Sunday, June 29, 2014

(Mis)Adventures in Container Gardening: Creative Growing & Herbal Disasters

My most recent trip to Ireland really inspired me to explore container gardens.  In previous years I'd been blessed with access to home gardens and/or a community garden plot, being able to plant directly in the ground.  However I had to move during the growing season that year and was sad about my community garden plot being far enough away that I often did not get there for many days at a time.   Also, not having that daily checking-in on the plants I was cultivating felt ungrounding, especially during housing transition.

It's said that the best fertilizer is the farmer's footsteps.  And weather you start plants from seeds or they come to you bigger, being able to witness their day to day growth is really special and a true education that can't be taught in a classroom or through books.  (Not to mention how much easier tending/weeding is when it can be done little by little, rather than during marathon gardening sessions that can feel overwhelming!)  Witnessing my friends' creativity while visiting them in Ireland inspired me to begin a container garden on my balcony upon my return, so that whenever I finally found my next home*space, I could bring my beloved plants with me.

I've documented some of the creative ideas, thriving plants, and botanical disasters for our viewing pleasures.  I will probably continue adding tips, lessons, and photos to this post, so feel free to check in on it again later and/or share comments below. 

Disclaimer:  I am not a "master" gardener.  (I wince at the historically loaded term "master" and would never claim to be an authority in that way, especially in terms plants, as I expect to spend my whole lifetime getting to know them better.)  I am a plant-lover that has a tendency to wing it and am a perpetual optimist, encouraging others that it's not to late to transplant seedlings well into the summer, etc.  I believe in working with what you've got, DIY/DIT (do-it-yourself/do-it-together)-style and on the cheap.  I plant with care and say "good luck to you" to the seed(ling)s I sow, give them good compost, water, and sometimes brews of chamomile or seaweed, but rarely do I coddle them at all.    Check out some books in your local library/bookshop or online resources if you're interested in creating raised beds that are accessible for folks with physical limitations, vertical herb gardens, and more!

In Ireland:

Left: Sunflowers growing from a basket-container in an outdoor space converted into a pantry/growing space.  Note the gorgeous design of the glass in the door!  Love those.
Right: A set of drawers converted into a garden for Calendula and other plants.  Covered with plastic mesh to keep out lil critters.  Both photos from Kinvarra, Co.Galway.

Above: Container gardens at a hotel in Limerick, designed by my friend Val.  Check out her food blog Val's Kitchen.

Val's amazing container garden- Transforming a wee space into a home for lots of food.

More Val's garden: using vertical space to grow lots of plants.  Love this paddle with notches that she got at the farmer's market - holding 4 pots of strawberry plants.

Above: Val's window gardens.

Above:  Vibrant azul/azure pots of greens, flowers, scallions, and more by the sea in Cork.

And back across the pond to the States:

Above:  So when I returned, I gathered some pots and started growing on the porch!  Looking for pots?  Check with local landscapers, the recycle center/dump, put a note up at work or around your neighborhood, let your friends know, etc.  A lot of people are happy to pass containers on!  Also, sometimes you can find them up for grabs on the side of the road or at yard sales, or you can create holes in the bottom of yogurt containers and such.  No need to go and spend lots of money buying new containers.  While in general I prefer natural materials, I prefer plastic containers over clay pots for plants, as they hold water better and require less watering.

Have you seen those mini-greenhouse?!  I was given one.  And then...

...this happen.  I went to the hardware store for a few minutes and when I returned, the seedlings I'd just planted were like this.  If your intuition doubts the plastic joints holding it all together, listen to it!

Then that same day, I found a big, low, sturdy table for free on the side of the road.  Planting the seedlings, Take 2!  Actually, when the mini-greenhouse collapsed all but two of the containers miraculously stayed in tact, so I apologized to the seeds for their rough start and moved them to their safer location.

Above: Trellising the peas.  Wait, what's growing in the peas?!  Oh, dang it!  Lesson learned: if you put your containers under the bird feeder, things such as this can happen.  Especially if the primary visitors are grackles that only seem to want the black sunflower seed and send all other seeds down into said containers.  Overall, germination for the seeds I planted was great.  Germination for the seeds that the grackles planted was outstanding!

Above:  Whether planting in containers, or a garden in the ground, I like putting the plants that you're going to be harvesting closer to you/the kitchen and making them easier to get to.  ie. In a garden, there are certain crops that are generally harvested once or just a few times throughout the season (Corn, Garlic, Pole Beans, Winter Squash), while there are others that are harvested much more often (Chamomile, Cilantro, Greens).  Also, I've found that even if there is a whole row of Basil in the garden not so far away, having a pot of Basil right close on my porch or walkway means I'll harvest it more often and enjoy my summer more.

Above:  I thought that perhaps the popsicle-stick fortress I constructed for the Catnip plant would protect it from the neighborhood kitties.  I was wrong.  However, a friend successfully grew Catnip in their garden by surrounding it with prickly Milk Thistle plants, keeping both of her two cats out.  When I planted two Catnip plants in a home garden, I successfully communicated to the neighbor cat that one was for him.  The other was for me.  I pointed and explained over and over one day.  After that day, I would find "his" Catnip covered in his golden and white hairs and well-loved (read: crushed, and perpetually bouncing back).  Mine was left to grow and for me to harvest.  Thanks, kitty.

Above:  I usually prefer growing edible/medicinal plants because they are so versatile and beautiful, but near to houses that may have lead paint, I prefer to grow flowers.  Just for pretty.  Or spiritual protection.  Or to use in foot baths.  Or for the butterflies and bees to enjoy.  I think it's also good medicine for workaholic, efficiency-oriented people to welcome some just-for-the-beauty-of-it-in-the-present-moment into our lives.

Light:  Note the leeeeeeeaning-over Sunflower.  The plants in my front yard receive very little sun.  I have wanted Marigolds, Zinnias, and other sun-loving plants nearby, so I've planted them there.  Some of them, the Sunflowers in particular, have not thrived in those conditions.   Over the years, seeds and transplants have found their way into the soil and now the beds hold Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle), Yarrow, and Feverfew, all plants that can handle some shade.  While we can build the soil and make other changes to accommodate the plants we want in a certain place, I think there's a powerful lesson in strategy/energy in learning to work with the conditions that exist (soil, light, rainfall, etc) and find the plants that you love that will thrive there.  I could have a whole row of leaning-over-almost-touching-the-ground Sunflowers, or I can have a thriving patch of Yarrow, blessing my home*space with its protective energy.  I could plant Zinnias and Cleomes, which usually become leggy for lack of sun, or I could appreciate the lush, early-spring Alchemilla (Lady's Mantle) leaves unfurling and the silvery, transformative dew drops that gather in them.

Space: What do you have for growing space - a Walkway?  Fire escape?  Yard?  Fence?  Notice what you have around you (or would like to create), and investigate what could grow there.  Morning glories could cover your side of the fence and reseeds itself year after year.  Tulsi/Sacred Basil and other types of Basils do well in containers and provide incredibly flavorful food and medicine through the growing season.  The plant I have grown since I was a teen, even if I had only a tiny patch of ground or a few containers is Calendula.  Calendula blossoms are food, medicine, and beautyfull.  (The seeds are sometimes available in my online shop here.)  You don't need to have a million plants or tons of space or have to buy all kinds of composts and minerals, focus on what you love and what you've got and nourish that!

Above:  I love that in my village there are guerrilla gardening faeries that tuck plants along common ground.

In the kitchen:  Even without any outdoor planting space, we can still have vital plants right close to us, in our homes.  I like (re-)sprouting food to have fresh food in winter or just to be thrifty, any time of year.  When I chop up scallions (aka green onions), instead of composting the octopus-y roots, I either put them in water or in a pot of soil.  They don't grow back as strong, but if you're just looking for some chive-y flavor, here you go:

I was given one of these shapely glass containers to "force" bulbs in late winter/early spring.  I suppose this term is used because it's kinda pushy to "force" plants long before any bulbs have pushed up through the thawing earth outside.  I prefer to use the word "encourage."  Even (or especially) if it's a bit early, it is quite amazing to witness the growth of the green sprout, watch the development of the roots, and then experience the total luxury of fragrant blossoms long before outdoor plants bloom.  (I was so busy swooning over the paperwhite blossoms that I forgot to photograph them!)

(last updated April 2017)

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