A moveable feast: Containers can be scooted around a deck to take advantage of shade or to maximize sun exposure, while avoiding the depredations of bunnies and voles.
The first salad I made with the arugula and red oak leaf lettuce from containers I set up on my deck last summer must have cost me about $50. I had to laugh at myself. But pure desperation had forced my hand. There were just too many variables impacting my in-ground garden in the difficult summer of 2012.
A super-warm March had been followed by an otherwise ordinary spring. But temperatures soared in June and only 1.8 inches of rain fell all month, taxing my rain water collecting system. In three or four nights deer had moved with methodical precision down the row of daylilies bordering the vegetable garden, consuming every bud. Next they beheaded the phlox, hosta and asters. Bunnies scattered every time I opened the door. My garden beds were full of vole and mole tunnels.
The sun beat down. I spent every morning moving the hose from the base of one tomato or squash plant to another. When rain came it battered my plants in five-minute deluges. My rhubarb leaves were rent by hail. How could the tender arugula and lettuce seedlings I’d started under lights survive the harsh realities outside? Even a double layer of screening over their bed didn’t seem sufficient to protect them.
My attention turned to the deck. It was small, but elevated eight feet above ground; its only entry was from the back porch. Deer-, bunny- and vole-proof, it had benches that I could slide the arugula and lettuce under when they gasped from too much sun, or when thunder warned of an impending gully washer. I had some small containers that I could have used for the salad greens, but decided to spring for a couple of “window boxes.” Then I succumbed to some bright red, yellow and green tubs of varying sizes. I wanted my deck to become a little Eden, a place to care for and feast my eyes upon – if not much of a source of produce – if all else failed.
Initially, I resisted expenditures on special container potting soil, mixing composted cow manure, garden soil, worm castings and some expensive potting soil to fill my pots. Eventually, however, as I added more plants, I bought a bag of the commercial stuff. I even installed a birdbath, which nothing used except mosquito larvae, maybe because the weather pattern changed with the arrival of Dog Days, bringing nearly eight inches of rain in July.
My first container garden wasn’t well planned, beyond the arugula and lettuce in the window boxes and a tub I bought for carrots, to stymie the voles. Into the larger tubs I transplanted leftover transplants languishing on the porch; an ornamental pepper I’d bought at a farmer’s market the previous year; a geranium needing a bigger pot. Then I splurged on an artificial looking “container tomato,” to see what it would do. As of this early August this writing, its first fruits are coloring up; they’re certain not to compare in taste with the succulent Cherokee purples my in-ground garden had begun to produce.
I hope this year’s container garden will be more organized. I want to try beans, which I’m never very successful with in the regular garden. And beets, another vegetable I stopped planting because of the voles. I’m already envisioning stringing a wire between the corner of the house and the post that holds my rain gauge; I’ll run supports from it down to tubs for climbers, maybe scarlet runner beans and heavenly blue morning glories I can’t grow in the in-ground garden because of the bunnies. Now that I’ve tried it, container gardening will be an annual affair.
Container Gardening Do's and Don'ts
Container gardening has exploded in popularity in recent years. There’s plenty of how-to information out there (magazine articles, books and websites), but here are a few Dos and Don’ts to keep in mind when you’re starting out.
• DO use containers that provide plants with adequate growing space. Be aware that dark-colored pots absorb more heat than light-colored ones. Don’t fry your container plants’ roots.
• DON’T use 100 percent garden soil, no matter how wonderful it looks. Container soil needs to be aerated and to hold moisture.
• DO buy mixtures specifically labeled for container growing. You can stretch purchased soilless mix by adding one part garden soil to three parts mix. Or make your own mix by combining one part garden soil, one part peat moss and one part perlite or coarse builder’s sand.
• DON’T fill pots all the way to the top. Leave about one inch of space between the pot rim and the top of the soil, so nothing will run off when you water your plants.
• DO water plants consistently; don’t allow soil to get so dry that plants wilt. (It’s time to water when the top inch of soil has dried out.)
• DON’T waterlog your plants. Containers of many kinds can be modified to serve as planters, but don’t use anything that lacks drain holes in the bottom.
• DO fertilize container plants regularly. Slow-release and liquid fertilizers can supply essential nutrients.
• DON’T forget about wind, which can upend containers if above-ground growth is disproportionate to the weight of the pot and soil. Provide support for taller plants.
• DO experiment with combinations of plants, but don’t combine plants with widely varying sun and water requirements in a single pot. Container gardening allows you to create different effects by moving pots around. Tender seedlings can be hardened off by exposing them gradually to increasing amounts of sun. Just move a pot into the shade if the soil is damp but seedlings are beginning to wilt.