Sweetening the pots: Container gardening adds bounty of local, fresh food

Jozie Schimke, who works at Henrys’ Plant Farm, 248 North 1700 Road, picks blossoms to further plant growth. The business is experimenting with more patio-type vegetables in anticipation of a boon of DIY vegetable gardening.

Marcia Henry of Henrys’ Plant Farm, 248 N. 1700 Road, north of Stull, plants some tomatoes recently. For health and economic reasons, there seems to be renewed interested in growing vegetables at home, she says.

Red Romaine lettuce.

A young broccoli plant grows at Henrys’ Plant Farm west of Lawrence.

A variety of seedlings thrives at Henrys’ Plant Farm.

I’ve always been a little intimidated with the idea of growing a vegetable garden. My mind would fill with images of constantly thwarting the advances of critters who want to eat my bounty, of toiling hours away to produce just one or two items to eat, the overwhelming dread that I wouldn’t have enough room and that I’d just plain and simple get in too far over my head.

This year, however, I’m diving in. I’m going to grow edibles in containers and keep my fingers crossed that a cornucopia of earthly delicacies will sprout forth. If you are anything like me and for some reason have steered clear of edibles, together we have denied ourselves the satisfaction of satiating our family’s appetites. Let’s try to grow vegetables together.

“We believe people sense the need to create something ‘real’ and literally down-to-earth,” explains Margit Hall, owner of Prairie Star Farm near De Soto. “It is a timeless act that connects one to the life force found in nature and gives you an appreciation for the simple things in life.”

No doubt there is a disconnect for many people when it comes to understanding the basic channels their food travels to the kitchen table.

“I feel the renewed interest comes from wanting to save money, have a safe vegetable and the pride of having grown your own food,” says Marcia Henry, owner of Henry’s Plant Farm west of Lawrence. “People remember when their parents and grandparents always had a garden to help feed the family, and I think they feel that surely they could at least grow some vegetables in a container even if they don’t have a garden space available.”

Karen Pendleton, owner of Pendleton’s Country Market east of Lawrence, has an idea as to why people are embracing edibles again.

“We would like to think we could be self-sustaining if need be, and this gives us a chance to do something that gets us closer to that goal,” she says. “What comes from your garden is far superior in taste and nutrition to the food found in most stores.”

Whether our driving catalyst is to be self-sufficient, to create healthy, organic foods, to get closer to the earth and feel a connection, to save money or to just tread on unknown territory, it seems as if there are far more admirable reasons to grow food than to not.

Easy does it

For beginners, the advice is to use large containers that will hold more water so the soil will stay cooler, add some compost and sow some seeds — radishes, spinach, lettuce, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes and peppers are all easy.

For 28 years, Henrys’ Plant Farm has experimented with a slew of varieties of vegetables. This takes a lot of the guesswork out for novice gardeners and should aid in producing a prolific garden by riding on their coat tails.

“There are several new patio-type varieties we are trying this year,” Henry says.

Those include Apache Red Chili Patio (hot) pepper, Redskin Patio (sweet) pepper, a smaller plant zucchini Patio Zucchini, several eggplant varieties — Hansel (purple) and Gretel (white) — and miniature tomato varieties, Patio Teacup Red and Patio Teacup Yellow. Some great tomatoes to use in containers are Better Bush, Bush Celebrity, Bush Early Girl, Bush Goliath and Patio Picnic. There are also smaller okra varieties, Little Lucy and Cajun Delight. Usually any pepper variety will fit nicely into a container. Other vegetables like a cucumber would be Fanfare and Salad Bush.

Just like Henrys’, Pendleton’s has also been growing in our region for 28 years and has plenty of advice for growing the perfect pepper and most tantalizing of tomatoes.

“Bush tomatoes are easy to grow in containers,” Pendleton says. “There are very small tomato plants such as Tiny Tim that don’t get over 12-inch high and produces small cherry tomatoes, but you can also plant Super Bush that will produce a larger 6-ounce fruit. These plants are stocky and compact with thick stems, so you don’t have to stake them.”

Other options

She says the farm also grows Tumbling Tom tomatoes in hanging baskets, which provide cherry tomatoes on trailing vines.

And she also suggests peppers.

“The hotter varieties of peppers tend to be smaller plants in general. Jalapenos and habaneras are very prolific, and they have very few pests so can be set among ornamental flowers on the deck,” she says. “Lettuce and greens are great container plants. Since lettuce is a fairly short season crop, you can grow several plantings throughout the year.”

While these veteran growers have the green thumbs necessary to fill the crisper drawer, they all believe we novice vegetable gardeners can be as equally successful as they are.

“We’ve lost a lot of wisdom in this field given our disconnected fast-food culture,” Hall explains. “Unfortunately many younger generations have never been exposed to gardening — so it’s foreign territory. The act of growing food is actually quite a lot simpler than one might imagine, given a little care and attention to the basics: a balanced, fertile, well-composted soil, water and some time and attention.”

Henry agrees that the growing bug should be sown into our children’s vernacular as well.

“When you grow your own edible vegetables you gain a healthy food for your family and a sense of pride and satisfaction that is unbelievable,” Henry says. “Growing is a wonderful family experience to get children involved in something as simple as putting lettuce or radish seeds in a pot and watching them grow.”

— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.