornamental purposes. Early terra cotta pots were used to grow crops like pomegranates, fennel, legumes, grains, and leafy greens. Today, gardeners continue the tradition of using containers to create beautiful and nourishing family kitchen gardens.
“Just about any vegetable or herb can be grown in a container,” advises Bridget Gregg, Master Gardener Program Coordinator for Jefferson County. “The joys and benefits of gardening can be accessible to everyone, regardless of how much or how little space they have.”
Bridget explains that supporting local food to improve community health and wellness is a priority of the Master Gardener program. The idea behind “postage stamp” gardening, or growing your favorite vegetables and herbs in containers, is to make a small kitchen garden accessible to all.
Julia Cordz, Master Gardener and certified professional horticulturist, suggests “you can grow a whole garden in containers!”
Growing vegetables, herbs, and fruits in containers offers several advantages. Julia explains that the plants won’t interfere with tree roots, and they may have fewer weeds, soil-borne pathogens, and pest problems.
To get started, use containers you already have: old nursery pots, buckets, baskets, straw bales, and containers of wood, terra cotta, or ceramic. Old pots can be sanitized with a 10 percent bleach solution and rinsed with clean water before reusing.
Containers can be placed where they are easy to reach, and moved around to take advantage of sunlight, shade, or shelter from the wind.
As with all garden plants, it’s a good idea to group veggies, herbs, fruits, and flowers with similar needs for sunlight and water.
“It really matters where you place them — the same plants two feet apart may grow differently,” Julia adds.
Vegetable gardening basics apply to planting in containers: ample sunlight, access to water, protection from heavy winds, and good soil. Place containers on a level surface — hardscape, a table or bench, coarse organic mulch, or bare ground if you want the roots to grow down into the soil. Hanging baskets and window boxes are possibilities, but be alert to “heat sinks” created by brick, concrete, or reflective surfaces.
Loose, rich soil can be achieved by starting with a growing medium such as a soilless mix or potting soil for good air circulation and drainage. Garden dirt should not be used, as it may be too dense to allow for needed air and water circulation.
Consistent watering and fertilizing are key, and will vary based on the plant type, size, location, and container. As with most plants, one deep watering is better than several shallow ones. Containers may need to be watered more often than an in-ground garden when the weather is hot.
Provide additional nutrients with a balanced liquid or slow-release fertilizer, roughly every 2-3 weeks. Finished compost can also be used. Mulch such as herbicide-free grass clippings, straw, or other natural materials layered on top of the soil can help retain moisture and prevent soil from splashing onto leaves or other plants.
Mid-summer is a perfect time to plant winter and early spring crops. Start with a few varieties or build a “salad bowl” — a table-top garden just large enough to grow several harvests of hardy salad greens and herbs. From now until early August, you can sow kale, collards, winter radishes, and other hardy leafy greens.
Plant seeds, purchase small plant starts, or use a combination. Planting now allows crops to reach a good size before the first frost slows their growth. Many crops can be harvested throughout the winter, while others will go dormant and then be ready to enjoy in early spring.
One source for locally developed seeds is the Jefferson County Extension Seed Library. Gardeners can borrow and plant seeds, harvest the crops, and save seeds at the end of the growing season to return to the library. Once you become a member (it’s free), you can check out seeds at the Jefferson County Library in Port Hadlock, at Bookmobile stops throughout the county, or at the Port Townsend Library’s Charles Pink House the first Tuesday of each month from noon to 2 p.m. Learn more at extension.wsu.edu/jefferson/master-gardener-seed-library/.
Echoing the ancient practices, Julia recommends inter-planting herbs and flowers like calendula, borage, or phacelia among the vegetable crops. They’ll help support pollinators as well as add color and texture to the garden.
Bridget sums it up: “Anyone can grow fresh local food in whatever space they have. We want to get the word out and help empower people to start their own small kitchen gardens.”
On Saturday, July 29, Master Gardeners will host a booth dedicated to growing food in containers at the Port Townsend Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Stop by to ask questions, learn about varieties recommended for our area, and take home an informative leaflet prepared by Master Gardener Mary Larson. The first 100 visitors to the booth can take home a free kale or lettuce start.
“Postage Stamp Gardening” is the theme of the Master Gardeners’ booth at the Jefferson County Fair Aug. 11 through Aug. 13 at the fairgrounds in Port Townsend. Master Gardeners will be available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day to answer questions about growing food in small spaces.
(Barbara Faurot is a Jefferson County Master Gardener and Master Pruner, working with other volunteers who serve as community educators in gardening and environmental stewardship.)