Gardening on a small scale.

thIt’ll be several months more before DF and I can put any plants in the ground, but we’re definitely looking forward to seeing green rather than white outside. My desire to play in the dirt was exacerbated by the arrival of a media kit from Renee’s Garden, purveyor of more delicious-looking seeds than you ever imagined.

Or maybe you can imagine quite a lot – especially in light of the particularly ugly winter weather in much of the Lower 48. Maybe you’re dreaming of things like Peppermint Stick Chard, Lace Perfume Dianthus, Black Cherry Tomatoes, Baby Snack Peppers and Heirloom Chocolate Daisies.

If so, now’s the time to plan those dreams into vases and onto your dinner plates. Not everyone is able (or willing) to care for a giant backyard spread, but why not consider container gardening and/or edible landscaping? Even condo dwellers can harvest small versions of greens, vegetables and herbs, and food crops can do double duty in terms of visual interest and palate pleasing.

Put another way: You can even grow zucchini in containers. Honest.

Edible landscaping includes (but is not limited to) greens and herbs as accent plants, fruit- and nut-bearing trees, berries as shrubs and edible flowers. A good resource is the National Gardening Association’s “Edible Landscaping Primer.”

Don’t have a yard in which to landscape? Grow some of those greens, herbs, miniaturized vegetables or edible flowers in deck containers or windowboxes. You may not be able to replace all your fresh food needs this way, but containers can yield a surprising amount of salad makings, greens and herbs, especially if you stagger the plantings so that every week or so a new batch is coming to maturity.

Besides: Even miniature zucchini are likely to overproduce. In a good way.

Getting started

Your library likely has books on small-space and/or container gardening. If not, ask that some be purchased or at least obtained through inter-library loans. The Internet is full of similar resources.

Here are a few to get you started:

Don’t have a deck or even a windowsill? Seek out a community garden and apply for your own little patch of heaven. The Cooperative Extension office in your region should know where these gardens are, or search a database maintained by the American Community Gardening Association.

Frugal hacking your garden

How much will it cost? That depends.

Starting from seed is a lovely antidote to the winter blahs; plan to start them about eight weeks before the last expected springtime frost. This can also be more cost-effective than buying seedlings, especially if you split the costs with other gardeners. However, you do need space and decent lighting for this. Check with one or more of the above resources to find out if this is a good fit.

If you’ve got flowerpots or containers, you’re on your way. Ask the deli manager for empty pickle or potato-salad tubs (drill drainage holes and scatter gravel on the bottom). If you’re a churchgoer, ask if you can have the pots once this year’s Easter lilies have faded.

Containerized plants do better with commercial potting soil than with dirt dug from the back yard. Check the dollar store (I’ve seen soil sold there) and start pricing it at greenhouses, home improvement centers and department stores. If you’re buying from a Home Depot or Wal-Mart, pay with a discounted gift card. Or cash in gift cards from rewards programs like MyPoints or Swagbucks, or from rewards credit cards.

Regular watering and fertilization are essential. Talk with someone at Cooperative Extension or use books/online resources to find out more. Compost is ideal, but not everyone has room for a box. Worm composting takes up very little room and it doesn’t smell (really!).

Start reading, keep dreaming, make plans and think of spring. It will be here eventually. Greet it with a trowel.

Readers: Have you ever gardened in a windowbox or deck container? Got any tips to share?

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  1. I had a square-foot thing built and planted in that. Five- and three-gallon buckets have food in them. I bought some white plastic planters from a grocery store flower center to plant basil and such. Now, I have onions and garlic for a several five gallon buckets. Butter, cookie, margarine, yogurt, and any other container I have saved will all be used for growing any food I can. Egg shells, toilet paper rolls, and any container imaginable are or have been used to germinate or grow.

    I buy old pots from yard sales and get them off the side of the road. Often someone will just give me a pot or two. I cut the top off vinegar jugs to use for planting. Cutting the top off the vinegar jug just above the straight part, leaving one piece of the top on makes a nice little plant germinating incubator, little greenhouses.

    I even have put many of my fall flower bulbs into containers.

    Last year, I bought a hanging tomato plant with container and all in a box…for $1. I am set.

  2. I love to grow herbs in pots on the kitchen window sill. I have had great success with parsley, oregano and basil. I am hoping this year to try a few other herbs.

  3. If you have any kind of yard, space along the side of the house, etc.,throw some grape (cherry) tomatoes into the soil. They will grow like CRAZY. We discovered this after using some dirt from a planter we had grown some cherry tomatoes in to fill a hole where the gutter had dripped – and now we enjoy tons all summer long.

    • Donna Freedman

      A neighbor had a tomato plant come up in the middle of the lawn. Best they could figure is that when their kid took the garbage out she dropped a seed. Or maybe it was a bird.

  4. Home Depot almost always has a “broken bag” spot with a large discount on almost full bags. There is usually at least one bag of potting soil for half off.

  5. enjoythejourney

    Mint grows crazy wild in my garden. I read about putting the base of celery stalks and onion and the tops of carrots in soil to create healthy new plants. Tried it, but no luck. Advice is welcomed.

    • Donna Freedman

      If you have mint once, you will likely have mint forever. I’ve planted a celery-stalk base and it did shoot up a new plant but ultimately it died because we couldn’t put it outdoors and there just wasn’t enough light, I guess. While researching a post for MSN Money on this topic I found a blog post by a woman who’s kept the same one alive for several years now and it just keeps producing. Wow. Of course, she lived in a warm place.
      Myself, I’d probably just start from seed. I’ve bought seeds as cheaply as five for a dollar with a Walgreens coupon, and for seven cents a packet at the end of the growing season. (They really will sprout the next year.)
      Good luck with your garden, and thanks for leaving a comment.

  6. Basil is a good window plant to start with. Very forgiving.

  7. Vicky Fox

    I have a pot of Rosemary and a pot of Thyme at the moment. Mint would be great. Our 99 cent store has a good selection of pots to choose from, and I have a patio and balcony I can utilize. Sounds like a wonderful idea. Pray for rain here though, there has been almost none for a year.

    • Donna Freedman

      Wish I could send some moisture south! Right now it’s snow for us, though.
      If you grew herbs you could dry any you didn’t eat and have wonderful meals the rest of the year, too. Wonderful frugal meals, knowing you. 😛

      • Vicky Fox

        I’m using some of the rosemary to make a Poor Man’s Cassoulet today in the crock pot. It’s a pork shoulder simmered in chicken stock, with onions, white wine, left over frozen tomato sauce and white beans and an entire bunch of chopped parsley. Total cost including the meat is $6.60 and will feed 8 people generously:)

  8. I love goat milk soap!

  9. We’ve grown veggies and herbs before, but I didn’t enjoy fighting the Texas wildlife for my spoils. So I’ve moved onto Double Knockout rose bushes. They are gorgeous for about 9-10 months of our year down here, and they are thorny and disease-resistant, which I respect. 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Oh, roses…Alaska is a great place to grow them, too, especially the Canadian hybrids. One guy I know had a Finnish variety called Polstjarnan that grew all the way up the side of his house and touched the roof. Sigh.

  10. Since I had to hae a tree removed this year I just might get back to some gardening. After all, the soil is already turned. Looking to do mostly herbs and a bit of tomatoe, bell pepper. Area is too sunny to do leafy greens.

    Am worried about critters as we have a TON of neighborhood rabbits. That is one of the reasons I stopped growing edibles. They ate; NOT me.

    • Donna Freedman

      Greens grow wonderfully here because there’s a ton of light but not much true heat. But some neighborhoods are also populated by rabbits and all neighborhoods are populated by moose. While most of them head for the hills/greenbelts in the summer, not all do — and one medium-sized ungulate can hoover up all that lovely broccoli and cabbage you were looking forward to picking.
      We were lucky last year: no moose at all in our yard. This year I want to put in at least half a dozen red cabbage starts because we found an easy recipe for pickled cabbage that was delicious. Definitely be powering back on the kale, though; we still have at least seven gallon-sized Ziploc bags and a couple of large jars of dried leaves, even though we add it to as many dishes as we can. Probably just two plants this year instead of four.
      Okay, now I’m hungry.

      • I learned a trick about rabbits from an old book this winter and can’t wait to try it: Take chicken wire and fold about 6 inches of it at right angles along the long side. Place this 6 inch flat part on the ground FACING OUT around your planting bed. The rabbits will (they say) stand close to the vertical part when they attempt to burrow under your fence, so they’ll be standing on the 6 inch part when they do that. This way, they won’t be able to burrow under. Do you think it will work? I rely on Donna and this blog for good information.

        • Donna Freedman

          Never heard that one. For the sake of gardeners everywhere, I hope it works. Let us know!

        • Tina in NJ

          Get dried blood from the garden store and scatter around yor garden to discourage rabbits. It’s also a good fertilizer, full of nitrogen.

          • Donna Freedman

            A guy I know has a dad who’s a doctor. Every month he used to take the expired blood from the hospital and use it in their garden. “We had incredible roses,” he recalls.

  11. What a timely article….We just got 2 feet of snow and this will be a good cure for the Winter Blues. Will share that a few years back I started my own tomato plants from seed…and that was my best crop ever in the garden. Been lazy the last couple of years buying plants at the store for …$1-2 …A PLANT…with less pleasing results. The cost of produce in this “neck of the woods” has just gotten crazy….with large tomatoes going for $1 a piece. Thank you for the motivating article…

    • Donna Freedman

      Having those seedlings can be a real antidote to the winter blues. Last year DF started a bunch of them and I so enjoyed watching their li’l green heads poking up above the soil.
      We won’t be able to put anything in the ground safely until around the end of May. But I’ll probably be sticking some spinach out there earlier than that, and hoping for the best.

  12. I’ve got the itch to start planting and digging but the massive piles of snow are a deterrent. But I do have green onions growing in a glass on the kitchen sink. It’s something, I guess.

  13. NowACountryMouse

    I never, ever throw away the bottom white root part of green onions. When you chop down to that part, stick the root in the dirt leaving about 1 inch above the soil. The green tops will grow back. I stick mine in the patio plant pots outside. Whenever you want a little green onion for tuna or egg salad, just head outside and snip a few. One 89 cents bunch of green onions lasted me about a year that way. And for those looking for a free way to keep the critters out of your flowers, (don’t do this on your veggies!), the next time you clean hair stands out of your hairbrush, sprinkle them on your flowers. Critters evidently find hair on their food gross too and they will find something else to munch on.

    • Donna Freedman

      My grandparents used to get bags of hair from a barber shop. They put it in old pantyhose and hung it here and there in the garden to keep the deer away. They said it was the scent of the hair that did this. Whatever works!

  14. Another great way to save on seeds is to collect your own. This only works well though if you plant heirloom vegetables though as their seeds haven’t been treated. Just let one or two plants go to seed and once they’re relatively dry, place them into paper bags, label them and there you have your seeds for the next crop. It’s really rewarding to grow plants from seeds you’ve saved yourself.

  15. donna

    Evening Donna
    While out the other day I saw this home where at the side of the house they grew lettuce instead of grass. You could tell by looking
    at it that it had been a yard and they had scraped the grass off &
    put in seed. Hope the can use it all. Can you imagine the size salad that they will have.
    I have a couple of tomato plants & couple green peppers. Hopefully
    the grubs won’t find them. My granddaughter makes pets out of them and I talk her into putting them in a dish so “mommy bird can feed her babies.” She’s ok with that but not just killing them cause each one is her favorite and she’ll name them. To be young again!

  16. I love this post. It has a ton of helpful information on a topic I’m really interested in. I’ve tried container gardening before and I have one tip: watch out for deer. My first tomato plant was producing beautiful nearly ripe fruit and then the next day it was decimated. I know the culprit was a deer because they were eating the crab apples nearby. If you’re going to do a container garden and you have a large deer population take precautions to keep them away.

    • Donna Freedman

      Here in Anchorage the issue is moose. If you can’t keep them out of the yard, you’re at risk for losing everything in a couple of hours. People build cages around their trees (even non-fruiting trees) until they’re big enough to survive an attack by Alces alces.


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