Some kitchen gardeners have only pots to grow in, yet manage container crops fruitful enough to be admired by those with acres of backyard space. Even if you're lucky enough to have a big plot to grow vegetables, there's good reason to have plants in pots in your kitchen garden.
Certain herbs do best in pots: The true French tarragon must be wintered indoors, and sprightly spearmint spreads invasively if its roots are not confined. Lemon grass, essential to Thai cuisine, needs a pot because it is invasive and frost-tender.
For vegetables, it helps to think of pots as portable raised beds. Here you can sow the first tender lettuces and keep them protected from slugs aiming to devour the tiny green leaves. Setting the pot off the ground on a table or in a saucer filled with sharp sand or wood ashes will keep the critters away.
If yard's too shady
Portable vegetables can also follow the sun. I know a Sacramento man who dearly wanted to grow sweet potatoes, but his back yard was too shady for anything but a few herbs.
So he built a wooden box, 2 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 2 feet across, finished the outside nicely and placed it in his sunny front yard. The tiny slips of sweet potato grew into luxurious, leafy vines, soaking up the sunshine and thriving in the warmth radiated from a nearby concrete sidewalk.
By fall he'd harvested so many fine sweet potatoes he could give some away. Luscious tubers were the centerpiece of the family's Thanksgiving table, with plenty left for dinners and a New Year's Day sweet potato pie.
It's amazing how containers extend the range of edibles you can grow in a kitchen garden. A Manhattan gardener first showed me how to grow blueberries in an 18-inch pot, for example. She grew them on a ninth-floor terrace. I put my blueberry pot in my tiny back yard, and if your soil is naturally alkali or clay, you probably should, too.
Blueberries need extremely acid soil. Expert berry growers will tell you to lower the pH by adding aluminum sulfate. That's the same soil conditioner that will turn your pinkish hydrangeas back to their original beautiful shades of swimming-pool blue. I don't .. care to use such a harsh fertilizer in garden soil, but it works fine in a pot. My blueberries can be happy, and so can I.
It's an open secret that photographers for garden magazines use plants in pots to hide the view of a spigot or fill up a bare space in a flower bed; you can do the same. Pull together a garden view with the strategic placement of a bright red potted geranium across from a blossoming trellis of scarlet runner beans; bring in a potted white azalea to draw the eye to the end of a garden path.
Think of the garden path punctuated by tidy rows of pink geranium in terra-cotta pots, a pretty urn by the garden bench that will hold a magnificent, golden-leaved hosta well above the depredations of ground-level slugs. Pots protect and add heft and structure. They are essential for kitchen gardens constrained to the limited space of a patio, balcony or deck.
The balcony gardener should invest in one or two attractive large containers. Finished wood boxes or unglazed terra-cotta pottery a 24-inch (at minimum, 18-inch) depth will grow you anything from a "Big Boy" tomato to a genetic dwarf nectarine. A container any shallower must be watered more often, sometimes twice a day, or sun and wind dries out soil and stunts the growing plants.
Terra-cotta look-alikes made from plastic resin are lightweight and far cheaper than wood or pottery. Shepherd's Garden Seeds ( 482-3638) offers good-looking fakes in 20-, 16- and 14-inch heights, generously broad at top and bottom. The 14-inch size is roomy enough to grow three or four sweet #F peppers; the 20-inch size can hold a fruit tree. Called Ariana pots, they're American-made.
For short-season potted plants, try cachepots of glazed porcelain into which you can fit 1-gallon or 5-gallon black plastic nursery pots. (Be sure to bring along an empty plastic pot to make sure it will fit the bottom of your cachepot.)
Tuck in a bit of green florist moss to hide the gap between containers, and presto -- utilitarian becomes elegant. Once the vegetables are harvested, or flowers faded, replace the nursery pot with another, perhaps one you've seeded with summer marigolds or snapdragons.
Crafty gardeners might try painting a 5-gallon or 1-gallon plastic nursery can with acrylic spray paint. Nursery pots are meant to stack, so you can have a snugger fit and a color that suits your decor -- summery French blue, deep moss-green or rusty red to match a brick exterior.
As with a cachepot, the extra layer will insulate plants against dryness and heat, creating better growing conditions for your treasured vegetables and flowers.
Other plant-cosies to try might be wicker or tole wastebaskets found at garage sales, small wooden baskets or a rusty metal watering can. Recycling nursery pots into pot-sleeves keeps a small space looking attractive and adds a personal touch to larger kitchen gardens.
Pointers on pots
One large, deep container (18 to 24 inches) is better than many small ones. Deeper root-runs stay cool in summer and don't need watering so often. Lighten pots by filling the bottom third of each with polystyrene packing peanuts before adding soil mix. This plastic is neutral to plants and provides excellent drainage. Pots need large drainage holes to let air in and water out. If you're using a cachepot or pot-sleeve with no drainage holes, remove the nursery container for watering, let it drain, then replace it. Cluster containers in different sizes to soften the edges of squarish patios. A pair of large pots or urns can mark the entrance to a garden space; a row of pots helps set off a dining area within the garden space.
Mia Amato is a master gardener and contributing editor to national gardening magazines.
Pub Date: 8/04/96