Patio gardening is as much about creating a space to be enjoyed as it is about harvesting food. The biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe the human tendency to seek connection with nature. In simpler terms, it is much nicer to drink a beer at the end of the day surrounded by flowers, herbs and vegetable plants than it is to drink on an empty deck.
On Nantucket, we are surrounded by nature. We do not have to manage every square inch of space to maximally interact with nature when we plant our gardens. Porch pots and small gardens on your back deck, or in some plot of soil that seems too small to become a garden, can offer a rewarding harvest.
To readjust your thinking of what a garden can be, to see the possibilities of gardening writ small, it is helpful to take a look at urban gardens. New York City has some of the best gardens I have ever seen. The city has world-class botanical gardens and beautiful public parks, but what inspires me the most are the home gardens I have found walking around residential neighborhoods in Queens.
In Astoria, you can find front yards filled with tidy rows of canning tomatoes and herbs, often with pruned and trellised grape vines running along the edge of the yard and a fruit tree, normally a fig or persimmon, occupying a prominent sunny area.
In Sunnyside, the gardens take on a Latin American influence, and are filled with hot peppers, squash, green onions and cilantro. Even in Flushing, a neighborhood that resembles something out of the sci-fi movie “Blade Runner,” you can find trellised cucumber vines growing on the balconies of high-rise apartment buildings.
These gardens are endlessly interesting. They perfectly represent the glorious collision of cultures that is Queens. What inspires me as a gardener, though, is how these people, many of whom come from agrarian backgrounds, pour so much time and effort into these tiny plots.
They create mini green oases, small distillations of their pasts amid the urban sprawl. From these small plots of greenery surrounded by concrete and city traffic, they gain physical and spiritual nourishment. It strikes at the heart of why we bother to garden at all.
They also serve as inspiration for island gardeners. You do not need a lot of space to create an excellent garden. With just a few plants grown in containers, you can easily transform your deck, side yard or patio into a great place to relax, unwind and do a little gardening after work.
Building Your Porch Garden
When growing in containers, there are many affordable options for pots, window boxes and grow bags to choose from. In general, the larger the container the more versatile, since you can grow a wider variety of crops in it, and it will be slower to dry out on hot summer days. That being said, bigger containers require more soil, they take up more space and they are harder to move around.
Grow bags are very affordable and come in a wide variety of sizes. If you choose to grow in a pot or window box, make sure that it has drain holes on the bottom.
For growing in containers, I like to mix two-thirds potting mix to one-third compost. Potting mix typically has peat or coco coir which helps to keep the soil light and aerobic. The compost provides nutrition and helps to increase the biology of your soil mix. I also normally add some type of organic granular fertilizer prior to planting and I’ll supplement as needed with liquid fertilizers as the crop is growing.
For most garden crops, ideal conditions are full sun and shelter from strong wind. Also, the closer to your home and the more prominent location the better. That way it is easier to observe and manage your crops. Having them close to a water spigot is very helpful, making watering easier.
Keeping your plants consistently watered is critically important when growing in containers. In summer, absent a rainy day, most containers will require daily watering. Failing to keep up with watering will cause your plants to wilt, which stresses your crops and leads to bitter flavors, shrunken fruits and blossom end rot on crops like tomatoes and peppers.
When watering your pots, make sure to water your soil, not the foliage of your plants. Wet leaves can lead to foliar diseases. If you are unsure if you need to water, stick your finger into the soil to check for moisture. If it is dry deeper than the first few inches, give the crop some water.
My favorite thing to grow in containers are culinary herbs. For those of us that enjoy cooking, it is great to have fresh herbs on hand and most of these crops allow for continual harvesting throughout the season, making the most of your space. You might even be able to overwinter your perennial herbs such as rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage. With the exception of mint and chives, herbs generally enjoy full sun.
For those who like spicy food and making hot sauce, I recommend growing Hot Paper Lantern peppers. These are a spicy habanero-type pepper, but they produce red elongated peppers and the plants produce earlier and more abundantly than normal habaneros. In my experience, they grow fantastically in pots, as long as you give each plant at least 12 inches of space. Peppers also require full sun for best results.
Cherry tomatoes are a great crop for the patio garden. They produce more consistently than slicing tomatoes and are typically sweeter and more snackable. The best cherry tomato for growing in containers is called Tidy Treats. This dwarf variety will stay small and manageable and easy to trellis with a cage or stake. It will give you a nice crop of sweet red cherry tomatoes. Tomatoes grow best with full sunlight and plenty of space. Each tomato should have at least 12 inches of space in a container.
The best eggplant variety for growing in containers is Patio Baby. These compact plants will produce a reliable harvest of delicious mini eggplants. The two- to three-inch dark-purple eggplants are delicious and perfect for throwing on the grill or roasting in the oven.
If you want to try growing strawberries, I recommend the variety Seascape. Seascape is a day-neutral/everbearing strawberry. That means instead of getting a flush of berries in early summer, Seascape will provide a steady harvest throughout season. You can order dormant rootstock from Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Norse Farms. When the roots arrive, plant three to five plants per 12- to 16-inch pot. To keep the plants productive, prune the runners and keep supplying with a liquid fertilizer as needed to keep the flowers and berries growing.
If your growing space does not get direct sunlight, try growing mint, chives, kale and salad greens. As a general rule, greens can tolerate more shade than fruiting vegetable crops. I have also successfully grown cilantro, mint, nasturtium and oregano in shady conditions.
Regardless of your area, you have the ability to grow food if you want to. Happy growing out there.
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