Start your own potted garden

For many of us, the inaugural trip to the nursery each spring is like a seasonal ritual. It’s tempting to grab one of every variety of herb and vegetable on display. But when it comes to backyard gardening, starting small is usually the best plan. “A small garden is easy to manage. You can enhance a variety of dishes and beverages with just a couple herbs and some lettuce at your disposal,” says Andrea Heim, farm manager at Spice Acres. She offers some tips on cultivating a backyard that both novices and experienced gardeners can dig.

One-gallon potted edible plants are the ultimate gardening utilitarians. Contain them, and they’ll yield all season. Transplant them into larger, ten-gallon pots, a vegetable garden, or trellis, and they’ll happily take advantage of surrounding real estate. But keep in mind that when it comes to planting vegetables and herbs, a one-gallon size does not fit all. “You can’t plant items like tomatoes and peppers because their roots require a lot of space,” Andrea says. Whether you’re looking to start (and stay) small, or relocate the fledgling produce to a larger growing space, Heim suggests beginning with the following:

  • Flowers such as violas, marigolds, or nasturtiums
  • Creeping thyme
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro
  • Chives
  • Spinach
  • Bok choi
  • Green beans

Start with four or five plants. Heim suggests leaf lettuce, basil, thyme, sage, and one flower, such as a marigold. “The flower helps attract beneficial insects to the backyard, like ladybugs, which eat aphids, and pollinators, like bees and butterflies,” Heim says. “They also release substances [into the soil] to help protect against bad pests.” Along those lines, remain vigilant over those non-invited guests, including cucumber beetles and cabbage moths, the latter of which attract green worms.

19153561126_c8818bdd63_o“These all have shallow root systems that can handle being in a pot for one season,” Heim says. “Make sure to cut the outside leaves off, and they will continue to regrow from the center.”

There are many varieties of seeds from which to choose, from mainstream brands sold at home-improvement chains to organic versions like Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Be sure to read the seed packets carefully. Each has variations on planting depth, seed quantity, temperature, light requirements, and germination rate.

“Some will tell you not to cover up the seed, and others will tell you to plant two or three seeds at a time,” Andrea said.

“You can start planting the seeds in an indoor environment, as long as the temperature is 65 degrees or warmer,” she said. If you’re a first-time gardener, bypass seeds, and opt for transplants. Spice’s annual Mother’s Day plant sale is a great place to get started.

Stay away from synthetic soils with wetting agents. “They’re full of chemicals, which are bound to go into the plant, and you,” she says. “Read labels. If you can’t pronounce it and don’t know what it is, don’t choose it.” Organic soils and compost mixes contain a spectrum of essential plant nutrients. “Most nurseries have their own compost mix. You can find mushroom compost at most home-improvement stores,” Heim says. Fill each pot to the top with the compost. The soil level sinks down to about three-quarters full after watering.

It’s up to you whether to whimsically space out your pots or cluster them in a gardening zone on your deck or backyard. The key is to make sure they are exposed to full sun. Make sure the soil is moist by watering periodically — don’t let it become dry and brittle. If that happens, tease the plant with some water, walk away, then return to give it another shower. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is with watering. You don’t want to overwater all at once because the extra water may just spill over the pot and not seep down to the roots.”

The greens, beans, and herbs should reach maturity after about one to two months, or toward the end of June if you’ve begun planting around mid- or late May, after the last frost date.

Harvest with care. Lettuce yields leaves for about a month, then you need to replant. “You can keep leaf lettuce going through the end of October, or whenever the first frost hits,” Heim says. Basil yields all summer as long, as you don’t let it flower. Snip herb leaves, starting from the bottom, with kitchen shearers. “Don’t use the dirty scissors from the junk drawer,” Heim says. “They can pass on disease.” When fall hits, bring herbs inside, and they will be ready for next year’s growing cycle, as long as you continue watering them throughout winter.