Garden Growing 101

Posted: 3/30/2011

Posted Mar 30, 2011

We deserve a pat on the back.

In general, we're doing a much better job of eating local. But we can do better. We can grow our own vegetables.

"Galloping Gourmet" Graham Kerr has had a long career as a cooking and nutrition teacher, but he admits: "I have cooked just about everything that grows, but I've never grown a thing I've cooked."

Kerr decided to start a garden plot and write about it. Growing at the Speed of Life (Perigee, $27.50) takes readers through the first year in Kerr's kitchen garden.

You say your back yard is too small for vegetable growing? Or, you don't have a backyard?

That's no excuse.

You can grow potatoes, tomatoes or salad greens in a bag of potting soil, and most vegetables can be grown in containers, according to Rodale columnist Jean Nick. You can salvage old containers to use as planters: bushel baskets, wooden boxes, washtubs, plastic bags, large food cans, leaky buckets, garbage cans with holes, an old wheelbarrow, reusable totes, or the kiddie pool.

Green onions, radishes or beets can even be grown in a cake pan. They are fairly easy to handle and provide adequate space for root growth, according to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

The size of the container will vary according to the crop selection and space available. The container should be at least 8 inches deep, and you can cut or drill holes in the bottom so excess water can drain freely.

Pots from 6 to 10 inches in diameter are satisfactory for green onions, parsley and herbs. For tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, you will find that 5-gallon containers are the most suitable size; 1 to 2 gallon containers are best for chard and dwarf tomatoes. Adding about 1 inch of coarse gravel in the bottom of the container will improve drainage. The drain holes work best when they are along the side of the container, about 1/4 - to 1/2 -inch from the bottom.

Good soil is the single most important ingredient for a good garden. And raised beds give you an immediate advantage over a regular garden because you can fill it with a blend of soil that's superior to the native soil in your yard. Soil that's loose, and rich with nutrients and organic matter, will allow the roots of your plants to grow freely and will ensure that they have access to the water and nutrients they need to sustain healthy growth.

The National Gardening Association says to use only sterilized potting soil. Garden soil can contain diseases and might not be well drained. Because you're planting in such a small space, you'll have to be conscious of watering and fertilizing regularly. Water with drip irrigation or by hand whenever the soil is dry 4 to 6 inches deep.

Fertilize every two weeks with a water-soluble fertilizer for vegetables, or add controlled-release fertilizer at planting time, supplemented with a water-soluble fertilizer when needed. For large containers, mulching with straw or bark conserves moisture. One thing to keep in mind is that black containers heat up in the sun, and the plant roots don't like that.

The amount of sun or light on your growing area is probably the most important limiting factor, according to, so check out the light situation first, remembering that you can move the containers around to catch the sun if necessary.

If the amount of sunlight is limited, try lettuce, cabbage, kale, leeks, spinach, swiss chard and/or mustard greens (also herbs such as parsley and chives). Root crops such as green onions, beets, carrots and turnips need more light but tolerate some shade. With full sun (at least 6 hours) you can grow snap beans, cucumbers, eggplant, onions, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and squash.

Each year, seed companies come out with new vegetable plant varieties that are suitable for container gardens. Look for key words like bush, compact and space saver. Information on planting a small back-yard garden is abundant on the Internet, and many sites will provide detailed instructions along with how much soil to buy, or how long the planks should be for a raised garden bed.

If that's too strenuous, take a trip to a nearby farmers market. Lexington Farmers Market opens April 9.

Reach Sharon Thompson at (859) 231-3321 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3321.

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Copyright © 2011, The Lexington Herald-Leader, Ky.

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