Gardening, whether in ground or in containers, outdoors or indoors, requires four things to maintain healthy plants: growing medium, light, water, and nutrients. As long as you have those things, you’re on your way to being a gardener!
If you have space constraints, or you’re moving at some point and don’t want to walk away from your work, or if you don’t have an outdoor area with growing medium, or if you want to grow indoors, container gardening might be just the perfect thing for you. I choose to grow primarily in containers because I move every few years and like to take my plants with me. Some people garden with containers in water, which is generally called hydroponics. Others, like me, focus on containers filled with soil, because I primarily grow plants that naturally grow in soil and I think they deserve that natural medium. This is the style of container gardening on which this series will focus.
Perhaps the first thing to consider with container gardening is how much soil you’ll need and what size container is best. For a plant which is currently smaller but will grow larger, start with a smaller container and increase as necessary.
This plant is a young (1st year) blackberry plant that I started from a root cutting off a larger shrub. It is, consequently, in a smaller container than its parent plant (3 years old).
There they are next to each other. If you give a smaller plant a larger container straight off, its roots will never reach the water that will pond in the soil at the bottom of the pot. This can cause all sorts of problems from rot to bad fungus to insect infestation. As your plant grows, increase its pot size once a year or when you see the ends of the roots peaking through the drain holes. Repot to a container roughly a half size bigger than the current container, or no more than twice as big. You want enough room and fresh soil for the roots to spread and delve, but not too much room that you’ll have lingering water.
Yesterday I sowed 16 Eastern redbud seeds in these containers. I scarified and stratified them and this is the final step. Last year I sowed them in March, so I’ve tried them in February this year to see if they benefit from the last throes of winter. Fingers crossed that I haven’t wrecked the whole group!
So, yes, this year is CES Jr’s fourth winter, I think. Something like that. I potted her up this past season so she’s got plenty of space for roots and insulating soil. And yes, last winter I kept her in the garage. And this winter I figured she’d probably grown enough to be okay outdoors.
And then I got scared. Tonight’s forecasted low in my area is 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and where CES Jr currently sits is shaded by the house for most of the warming afternoon sunlight time. This means it will probably get cooler there than the forecasted low, and let’s be honest how accurate are those ever, really. So I figured there will probably be some frost around or on her in the morning. But I still wanted to keep her outdoors this winter. Sooooo…….
I put a translucent plastic bag over her, container and all. In theory this should provide a greenhouse-like effect. And then, because maybe I was panicking a little, this happened.
This container holds the bonus blackberry plant that split from the larger shrub’s rootmass when I potted up all of my berries last week. I also grow blueberries and blackberries, you know. But that’s a different story. Check out my Instagram page if you want to see more about that. https://www.instagram.com/nicolerordway/?hl=en
Anyhow, I also covered up the wee bonus blackberry. You’ll notice it’s next to, but not in, my cold frame. This is because the container area I had set aside within for this winter is already full to capacity. I wanted to grow plenty of kale. Looks like, in exchange, I might have compromised some tiny plants in containers. But hopefully it’ll survive. Blackberries are notoriously good at surviving.
I’ve noticed several people on a Facebook group I’m part of –
Ugh, this is like those recipe pages where people write a freaking novel about why they made the dish they made before they paste the recipe card square and fuck off. So I’m just gonna get to the point…WITH PICTURES!
Step ONE: collect pods! Collect the pods in autumn when they turn brown and crispy. I always collect what I can from my height and leave the rest for the critters. After all, one of the many great things about redbuds is that they feed our wild seed-eaters in the winter when other food is scarce. This technique is called responsible foraging!
Step TWO: Pop the seeds out of the pods! Sometimes you’ll be lucky and there will be a couple of seeds in a pod. Sometimes there won’t be a single fucking one! But that’s nature for you.
Step THREE: scarify the seeds! Scarifying the seeds allows moisture to enter the thick husk and hydrate the seed meat itself. You can do this after the cold period (called stratifying, more info to come) with a knife by nicking the husk gently, or with sandpaper by scraping the husk gently. OR, if you’re A PYRO LIKE ME, you can dump the seeds in just-boiling water for about a minute BEFORE the cold period (“stratifying“). I prefer this method because there is heat involved and, as mentioned, I’m a bit of a pyro, AND ALSO BECAUSE this allows you to immediately determine which seeds are viable and which ones aren’t. Seeds that FLOAT are not viable and aren’t worth your time nurturing. Seeds that SINK are viable and should germinate. After a minute in the recently-boiling water I scoop the non-viable seeds out with a spoon and drain the water from the rest in a fine colander.
(PS, I always thought colander had two L’s, but Spellcheck just informed me it sure fucking doesn’t, so we’ve both learned something today.)
Step FOUR: stratify the seeds! Get a plastic baggie or other airtight container. Dump the seeds in the baggie. Dampen your fingers under the faucet and flick a sprinkle or so of water in the baggie. Seal that fucker and toss it in your fridge and FORGET ABOUT IT until you need that sausage that you’ve been saving for a stew. Check to make sure there’s a smidgen of moisture in the baggie, and if there isn’t then repeat the bit with the fingers and the faucet, and FORGET ABOUT IT AGAIN. See, redbud seeds need a period roughly 3 months long of cold temperature (NOT FREEZING, we’re talking fridge temps not freezer temps) to properly germinate.
4A: KEY NOTES ABOUT THE BAGGIE: So listen, don’t be an idiot like me the first time I did this. Grab a Sharpie or other permanent soft-tipped marker and notate the date that you fridged the seeds and the species of tree they are on your baggie. This way you won’t come across a long-forgotten baggie in the back of your fridge years from now and wonder what the fuck these seeds are. Maybe they’ll still germinate. If they’re like my pumpkin seeds that I did this to, maybe they will. But maybe they won’t. Practice good propagation and label your baggies. Luckily redbud seeds are pretty unique-looking.
Step FIVE: sow your seeds! When the last frost has passed and your seeds have been in the fridge for at least 3 months (90 days minimum, don’t fuck around with this part), sow your seeds in individual containers of soil. You can also sow them straight into the ground, but in my zone (8A) we sometimes get a random frost that forgot it was supposed to be springtime. Having my treelings in containers enables me to bring them indoors if I need to protect them from a random frost. A cautionary note with REDBUDS: These trees develop a long taproot pretty quickly, so if you sow them in containers plan to start them in a 1 gallon size and pot up within the first growing season. I don’t have a picture for this step because I didn’t take any last year and obviously I can’t sow my seeds yet as it’s Nov 29 and they’re stratifying right now. But I trust my dear readers of horticulture and propagation tips can imagine what seeds in containers of soil look like.
And that’s it! I promise! Follow these steps and in the spring you’ll have oodles of redbud treelings in pots! For really realz! And if this somehow doesn’t work for you, please comment below so we can figure it out together.
A quick word: I’m in plant hardiness zone 8A. If you’re in a colder climate, this post may not apply to you. If you’re in a warmer climate, this post probably does. If you have no clue what zone you’re in, the USDA provides a nice chart! Check it out at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/ But here’s also a screen print I grabbed on 11/4/21. Those are minimum winter lows on that chart that you’re looking at.
In and around my zone we have a longer growing season. This means I can sow cole crops in the fall like brassicas (broccoli, kale, cauliflower family) with little worry about them surviving the winter. Last year I tried this theory out with kale and it worked WONDERFULLY. After a little frost baby kale leaves are actually sweet! Summer gardening is nice and all, but you have to contend with insects and diseases. In the spring, fall and winter these concerns are limited. I’ve become quite a fan of leaving the summer for the development of squashes and root vegetables, and doing most of my “at-risk” gardening in the fall, spring or winter.
Right now, for example, my blueberry plants are changing into their autumn foliage in a magnificent blaze of color across the garden.
My kale is a successful experiment this year. I say that because last year (2020) I bought a seed packet for 2020 use. I sowed about half of it and refrigerated the rest. This year I sowed the rest of the 2020 seeds and they are coming in quite nicely.
I pruned my container-grown mint pretty heavily this past summer (2021, like probably late September) and it LOVED the abuse and has come around hard for a second round. Fucking mint, y’all. Beat it up, IT LIKES IT.
And the bell peppers. These guys did HORRIBLY in the summer and went to mold, weirdly enough. But this fall? Right now on November 4? FRUITS!!!!
They’re actually going red faster than they did during the summer months. I surmise that bell pepper plants prefer cooler temps in the 60 degree range for ripening. Further experimenting shall be performed next spring! I plan to start these early next year, like late January indoors for seed germination. I’ll transplant outdoors after the last frost and see how they do. I suspect they don’t like our warmer summer here in Zone 8A but will enjoy the transition seasons.
What’s your garden look like right now? Share in the comments below!
So for me, I enjoy the growing part of gardening fine enough. But the most exciting bits are the beginning and the end: germination and harvest. And even more rewarding is being able to use what you’ve grown from seed. This year I grew (among other things) onions for the first time. I’m happy to report that the early harvest I took of the green onions has stored well in the freezer and I used it and our carrots (freshly harvested) in a bison stew.
I also harvested some larger onions later and cured them in the fridge. Today I opened the paper bag to discover that not a single one had rotted. More, they’re potent and delicious. I’m using the fresh ones in a bison skillet tonight. (I really prefer bison over beef.)
Do you grow vegetables in your garden? What do you use them in? Do you store them or use them fresh? I’d love to hear your experience! For me, I’m excited to dig into our acorn squash which should be almost done curing in the fridge.
…literally! If you have a garden in the ground or in raised beds you should consider sowing a restorative ground cover or layering the surface with thick mulch for the seasons in which your garden is dormant. For example, this year I grew acorn squash, which choked out the turf over which the vines grew. This was actually a desired effect so that I had less grass to mow. Now that the harvest is complete and the vines removed to the compost pile, there are bare patches of earth in my yard.
Bare patches of earth are bad for the microbiome in the soil and are dead zones for the precipitation cycle. They can also allow for a greater chance of disease or pests when it comes time to sow next year’s garden. Plus they’re ugly! In order to restore the depleted soil and maintain a healthy microbiome, you can apply a thick layer of mulch or, my preference, plant a beneficial cover crop.
I did the latter, and the cover crop I chose is Dutch mini white clover. Clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which is a nutrient that squash (and all plants) consume a ton of while they’re growing. I chose the engineered “mini” clover because it will never grow tall enough to want mowing, and if you’ve noticed there’s a trend in my gardening style which is to eventually never need to mow my yard ever again.
My clover has started to germinate and it is developing very well!
I made a mistake when sowing and watered before I had pressed the seeds into the soil. This caused some of them to wash off the big bare patch of hard, dry earth and collect at the edge of the turf. But that’s okay! That just means I get to sow more clover seed!
You can leave your cover crop for just the winter if you want and then dig or till it into the soil when you plant. Gardens love clover though! It helps to prevent the soil from drying out between your other plants, and like I mentioned it fixes nitrogen. This means it draws nitrogen from the air and the minerals of the earth and makes it available for consumption in the soil. All plants need nitrogen but few fix it, which makes clover extra special. Next time you see some clover in your yard, thank it!
Got some old seeds around and not sure whether they’re viable? Me too! I kept ignoring these pumpkin seeds in their mason jar for roughly 4 years and first tested them about 2 weeks ago by soaking then for a few hours. They all floated, which supposedly means they’re not viable. But I wasn’t totally convinced and figured I’d try another method: the paper towel test!
The idea here is that you moisten two paper towels and lay out the seeds between them. Seal these in a Ziploc and place somewhere warm but not in direct sunlight. I left them alone like this for about a week, and came back to surprising results!
Success! I sowed these wee plants this morning and we’re now sitting under a tropical storm warning with rain starting 2 hours before it was supposed to. They’re off to a marvelous start!