At this point in the season, garden care for a container garden is pretty minimal - all the hard work of planning and planting is done, and it's mostly time to enjoy, but there are still some really important things to think about to keep your plants healthy in order to get the most from them - like plant food, pest management, pruning, etc.
The other day, Theo and I harvested the first carrot from our patio container garden. It was such a feeling of success and pleasure, I have to share it with you. Although the carrot itself was no bigger than Theo's chubby index finger, it was sweet and earthy, and the memories of stealing carrots from my mother's garden came flooding back.
We have been enjoying fresh herbs (basil, chives, oregano, two varieties of mint, and rosemary) all summer, but this was our first big treasure. It was also the first carrot that Theo ever willingly swallowed, which says so much about getting kids involved in the process.
Garden care for your vegetable container garden
1. Watch your garden grow. Trust me, it's more fascinating than watching paint dry, although it progresses much more slowly. By watching it, I mean you should spend time amongst your pots every day, checking them for the first signs of stress, disease or pests (for example, white spots = powdery mildew, teeny tiny bugs = probably aphids, tiny specks and/or webbing = spider mites, yellowing or wilting of foliage = under- or over-watering, squiggly lines on leaves = leaf miners). It's much easier to treat a problem at the first sign than it is to take back control once it causes significant damage. Trust me.
2. Feed and Cut back. Like I've mentioned before, plants in pots have higher needs for plant food than their buddies in the ground, because they are confined to a small space and nutrients get washed out when you water them. Feed your veggie plants with the plant food of your choice. I was given Miracle-Gro Shake 'n Feed Tomato, Fruits & Vegetables which I used on my tomato and cucumber plants - it's formulated to help produce more fruit & veggies, plus the calcium helps prevent blossom end rot, which I've had problems with in the past. That particular product is slow-release and lasts for four months, which is great - sprinkle and forget. Whatever you're using, be sure to follow the instructions on the label for amount and frequency.
As your plants grow, pruning them can help you get the most from them. Cut back the tall stems of your tender herb plants (and eat what you cut!) to encourage bushier growth and prevent early flowering. Watch videos on how to prune your tomato and cucumber plants - pinching off "shooters" will help concentrate the plant's energy into fruit production. Later in the season, pruning from the tops maximizes the final harvest by forcing the plant to ripen up the remaining fruits on the plant, rather than wasting energy on new growth.
3. Harvest your bounty. One of the most disappointing experiences newbie gardeners face is watching their beloved plants bloom and produce vegetables... only to bite into a dry radish, a mushy tomato, or a forkful of über-bitter arugula. I did it myself this year, with a beautiful container of lettuces! The pot was so pretty, I kept delaying the harvest... and then they bolted (which means they started flowering - the stems harden and the leaves become bitter at this point).
So while you're visiting your garden every day, pay close attention to when things are getting ready to harvest. Snip off tender greens leaving a bit of the crown above the soil surface, and they'll grow back again a couple of times. Watch your peas and pluck them when their pods swell, before they get hard and starchy. Nab every last tomato while the skins are taut and shiny, before they pass their prime. Rip out those radishes as soon as you can see their little round heads poking out. Tug out your carrots as soon as you fancy.
4. Learn and enjoy the process. Get really familiar with the plants you're growing - experience surpasses all else, but if you spend some time reading about their individual preferences, you'll have far fewer disappointments. Keep a gardening journal to document your successes and failures, and what you've learned along the way.
Most of all, draw as much pleasure as you can from the miracle of using your own two hands to produce something from (almost) nothing. I can't even describe the sweetness and bliss in the first juicy bite of each beautiful tomato that I successfully grew myself.
What are your gardening success stories or challenges this season? I'd really love to hear your stories in the comments! Or share pictures of your veggie plants with me on twitter and I'll happily retweet them! If you use the hashtag #igrewit, you can share with a larger gardening community at Scotts Miracle-Gro (I'm part of their Gro Crew). So, fellow veggie-loving gardeners - any pearls of wisdom to share?