Tuesday, February 26, 2013

First Tomatoes to Sprout!

It's a cold, windy, rainy night here, but inside on the seeding table things are starting to get interesting!

The Roma tomatoes have made an appearance!
Broccoli was the first crop up, and now it has company! Thyme gets the honors for first herb of the season, and the Roma tomatoes just popped up today to take the first tomato honors.

Thyme sprouts!

One of the best parts of starting plants from seed is that after a week or so there's something new almost every day. What will tomorrow bring?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What to Grow in Containers?

Every year, I try to grow something different in addition to our old favorites. This year, my goal has been to make the garden as functional as possible. As hard as it is to believe given the seedling table, this meant that some things just didn’t make the cut.

Most notably, this is the first year I won’t be growing any okra. It is a pretty plant, grows well, and seems to love the heat of the porch. However, the trouble with okra is that we never seem to get enough at any one time to make a meal of it. It produces fairly consistently, but only 5-6 pods at any given time. I considered growing more, but then we would have 3-4 containers of okra on the porch when the crop has only limited uses (compared to another neat type of tomato, for example!).

There's always room for another tomato...
 The same thing applies to potatoes. They were very easy, a lot of fun, and produced. However, we got about 2 pounds of red potatoes in exchange for having a massive plant taking up the space of two tomatoes. If we had more space I would definitely grow them again, but we only have our upstairs porch to use, so they didn’t make the cut.

I also decided to plant a garden that more accurately reflects what we like to eat. Sounds basic, but when you’re in a seed aisle at the nursery and want one of everything, it can be tough to prioritize. This year we’re growing a wide variety of cooking greens, since we eat them a lot and they grow very well in containers. We’re also growing fewer bell peppers and for the first time I’m growing some hot peppers as well.

On the subject of the cooking greens, I plan on trying some crop rotation with them. I’ll start off by planting some collards and broccoli rabe in April. Once that bolts (or we harvest it all), I’ll plant some rainbow chard and kale in the same pots. I also have a 3rd container set aside for some Tuscan kale (which is amazing if you like kale). My hope is to have cooking greens growing from April to late October or so via succession plantings.

I started this rosemary plant from seed last year and it's still going strong!
Finally, I am planting a ton of herbs, with the goal of having a massive harvest to dry. Last year I tried drying my herbs with a dehydrator for the first time, and I was amazed! After about 5-6 hours of drying most herbs were ready for bottling in spice jars. Basil took a bit longer due to its water content. At first I carefully removed each basil leaf from the plant and stacked them nicely onto the circular trays. Later, I cut the braches off at ground level and put the entire plants inside the trays. It turns out that once the leaves dry they flake right off the stems, saving time and fuss. We’re still using our marjoram, sage, and purple basil from the garden, and it’s better than any store bought herb. Plus, it saves a lot of money if you cook with a lot of herbs. Last year I thought of the herbs as primarily a fresh harvest, but this time around I’m looking to plant as many as I can fit on the porch in between all the vegetables. 

Space saver.... We shall see!
One of this year’s most exciting new crops for us is the bush sugar baby melon from Burpee. It says it can be grown in containers on the package, and apparently stays fairly compact but still produces 8-10 pound fruits. We probably don’t really have the room for a large melon plant, but then again, there is always room for one more container!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

New, Improved Seedling Table

It’s a gloomy, grey, wet Saturday here in our neck of the woods, but spring days are right around the corner! I’ve spent the last few days improving on last year’s seeding table and then seeding most of the crops for this year’s garden. Here are some of the improvements/key features:

1) Wooden cage: I built a better “cage” over the table. If you recall lat year’s setup (you can take a look under the tab above) I ended up not using most of the vertical space on my wooden risers. This time around, I wanted greater flexibility with my t5 fixture (which does not have a chain because it is designed to sit on top of a fish tank) and greater stability. This was achieved by building a basic box and then screwing it into the top of the table (an old picnic style table). We protected the table using a folded plastic shower curtain, which is a cheap and simple way to keep water from seeping into the wood. Best of all, the lumber was just spare boards I had laying around. Who said it had to look overly fancy!

Between the chain and the shelf I built to hold the aquarium fixture, the lights can easily be lowered or raised from just a few inches above the seedlings to about 3 feet above them. Right now the light is about 9 inches from the cells.

View of the seedling table setup
2) Tinfoil baking pans. We use the dollar store tinfoil cake pans ($1 for a 2 pack) and place the peat moss cells on top. This has two advantages. First, it makes moving the trays to water or rotate for even lighting very easy. Second, you can water the seedlings by pouring the water into the tray. The cells will soak up the water as needed, keeping the soil inside moist and your seedlings happy. One other feature is that you can fit 12 of the large peat cells onto one sheet, or 24 of the smaller ones. It’s like they were made to order!

Plastic shower curtain and tinfoil trays
 3) Lighting: I bought one dual fluorescent fixture at Home Depot for about $10 and fitted it with the GE plant grow bulbs (about $5 each at the hardware store). These bulbs have a spectrum more conducive to plant growth than a typical fluorescent bulb (you’ll notice they appear redder in color than most fluorescents).

In addition, I have a dual t5ho aquarium light fixture for growing plants. Turns out it grows terrestrial plants just as well as aquatic ones! By itself it is probably enough light, but paired with the other fixture I can get consistent coverage over the entire table. Plus, the aquarium bulbs I use are each a different color temperature (one more bluish, one more like typical sunlight) giving a fuller spectrum. They are also very bright, as they are t5ho.

One final advantage is that the table is located in a well lit room with windows on all sides. This easily doubles the light the table receives, and in the morning the sun directly shines on it (when we get sun).

If I didn’t have the aquarium fixture, I would just buy two dual fluorescent fixtures. The first time I ever started seeds inside I just had the fluorescent one and a bright room, and it worked fine.

4) The box fan: This is a new addition. I have the lights on one timer. They come on at 7:00am and go off at 10:00pm. I also set a box fan at the end of the table on a TV tray, and set it up with its own timer to come on for 15 minutes at a time at random intervals during the day. This soft breeze will help the seedlings to develop stronger stems in preparation for our windy porch. It also seems to stimulate plant growth. I’m looking forward to seeing how much difference this makes in comparison to last year, when I didn’t use one.

Broccoli is the first crop to sprout for 2013!
 That’s a brief overview of the new table setup. As you can see, things are already starting to sprout! Before you know it we’ll be slicing a Black Krim, still warm from the summer sun….

Saturday, February 2, 2013

How many tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or cucumbers per container? Here are the results!

87 peppers, 653 tomatoes (including cherry), 36 eggplants, 25 cucumbers (in a disease shortened season), and much more! That's quite a haul for a porch garden!

It's been an incredibly busy few months, so I've taken a break from blogging about the garden. However, part of the reason I started this blog was to get some data out there for would be container gardeners as to what one could expect in terms of yield given a specific planting scenario.

It was a pretty good year overall. Sadly my cucumbers were killed early on by powdery mildew (aka the bane of my gardening existence year after year)! Aside from tomatoes, cucumbers are probably my favorite garden crop, as they are so versatile and tasty. This year I am looking into mildew resistant varieties (look for a post to come on that soon).

Keeping track of all the harvest numbers was a great experience in terms of planning for future gardens as well. We have a roughly 24x8 upper porch, and we were able to get quite a bit of harvest this year. However, there were many inefficiencies (such as packing a Brandywine and Evergreen tomato plant into one pot and getting very little out of them). This year I am looking to plant just enough of each crop that we have it all year, with minimal extra. Except for tomatoes, that is! I can't help myself there!

Without further ado, here are the results: 

Crop Type and Variety

Potting Setup
Yield (does not include any fruits lost to disease or damage)
Bell Pepper (Carnival Mix and California Wonder)

4 plants per square 6.5 gallon container
Good yield, seems to take to crowding well, 20% crop loss due to blossom end rot
Banana Sweet Pepper
7 plants in a long 7 gallon window planter
Very high yielding plants… these just keep producing!


Sweet 100 Cherry Tomato
2 plants in a 7 gallon container
Excellent flavor, continuous production right up to frost
Jellybean Grape Tomato
2 plants in a 6 gallon container
Good flavor, moderate yield in this growing condition, 20% loss due to high winds knocking immature fruit from plant
Yellow Pear Tomato

3 plants in a 12 gallon flexible plastic tub
Extremely high yield, mediocre flavor with mealy texture
Green Zebra Tomato
2 plants in a 12 gallon flexible plastic tub
High yielding plants with large clusters of fruit, amazing flavor when picked yellow, 25-30% loss due to blossom end rot early in season
Black Krim
2 plants in a 12 gallon flexible plastic tub
Great flavor and texture, good yield, 20% loss due to blossom end rot
1 plant in a 12 gallon flexible plastic tub (with one Evergreen tomato plant)
Incredible flavor (best of the garden this year) but not high yielding. Could have been crowded.
Evergreen Tomato
1 plant in a 12 gallon flexible plastic tub (with one Brandywine tomato plant)

Great flavor (sweeter than Green Zebra), low yield
Tomatillos (Giant)
2 plants in a square 6.5 gallon container
Healthy plants, good yield, but I will stick to the smaller tomatillos for container gardens
Round White Eggplant
2 plants in a square 6.5 gallon container
Very good yield in likely crowded plants, excellent flavor and texture, last batch of fruits in early fall turned yellow when ripe and were inedible due to bitterness
Black Beauty Eggplant

1 plant in a square 6.5 gallon container with 1 round white and 1 long eggplant)
Amazing that we got anything from this highly crowded plant.  Yielded 4 very large (approx. 1.5 pound) eggplants! Great flavor and texture.

Long Purple Eggplant

1 plant in a square 6.5 gallon container with 1 round white and 1 long Black Beauty)
Good yield, also very crowded. Seems perfect for a container. Very pretty plant.
Red Okra (Burgundy)
4 plants in one 6.5 gallon square container
37 pods
Attractive plants, very large and healthy, but not high yielding enough at any one time.
Green Okra (Clemson Spineless)
4 plants in one 6.5 gallon square container
21 pods
Attractive plants, very large and healthy, but not high yielding enough at any one time.
Straight 8 Cucumber

7 plants in one 12 gallon flexible tub (w/ 3 Lemon Cucumber plants)
Delicious and  high yielding, but plant with dozens of immature fruits was killed by powdery mildew in late July
Lemon Cucumber
3 plants in one 12 gallon flexible tub (w/ 7 straight 8 plants)
Another very high yielding plant, good flavor, pick before they turn too dark yellow or they will be tough. Also killed by powdery mildew in late July.
Miscellaneous Crops
Rainbow Swiss Chard
5 plants in one 6.5 gallon square container
5 large meals
Delicious, highly productive cooking green well suited to containers. Leave the center leaves when you cut and it will continue to grow back until it bolts in late summer. Then, plant again in same container for a fall crop, as it likes the cool weather.
Red Potatoes
3 plants in 7 gallon nursery pot
About 2 pounds
A fun experiment, and delicious flavor, but they take up a lot of room for the yield.
Detroit Red Beets
Various small planters
6 medium sized beets
These were planted in very small containers as they became available, good flavor, would be well suited to dedicated containers for a better yield.
1 plant in a 6.5 gallon square container
Delicious fruit, enormous plant (so plan on it needing some space) but killed by powdery mildew soon after it bloomed.
Broccoli (major hybrid)
3 plants in a 6.5 gallon square container
3 large crowns
Delicate, sweet, and tender flavor. Not a great yield to space invested ratio, as the crowns don’t grow back (you do get smaller side shoots though)