Imagine stepping outside this summer to fresh basil for spaghetti sauce, chives for a breakfast omelette or mint leaves for summer lemonade. Even if you have little time or space for things green and growing, you can grow herbs and other plants in containers. A small space will do. An apartment balcony, a small patio or sunny front steps can be the place for your container garden.
What does it take to grow a garden in containers? The basics are plants, soil mix and an appropriate container. As your garden grows, you'll need water and fertilizer.
What plants can be container-grown? The herbs mentioned above as well as parsley, sweet marjoram, thyme and rosemary do well in containers. In addition, many vegetable varieties, available as both seeds and plants, are suitable. Check with local garden stores for specifics. Flowers also can be grown in containers. Petunias, alyssum, marigolds and geraniums are sun-loving favorites, while impatients, ageratum or begonias are good choices for shade.
Your container garden will be healthier and easier to maintain if you use a potting soil mix. These mixes are lighter in weight than ordinary soil -- a plus when you need to move the container. In addition, mixes allow for rapid drainage of water, keeping plant roots healthier. You can purchase potting mix from nurseries or garden stores or you can make your own.
One common formula mixes two parts sandy loam soil, one part sphagnum peat moss and one part perlite or builders sand.
When choosing a container, the only essential is holes in the bottom for draining excess water. Plastic, clay or wood containers are good choices, or you can recycle old buckets or cans. To choose an appropriate size, consider your plant. There usually is a balance between the root system and top growth. Most vegetables, herbs and annual flowers can be grown in 6-inch to 1-gallon containers, while larger plants such as full-size tomatoes need at least 3-gallon containers. If your container garden will be in a west or southwest location, a larger container will better control heat stress and water loss.
After planting, it is important to maintain your garden with regular water and fertilizing. There is no rule of thumb on how often to water since it will vary with the plant, potting mix, weather conditions and the pot used. Clay pots are porous and will need watering more often. Check your plants regularly and look for signs of wilting, which indicates a need for water. Saturate containers with each watering, always applying water until it drains out of the bottom hole. You may find that you need to water daily during hot, dry periods. And don't forget to fertilize! Many gardeners apply a dilute liquid fertilizer solution every other watering. Read the directions on the label carefully to avoid over- or under-fertilizing.
Plants, potting mix, containers, fertilizer and water are what you need to plant and maintain a container garden. You know the basics. Now it's time to get growing!
-- The Garden Calender is sponsored by the Douglas County Extension Service and written this week by Susan Russell, master gardener. For more information, call the Master Gardener Hot Line, 843-7058, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.