Want to feast on succulent, summer-ripe tomatoes straight off the vine, or sprinkle fresh basil in your spaghetti sauce — but don’t have a few freshly plowed acres at your disposal? Never fear. Even if you live in an apartment approximately the size of a thimble, getting garden-fresh produce and herbs can be as easy as buying a few starter plants and a couple of big pots.
My own first venture into apartment gardening was somewhat of a disaster because, although I was a total horticultural novice, I didn’t consult the experts. I didn’t read any gardening articles. I didn’t even, in fact, read those little plastic markers inserted into starter-plant containers that say such boring things as “Needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day” or, more appropriately in this case, “For best results, plant only one starter per container.”
No, I proceeded to stick six or seven tomato plants into one pot. More would surely equal better, I reasoned. The end result, of course, was not the gloriously abundant bounty I’d imagined myself gathering each day at dinner time, salt shaker in hand. The end result turned out to be not one single tomato, because the plants simply strangled each other.
So before you rush haphazardly into the gardening-in-small-areas fray, you’d be wise to follow a few basic tips.
First off, of course, you’ll need to gather the basic accouterments — and the word basic is key here. You don’t need expensive, hand-painted designer pots, unless you’re one of those people who think the world is a much better place simply because Martha Stewart exists. Plain old garden-variety (no pun intended) red-clay pots — the bigger the better, to give plants space to breathe and expand — work just fine. Hand-built wooden containers — or even old tires, stacked to the desired depth and filled with soil — will also do. (A friend of mine insists that the best potatoes are grown in tires.)
Next comes the soil. John “Smith” (who asked that his real last name not be used — perhaps to protect him from packs of marauding horticulturalists), a lawn-and-garden specialist at Citizen’s Hardware (841 Merrimon Ave., 254-7244) says you should choose a well-draining potting soil — specifically, one that contains vermiculite and perlite (volcanic minerals), because the combination of the two helps drain the soil and retain the correct moisture balance.
Once you’ve gathered your containers and soil, the question becomes what to plant. Your choices for pot gardening (er, make that container gardening) are as surprisingly abundant as the harvest you’ll undoubtedly reap.
Of all the vegetables that flourish in smaller spaces, tomatoes are probably your single best bet (provided you plant them correctly). Cherry tomatoes, as John points out, work especially well, as do a wide variety of “patio” tomatoes bred specifically for container growing. Plant one starter plant per pot (if you want “serious” tomato plants, says John, use at least a 14- to 16-inch pot). Tomatoes need a lot of space and plenty of direct sunlight. Regular doses (every couple of weeks) of all-purpose plant food also help coax the plants to grow and produce copious tomatoes.
Other container-friendly veggies include lettuce, peppers of all varieties — especially cayenne, bell and jalapeno — and pole beans. As Ira Mallard, an organizer of Asheville’s Tailgate Market puts it, “Anything that would run up, rather than spread out, is good — except for corn.” (The Tailgate Market — where you’ll find a plethora of homegrown, in-season veggies, not to mention cut and potted herbs, jams, jellies, breads, canned goods and bedding plants — is located in the parking lot between Grace Plaza and the Fresh Market off Merrimon Avenue. It runs Saturdays 7 a.m. to noon, starting April 18, with Wednesday mornings added in mid-summer.)
In addition to produce, almost every type of herb grows exceedingly well in small containers — and some of them can be grown indoors in window boxes, if you lack access to any outdoor space. Bobbi Cyphers, owner of The Herb of Grace (1915 N.C. Highway 63, 17 miles south of Hot Springs, 622-3719), names scented geraniums as one of her personal favorites.
That’s right, scented geraniums — cousins to those bright-red flowers your grandmother used to grow. The herbs not only look pretty, they’re edible. “The rose- and lemon-scented ones are great in cakes,” points out Cyphers, adding that scented geraniums do better in window boxes than other herbs, most of which prefer the outdoors.
Other herbs that grow like the Dickens in pots include rosemary — especially, Cyphers says, prostrate rosemary (“Be sure not to say ‘prostate,'” she cautions ) The term “prostrate” means the plant doesn’t grow upright, but cascades and falls. Cyphers’ favorite prostrate rosemary is the blue lady variety, “because it has the most beautifully intense blue blooms.”
Lavender, thyme, basil and chives — in fact, most of the culinary herbs, with the exception of sage, which grows too large — also thrive in pots. And unlike veggies, herbs can share space in a container. For example, you can mix thyme, lavender and rosemary, but Cyphers reminds new gardeners that, the more herbs they plant per container, the more water and plant food they’ll need to use. (Generally, she recommends applying a half-strength liquid plant food about every four weeks in the spring and summer. If you’re growing herbs indoors, don’t fertilize in the winter.)
Finally, if you have just a tiny patch of yard and you’re willing to get a little more elaborate, why not try raised-bed gardening? (If you’re a renter, don’t forget to get your landlord’s permission.) As Roberta Greenspan of Asheville’s MAGIC Community Gardens explains, you can grow as many as 16 different types of veggies on a plot as small as 4 feet by 4 feet.
Raised-bed gardening involves building a square or rectangular space out of landscape timbers, secured together and filled with good soil. The plot is usually divided into one-square-foot areas; each section can have a different crop, if you want: carrots, onions, tomatoes, radishes, beets, lettuce, scallions, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli — again, pretty much anything but corn, which requires more space.
Certain cool-weather plants (such as broccoli and cauliflower) should be planted as starter plants, not seeds, because the short cool-weather growing season won’t give them enough time to grow from seeds. Similarly, warm-weather plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, cucumbers and squash should begin as starter plants, because the warm-weather growing season isn’t long enough for seeds.
Most greens, plus radishes, beets, carrots and turnips, do well started from seeds.
Finally, for both container and raised-bed gardening, remember not to plant too early, lest a spring frost occur. Greenspan suggests late April as the earliest you should plant.
To learn more about gardening in small and large spaces, the MAGIC Community Garden Program offers a variety of classes and workshops. Upcoming events include a compost-bin sale and a free composting workshop to be held on March 21, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., in the Wal-Mart parking lot, 29 Tunnel Road.
Registration is required for “High Performance Organic Gardening” on March 24, 7-9 p.m., at the Qualify Forward office, 29 Page Ave. ($10 for MAGIC members, $14 for non-members). Also, call ahead for “Plan Your Herb Garden,” to be held on April 7, 6:30-8:30 p.m., at the MAGIC education office, 408 Pearson Drive ($10 for MAGIC members, $14 for non-members).
For more info on MAGIC, call 299-8466. Or pick up printed info at Earth Fare (in the Westgate Shopping Center) or the French Broad Food Co-op (90 Biltmore Ave.)