When supply shortages began with the rise of COVID-19, many people turned to growing their own food as a way to supplement what they were able to find at the store. Oregon State offered a helping hand by moving their master gardening course online and making it free for a while. And seed companies found that they often couldn’t keep up with the demand for vegetable seeds.
There are many options for how to grow your own food: Raised beds on the lawn, community gardens, a fully fenced half-acre of neat rows. But what if you don’t have the luxury of a lot of space or expansive property? What if all you have is a porch step, a patio, or a window? Never fear, Darren Morgan of Shonnards is here. He’s an expert when it comes to container gardening – growing foods in small, tight spaces.
What You’ll Need
It can be overwhelming to learn what you will need to grow your own food. Morgan suggests starting with the basics: Containers, soil, fertilizer, lighting if necessary, and plants.
The four basic container types are wood, ceramic, plastic and fabric.
If you’re using wood, do not use treated wood or stain the inside surfaces. Wood has a shorter life span than the other types of containers, but is usually available in larger sizes and in rectangular shapes.
There are two types of ceramic containers. Terra cotta is great for drainage, but it dries out quickly and is too fragile to use outside in freezing temperatures. Glazed stoneware is attractive and more durable than terra cotta. Both types of ceramic containers are heavy.
Plastic containers are the least expensive, but they provide poor insulation for winter and may not have adequate drainage. They are, however, quite durable and light if you’re carrying them up several stairways.
Fabric containers are less popular but are becoming more common. They are breathable, but tend to dry out quickly. They’re also not good at providing good support for plants and soil if being moved around.
Next, Morgan says it’s important to buy good quality organic potting soil from a local garden center. Use potting soil, not a raised bed mix, planting mix, or dirt from someone’s backyard.
“Never dig up some dirt, put it in a pot, and try to grow crops in it,” Morgan says. “Conditions in pots are different from growing in the ground.”
After a few weeks of watering and growing, plants will need more fertilizer, so you will need to add that. Morgan suggests using organic all-purpose fertilizers that are balanced with an N-P-K nutrient value of 4-4-4 or 5-5-5. Add more fertilizer every 5-6 weeks, depending on the directions for the type fertilizer you purchase.
Next up is lighting. Using LED or fluorescent bulbs are more efficient and aren’t as likely to burn the plants if the light source gets too close.
A south facing balcony or porch in the summer will work just fine, supplemental lighting may be needed for other conditions. Leaf and root crops do the best indoors in a south or west window, but even they may need artificial lighting in the middle of winter, especially in Oregon, where day length gets short.
For leaf and root crops Morgan advises 14 hours of bright light per day, so you can use full spectrum or natural daylight bulbs to supplement what plants don’t get from day length.
Oh, and you’re going to need plants. Most fruiting, root, and leaf plants can be grown from seed, but many can also be purchased as starts.
It’s up to each gardener whether they want to start from seeds or plants. For peas, beans, mustards, carrots or radish, Morgan recommends seeds, but for lettuce, kale, or chard he says using transplants is easier. Squash, cucumbers and melons will take a lot longer to grow from seed than from a start, so if you choose seeds, you’ll need to start much sooner in the season.
According to Morgan, “The biggest exceptions to transplant availability are the root crops – they develop deep tap root very quickly, making them poorly suited for handling that way.”
Growing Your Plants
Picking plants to grow in a home garden is one of the best parts of growing your own food. Morgan says the simplest crops for indoor or small space growing are greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach, and chard. They’re versatile, being that they can grow in pots on a porch or patio, inside in a window, or even on a desk with a full-spectrum light.
There are no pollination concerns because only the leaf growth is harvested. They grow quickly and can be grown inside year-round as long as they have enough light.
Next easiest are root crops, including radish, beets and carrots. Pollination isn’t an issue with these either, because the roots are harvested instead of harvesting a fruit. They do require larger pots, and while some are planted densely, others, like turnips and beets, need to be more widely spaced, limiting the amount you will be able to grow in a small space.
However, beets and turnips also produce edible greens, making them a double yielding crop, although you have to like turnip greens for that to be appealing.
Fruiting crops are best grown outdoors simply because they need pollinators to visit the flowers in order for fruit to develop. Legumes, like beans and peas, are simple to grow, but require a larger amount of plants to have a substantial harvest.
“I like to see a long rectangular planter box, with pole beans planted in a line down the middle a couple of inches apart, and a wooden or string trellis running the length of it, perhaps attached to the patio or deck rails,” Morgan said. “Done well and picked consistently every few days, this can produce a respectable amount of fresh green beans all summer long.”
Finally, Morgan says the most popular fruiting crops on porches and patios are tomatoes and peppers: “The trick to raising tomatoes in containers is to use nice big pots. They are large plants and develop extensive root systems.”
Culinary herbs are also a great way to start consuming your freshly grown produce, and can be done in a window or on a patio quite easily.
Want to Learn More?
Morgan teaches classes periodically at Shonnards. Currently those classes are offered online. They are a great way to get started gardening and growing food crops, as well as providing a wealth of information on other topics. The complete schedule of classes can be found on the Classes & Events page on the Shonnards website.
By Kyra Young