IF YOUR GARDEN is steep or small and you're interested in vegetable gardening, containers are an excellent option. A few strategically placed, colorful pots overflowing with seasonal edibles can really keep things interesting on your patio, porch or deck — and put food on your table. Even if you already have a vegetable garden but are looking to expand (or get closer to your kitchen), containers are a great way to go.
Like ornamentals, edibles come in all shapes, types and sizes. There is no magic to growing edibles in containers. It's pretty straightforward. Start by using the biggest containers you can — 20 inches in diameter or even larger. Don't let the plastic and terracotta pots in the aisles of Home Depot limit you. Be creative. Remember, a container is anything that, well, contains. I've seen edibles growing out of wheelbarrows, trash bags, wooden crates, wine barrels, wagons, galvanized tubs, painted
aluminum trash cans, an old fountain and even bathtubs. As long as it holds
soil and has holes for excess water to drain out, you're good to go. Some
gardeners even add wheels to the bottom so the container can be moved around. (These can be purchased at any hardware store.) Do whatever works for your situation.
Resist the urge to shovel out soil directly from your garden for use in your new containers. Instead, buy potting soil or make up your own. The goal is to use an organic, light, quick-draining growing medium. Avoid commercial potting soils that contain peat moss, gel polymers, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Some gardeners swear by putting twigs at the bottom of the container, and then backfilling with the potting mix. This purportedly helps keep the soil from compacting, although I've never found that my plants suffered without a bed of twigs underneath.
With edibles, timing is everything. Pop a tomato plant into the ground in March and it's going to sit there moping until the weather (and the soil) warms up. Ditto cukes and eggplants. In her book, "Golden Gate Gardening" (a Bible for Bay Area food gardeners), author Pam Peirce provides a planting calendar for foggy and sunny locales. Do not grow a vegetable garden without this book (or Rosalind Creasy's "Edible
Landscaping"). Yes, thanks to our enviable climate, we can grow edibles
year-round; you just need to know when to plant what so that you're working with your climate, not against it.
Plants growing in containers do not have the advantage of extending their roots further and further out to grab nutrients. Instead, they're stuck with whatever is in the confines of their container. To make up for this, be sure to keep your containers watered and consider adding a little organic fertilizer. The smaller the container and the hotter your microclimate, the more frequently you will have to water.
There is no reason that potted-up edibles need to look like the red-headed stepchildren of your garden. On the contrary, the same design principles that apply to the rest of your garden are alive and well in each of your containers. Texture, contrast, color: think of each pot as a mini landscape. An easy way to achieve this is to mix edibles from three categories: "Tall" plants for height, "sprawl" plants for filler, and "fall" plants to cascade over the edge. Here's a quick guide to plants that fit each of these categories.
• Tall: These veggies can rise up for the occasion. Nothing says "look at me" like a climbing, twining cascade of purple and yellow beans or their rilliant red relative, the scarlet runner. Same for tomatoes, caged upward, red globes gleaming. Other climbers include cucumbers and peas, and some nonclimbing but taller edibles include artichokes (be careful, these get huge), sunflowers (see if you can get the seeds before the birds), sunchokes and lemongrass, which smells lovely and waves beautifully
in the breeze. I have used a variety of climbing contraptions over the years, from old bird cages to bamboo poles to wooden ladders. Look for sturdy cages that can be used year after year, that can easily be stored, and that make harvesting a snap.
My favorite all-purpose climbing cage is the Texas Tomato Cage, but there are plenty of other excellent choices in gardening catalogs and online gardening sites. Put your tall edible in the middle or back of your container where it will point up like exclamation points.
• Sprawl: Some plants are ideal for filling in with color and texture. From warty, deep green kale leaves to massive purple mustard greens, this is where things get interesting. Peppers and eggplants fill in around their taller neighbors beautifully and quickly, their colorful fruit suspended like Christmas ornaments. Lettuce varieties are endless, from frilly Romaines to petite arugula. Carrots provide a delicate leaf, while collards stand out for their beefy stature. Leeks and onions send up slender green stalks and rainbow chard or rhubarb pops with color.
• Fall: Cascading over with beauty and fragrance, herbs are about the easiest plants on the planet to grow. They spill so beautifully over the edge of containers that you will wonder why you haven't been growing them already. Thyme, marjoram, basil, parsley, cilantro, sage and so many more: fill a pot with herbs and stand back. The ultimate summertime cascade is the lovely strawberry, which can be tucked in along the edge of any
container, its sweet dangling red fruit the poster child for warm summer days.
And don't forget a nasturtium or two. Remember, flowers are food, too.
Here are two veggie pot combinations:
• "Little Italy" — Tomato in cage (tall); purple basil, onions,
garlic and chard (sprawl); marjoram (fall)
• "Salad Bowl" — Cucumber on trellis (tall); lettuce greens and
onions (sprawl); nasturtiums (fall)