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Growing vegetables in containers is a great option for many people

"Growing Together" columnist Don Kinzler says container gardening is a way for residents of condos or apartments to grow their own produce right on their balconies, decks or patios.

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Gardening in containers is a great way to grow fresh vegetables on balconies, decks and patios.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — I was just out in the yard and saw two birds stuck together in a tree. I don’t know much about birds, but I’m guessing they’re velcrows.

Speaking of yardwork, there’s a segment of our population that’s traditionally been left out when it comes to raising their own fresh vegetables. Apartment dwellers and condo owners usually don’t have a plot of ground in which to garden.

Last week, we described the benefits of joining a community garden , in which everyone shares the work and everyone shares the harvest. It’s a fun, community-building way for anyone to participate in a traditional, in-ground garden experience.

For cities or towns that don’t have a community garden, or if your schedule doesn’t allow participating in group gardening, container gardening is a way for those living in apartments or condos to enjoy growing their own vegetables on balconies, decks and patios.

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Containers should be at least 12 inches in diameter, such as this planter of onions.
David Samson / The Forum

Gardening in containers isn’t new, but it’s enjoying a tremendous surge as people discover how bountiful it can be. The following are tips for successfully growing vegetables in pots, planters or other containers.

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  • The amount of direct sunshine received by the patio, deck or balcony will determine what types of vegetables will grow best. Vegetables prefer all-day direct sunshine, so locations in full sun can grow almost anything. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, melons, squash and beans require full sunshine for good yields, flavors and sizes.
    Radishes, carrots, beets and onions will yield decently even in partial sunshine of four to six hours.
  • Leafy crops like lettuce, herbs, cabbage and spinach will tolerate shade, so they can be grown on a balcony or patio with little direct sunshine.
  • Containers can be of many shapes and sizes. Drainage holes in the bottom are a must. A diameter of 12 inches is a minimum, but larger is better. Vegetables grown in a too-small container will dry out too frequently in summer heat.
  • Tomatoes, which are the most popular vegetable grown in containers, require the size of a 5-gallon pail.
  • Don’t put rocks, pebbles or other material in the bottom of the container, as research has shown they are counterproductive to good drainage. Instead, fill the container top to bottom with potting mix.
  • Purchase high-quality potting mix. Even the best garden or flower bed soil compacts too tightly when placed in containers, so use potting mix instead. The mix can be saved at the season’s end and reused, if all plant stems, roots and leaves are carefully removed for good sanitation.
  • Select vegetable cultivars carefully. Look for varieties listed on the label or plant tag as container-friendly, developed for container gardening or have a bush-habit. Such vegetables have a compact plant habit and will produce a greater yield than types meant for in-ground gardening.
  • When is it safe to plant? My favorite gardening window is the 10-day period between May 15-25 for most of North Dakota and Minnesota. Some crops, called cool season crops, can tolerate light frost and chilly temperatures, so they can be planted in late April or early May. Included crops are peas, radishes, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, onions, spinach and cabbage.
  • Other vegetables are called warm season crops, and are easily killed by frost or stunted by cool conditions, so planting is best delayed until around May 20-25, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, melons, squash and pumpkins.
  • To determine how many of each vegetable can be grown in a single container, search online for the Square Food Gardening Method . Developed for raised bed gardening, the method describes quantities to be grown in a 12-inch square space. Because containers should be at least 12 inches, the method also works for container gardening. For example, a 12- inch container can be planted with one tomato, or 16 carrots, or one pepper, or two potatoes, or 16 beets.
  • When seeding crops like carrots, lettuce, beets and radishes, it’s important to thin out the emerging seedlings to the recommended quantity per container. Too many seedlings per pot prevents the vegetables from developing fully.
  • Watering is a key to success. When watering, apply enough so a little runs out the bottom drain holes. Keep soil moist, but not soggy. Allowing containers to dry out too completely on hot, windy days is a common problem.
  • Fertilize immediately after planting with a slow-release type, water-soluble formula, or an organic type. Follow label directions for amount and frequency.
  • Enjoy the harvest!

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at donald.kinzler@ndsu.edu.

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