Sometimes you don’t have room to garden. Or maybe you do, but you love the idea of having a pot of herbs ready on your porch or deck to pluck fresh while you cook.
Either way, container gardening is a thing, especially now, with plenty of options for all kinds of spaces.
“I think it started before COVID, but COVID helped, (and) people grow their own food,” says Carol Raines, designer of Pine Hill Nursery in Torch Lake. “Now with our shortages, people think this is a smart thing to do. People who don’t have a lot of space tend to grow their herbs and vegetables in pots, which is technically a container garden.”
Megan Gilger of Traverse City can tell you all about gardening on her many farms. An old gardener — who learned from her grandfather and father while growing up — states her website, freshexchange.com, where she explores growing herbs, raising chickens, and related topics.
“I teach people how to garden,” she says, noting that she organizes classes online and in person as well as providing resources on her website. “It’s the desire to help people feel that they can garden in a way that can help the environment.”
Container gardens can be housed in anything from a raised bed to different sizes of pots, planters and bags, Gilger says.
“A container garden is a really great option when you’re not sure where you want your garden to be,” she says. “I would suggest people to consider making pots or planting bags or things like that as containers if they are not sure where to put their garden.”
Gilger says that if you have a balcony, patio, or balcony, you can garden.
“It’s great for someone who is unsure or has little space to grow or if the space you have for a garden isn’t ideal, there probably isn’t enough sunlight, too much wind, and various things like that,” she says. “The back deck can do a lot in terms of growing food.”
The types of containers are endless
The variety of containers suitable for planting is as limitless as your imagination.
“As long as it has good drainage, you can use just about every material to grow something in it so you can get really creative,” Gilger says.
Any type of container will do the trick, says Jen Shepard, general manager of Garden Goods in Traverse City.
“Some people do it in window boxes,” she says. “Others do it in big pots.”
EarthBox is a system that provides a free standing container garden with drainage.
“It’s self-watering, and it has a little trough on the bottom. You can even make tomatoes at EarthBoxes,” says Shepherd.
Gilger likes to use small feed pans that are made of aluminum and come in different lengths. They are available at agricultural supply stores.
“You just drill holes in the bottoms, and you can mount the inside of the trough like a trellis,” she explains. “You can grow peas and cucumbers out of it. You can grow lettuce and flowers even with cucumbers. You can do a lot in this little tub. Using this vertical space gives you a lot of opportunities to grow things.”
She’s also a big fan of bags, usually made of some type of fiber, similar in shape to laundry bags but designed for plants.
“I love planting bags because they use upcycled materials, they last forever and are really versatile in terms of size and shape,” Gilger says. “You can grow anything from potatoes to tomatoes to flowers, herbs and lettuce.
“You don’t have to worry about drainage because it drains really well. What’s great about it is that it helps aerate the root system—it does something called air pruning, and it’s one of the best ways to develop a strong root system.”
When the season is over, the bags can be emptied, ironed and stored, and they take up very little space.
Raised beds also count as container gardens, says Raines.
“You can make it attractive,” she says. “Often in the retail grounds, I might make tomatoes and some herbs and stick some edible flowers in them.”
The main thing is to make all the containers you choose large enough.
“You’ll water the smaller pots several times a day, as if it’s a larger pot, it gives them more room to grow and you don’t water as often,” Shepherd says.
Whatever you choose for your container garden, soil is one of the most important elements and should include clean topsoil and several inches of quality compost.
Gilger, chosen by Ruth Dairy Doo of Morgan Composting Inc. Based in Michigan, garden stores typically sell some type of raised beds that mix in bulk or bags.
what do you plant
Most herbs can be planted together in the same container. One exception may be peppermint, which grows quickly and prefers to be placed in its own container, Shepherd says.
“I would put taller herbs in the middle, like rosemary or lemongrass, and then you could put something like thyme or oregano on the side,” she says. “I usually have rosemary, parsley, thyme, and oregano.”
Shepard loves lemon verbena because it exudes a strong lemon scent and helps repel insects. She also enjoys adding flowers to herb pots to make them prettier—for example, lantern flowers with lettuce because they can take away the early cold weather. Begin the window box growing season and then expand to other container gardens as the weather warms.
Gilger says growing the salad mix in the same bag is an easy option.
“You can have fun with different types of lettuce and herbs,” she says. “It can be fun to grow cilantro, dill, and different types of lettuce together, then chop them together and have that earthy, herbal flavor that makes the salad so incredible.”
They also make seed potatoes in bags, which come in different sizes.
“Some are large and designed specifically for tomatoes, so you can top the tomatoes with some lettuce,” she says. “You can grow carrots in them because they are deep enough and come in all shapes and sizes and the ability to make them vertical.”
In fact, when planting container gardens, Gilger tries to be mindful of the types of ingredients she loves to be able to harvest them and bring them immediately to her kitchen to eat.
“There are some plants that love to coexist and do better when coexisted together,” Gilger says.
A fan of homemade pasta sauce, she suggests a blend of tomatoes and basil, which she says help each other taste better. You might add marigolds to the container to help repel mice, squirrels, and even birds that may want to nibble the tomatoes.
A garden with fresh salsa ingredients is another option, though she says growing cilantro can be challenging.
“Coriander is actually a cool-weather herb, not a warm-weather herb,” Gilger says. “They’re trying to grow at the same time as tomatoes, so it’s a different season.”
Some new tomatoes, along with peppers and cucumbers, are being developed into dwarf varieties so they can do better in containers, Shepherd says.
Raines recommends other plants that do well in containers such as strawberries, which often bloom all summer, as well as peppers.
“We make a lot of small fruit in containers,” she says. “We even have a little raspberry bush that you can put in a container and a small blueberry bush that is only the size of a container. They are fairly attractive and flower before fruiting, so you have something to look at.”
Even root vegetables like radishes can thrive in a box or container.
“They don’t have a deep root system,” Gilger says. “You can take them out and eat them.”
Gilger notes that some varieties of squash and turnip extend the container garden season into fall.
“Then you could add more fall herbs like sage and thyme and things like that, it would taste really good,” she says. “I like to think of what would taste good together on a plate.
“Usually when these things are together, it’s like growing the same dish.”
Megan Gilger’s pasta sauce
4 c. chopped tomato
1 chopped onion
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 finely minced garlic cloves
1 T. Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 m. dry white wine
1 bunch fresh basil
1 T. Butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 m of pasta water reserved
Use selected pasta cooked according to package directions.
In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the butter (or preferred oil), add the chopped onions and sauté until translucent and fragrant. Then add garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the carrots and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, keeping the heat on medium. Once you start cooking, add wine to sweeten the pan. Add tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper to mix.
Let the sauce simmer for 4 to 5 minutes on medium until bubbles form but don’t burn. Allow the liquid to simmer until it reaches a thick consistency so that there is no liquid left. This will depend on your tomato type.
When the sauce thickens, remove from heat. Add chopped fresh basil to the sauce.
When ready to serve, add the desired pasta and add a little more pasta water to help the sauce coat the noodles well with the sauce. Serve with fresh basil on top and Parmesan cheese if desired.