by Ginny Chandoah
I’ve been an organic gardener for most of my life, whether it was my childhood sandbox converted to a flower garden, a small patch of backyard lawn tilled up to grow vegetables, growing vegetables on a sunny patio and deck, growing vegetables in a closet, and larger scale organic vegetable gardening. Even with limited space, as long as there is a sunny spot, vegetables will grow.
Select seed packets that are USDA Certified Organic. It’s best to choose seeds that are open pollinated and heirloom varieties. Avoid those that are hybrid since they’ve been genetically modified, and also avoid those whose seeds have been chemically treated. There are many online retailers selling organic untreated heirloom variety seeds, such as Peacevine, Grow Organic, High Mowing, Wood Prairie, and more. Personally I like to choose seeds from small sellers within my growing area.
Vegetables that adapt very well to container growing include tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash (avoid crook neck yellow squash since that variety has been genetically modified), zucchini, lettuce, spinach, celery, even melons.
The next step to creating an organic garden is to select the containers in which to start your seeds. Any local nursery or store such as Lowes or Home Depot will carry seed starter trays and pots. Fill the pots with soil, create a hole and plant 2 seeds. This will ensure that at least one seed germinates. If both seeds germinate, when the seedlings have two leaves, remove the weakest looking seedling so there is only one seedling per pot. Another option is to use a small pot and space out 3-4 seeds. There are pros and cons to both methods. A single seedling per plant makes transplanting very easy. With multiple seedlings per pot, the roots need to be untangled when transplanting. I have used both methods and either one works. Transplant seedlings when they have at least two true leaves. The first “leaves” to appear after the seed germinates are not true leaves.
For transplanting seedlings into growing pots, choose pots that will hold at least 10 pounds of soil. Vegetable plants need a large pot for establishing a good root system. In larger pots that hold 20 pounds or more of soil will be able to handle 3-4 plants in each large pot. I like to place drip catchers under the pots, but some pots are either too large for a drip catcher, or are an odd shape.
If you want to skip the process of sowing your own seeds, nurseries, stores like Lowes or Home Depot, food coops, or local organic farms may carry organic and/or heirloom seedlings that you can purchase and transplant.
The type of soil used is also important. If you want truly organic vegetables, avoid all-in-one bagged soils that contain chemical fertilizers. Instead, choose soils that are marked as approved for organic gardening. Also look for organic compost from local farms or nurseries. I like to mix my soil in a wheelbarrow and add a shovel full of lobster meal in with my composted soil for added nutrients. Peat can also be added to help lighten the soil and retain moisture, but a little goes a long way. You don’t want the soil to be soggy or your vegetable plants will suffer root rot.
Potted plants on a sunny deck or patio will be subject to intense heat and will dry out quickly. After potting my seedlings, I like to place on top of the soil an inch or two of wood chips (not cedar). These can be purchased at nurseries or stores such as Agway. Some people wrap foil around the pots to reflect the sun, and some people place bricks around the pots to absorb the sun’s heat and it also serves to release warmth around the pots during the cooler evening temperatures. Personally I do neither of these things and always make sure there is water in my drip catchers, and always thoroughly water my potted vegetables late in the afternoon or early evening so the plants have all night to soak up the water and nutrients in the soil.
Even though I have a large ground organic garden, I still like to grow certain vegetables in containers on my deck, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and squashes. Potted tomatoes grown on a deck or patio seem to avoid the leaf fungus that ground planted tomatoes are often subject to. That’s because potted tomatoes with wood chip mulch on top avoid the rain splash that throws soil on the undersides of the leaves.
Another reason I like deck or patio container gardening is because wildlife and pests don’t seem to bother the plants. However, I use regular fence material that I cut and wrap around the entire pot and plant. Not only does this keep foragers away, but it helps support the plants during strong wind and storms.
Placement of potted vegetable plants is also important as some require maximum sun while others do better with a little shade. I like to mix potted tomato plants with the potted lettuce and cucumber plants because tomatoes need maximum sun, and the lettuce and cucumbers receive dappled sun.
If you have a sunny area in the house, the growing season can be extended by moving potted plants inside when the weather turns too cold. I live in a northern area where nights start to turn cold in September. I’ve moved potted tomato plants into an unheated sunroom and harvested ripe tomatoes well into December.
After the growing season I empty the pot contents (plants and soil) into a composter and add to it my kitchen vegetable scraps. In a year or two I can reuse that soil instead of buying new soil. I wash out and store all of my seedling starter pots and the growing pots and reuse them the following year. With a little initial investment, every summer you can have fresh organic vegetables you grew yourself.
About the Author
Ginny Chandoha is a published writer whose short stories have appeared in The Staying Sane book series by DeCapo Press. Having spent many years in the publishing industry, she has been a contributing editor of several travel trade publications and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Lichen Sclerosis: Beating the Disease.”