Friday, April 16, 2010

Container Vegetable Gardening: A City Dweller's Adventure, Part 1

I'm lucky enough to live in a city that embraces green living. Chicago embraces green living, from a sprawling public transit program to the environmental programs at city hall, and even our beloved Museum of Science and Industry, we embrace our environment.

Another wonderful part of my life is my back porch. I live in an apartment building that has shops on the first floor and apartments in the upper floors. Right outside my back door is a large rooftop that gets lots of sun all day long, and this is where I grew a tomato plant in a large container two years ago.

This year I'm really branching out. With the patient help of Maria at Green Home Experts, the knowledgeable folks at Home Depot, and the endless info from the web (GardenWeb is a vast fount of info), I'm going to plant tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet peppers in containers this year. Almost all of it will be experimental. This post is for those considering growing veggies on a balcony or similar settings. After a lot of reading and asking the sort of questions that exasperate people, here are some basics:

First, gardening is expensive. A self-watering container (where you can put the water in the bottom and the soil slurps up the water from the reservoir in the bottom) are usually $25 each. You have to pay for dirt. Dirt. As in that stuff you track in on your shoes and sits around largely unused in parks everywhere. And dirt is expensive. Then there's the cost of plants (or seeds and seeding trays), plant food, and all the superfluous crap everyone tries to sell you that you don't even need.

Second, unless you have a really stellar situation, you're not going to grow enough food to cut down significantly on your grocery bill. At least not in the first year. In fact, if you're growing enough plants in containers to really supplement your grocery bill it will be a few years before you save enough at the grocery store to cover the costs of supplies.

Third, the dirt you get from a bag isn't as good as dirt from the ground. The ground has whole ecosystem in place with great bacteria (no, really, it's good) that really help your plants thrive. Try to get some garden dirt if you can. You don't need to fill up the whole container with it, but it's good to have some in there. The great news is that gardening in containers really, really cuts down on the weeds.

Lastly, please don't go hog wild at the nursery. Figure out what you'd like to try, keep in mind what you're really willing to take care of (if carrying water out to your balcony for eight plants is too much work, cut it down to something manageable), and ask lots and lots of questions about what you're planting and your plants' needs. Make sure you know how much sun your gardening area gets, because if you don't know that then your questions are really hard to answer.

Don't let gardening intimidate you! Some plants will flourish and some won't, and each time you learn something new. Just keep one thought in mind: "There's always next year." With the diverse resources available online and likely around town, you can get really great advice from people who are excited to teach you things. I'm a novice myself, and in this blog I'm going to bring together some hints and tips I've found to help ease others into the wide, wild world of container gardening.

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