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Permaculture Techniques for Container Gardening

This is a guest post from Nicky Schauder of Permaculture Gardens.

Fruit at a farmer's market

Molly had decided, this was the year!

She had started buying more and more organic groceries. No way was she going to risk having chemicals like glyphosate in the food she served her family!

Her mother-in-law was recently diagnosed with cancer and Molly and her husband Drew were committed, now more than ever, to trying to eat healthier.

This included a lot of plants on the menu.

As weeks went by, however, she started noticing that her grocery bill was going way out of budget.

Organic food was always more expensive than conventional.

Drew had gently reminded her about that fact just yesterday and she wondered, maybe there was something she could do about the cost of good food.

Maybe she could start growing their own food. Only thing was, Molly and her family of 5 lived in a rental and the owners told them, “Absolutely no tearing up the lawn!”

She was thinking of trying to find a garden plot somewhere nearby, but it would just be so much more convenient if she could plant at home. She was already stretched for time as it was.

Driving to and from some garden plot with the three little ones in tow might be too difficult to manage.

Couldn’t she just grow food in containers?

If you are like Molly and are wondering if it’s even possible to grow food in pots and planters, then boy are we happy you’ve come across her story!

Yes, dear reader, you can successfully grow veggies and fruits in containers and for those of you who do have space but aren’t ready to “tear up your backyard” quite yet, pots and planters are a good place to start.

Flowers in barrel

Growing Food in Containers using Permaculture

I would propose using “permaculture” methods when growing food. Permaculture is an intentional design system based on observation. It goes beyond simply growing organic (without pesticides), and it’s regenerative (not merely sustainable).

Permaculture is all about working with nature, enhancing it with our thoughtful design and not imposing our own quick-fix solutions to systems that God has already figured out.

An example of a quick-fix solution would be using pesticides. Pesticides cause many more problems than they solve.

Psst…Here is another article on permaculture for in-ground gardens. Also check out our tips for toxin-free weed and pest control!

Will growing in containers be easy?

You may ask, “Is growing food in containers easier than growing in the ground?”

Yes and No.

Let’s deal with the “Yes” first.

  • Yes, it can be easier, if you are going for small wins. If this is your first time growing and you just want to harvest some food and don’t care about the number of your yields, then container gardening is the way to go.
  • Containers are great if you want to grow something in a semi-controlled environment. That way, you can get a feel for growing food before you take your gardening chops to the outside world.
  • Yes, it is also easier to container garden because if you grow in pots, you can conveniently move your crop according to the conditions that best suit them. You can have small plants like herbs growing on a kitchen window sill where you can easily have them “cut and come again!”
  • As permaculture designer and blogger, Jack Spirko says, “Growing in containers allows you to grow crops outside your geographic zone.”

We ourselves grow bananas in our home! No joke!

Banana tree

No bananas yet, but I’ve harvested the leaves to use in place of muffin liners for my Philippine rice cakes called, “Bibingka.”

babingka

And now for the “No” part.

  • Container gardening is not easier, because the best place for plants is in the ground. In the ground is where they can come in contact with a rich array of supporting actors that allow these plants to thrive, not just survive.
  • Containers can be fiddly. Some containers can have too much drainage that let the plants dry out too quickly while others have no drainage at all. This creates stagnant water pools in your pot and turns the soil acidic and anaerobic. These are both conditions that you do NOT want to have.
  • Both the above factors mean that container gardening is a little more time consuming for the amount of yield you get from it. In “in-ground systems,” once you get the conditions right, you get more yield for very little effort.

But by and large, if it’s a choice between growing in containers and not growing at all, then I would definitely encourage you to start in pots and planters. It also is a great way to experiment with new, unfamiliar plants that you want to watch closely before you commit to placing them outdoors.

Tips for Container Gardening

Large planter

1. Don’t scrimp on pot size

Whenever you buy plants from a nursery, always assume that the pot they are coming in is too small for them. You will need to buy another, bigger pot to transplant into and allow the plant’s roots to stretch out.

Most healthy plants have a physical symmetry around an x-axis. Picture the axis of this symmetry to be the ground level. The growth of the plant on the top of the soil will mimic its root growth. So, don’t expect a gigantic tomato to come out of a tiny rootbound pot.

Graphic of a plant's root system

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, your plant wants room to grow into.

Another reason for having a bigger pot is because we are supporting an underground ecosystem. We want to make sure that the good microorganisms in the soil are happy and have enough room to live and support the plant they have a relationship with.

Ultimately, plant health is all about soil health.

2. All about the soil

We recommend that your potting soil be made of organic and/or humus-rich material. If you happen to come across a bag of organic compost or soil with the label, “Contains mycorrhizal fungi” that is a good sign!

Mycorrhizal Fungi

Mycorrhizal fungi is a good kind of fungi that literally extends your plants root system and communicates with not only the plant it’s attached to but surrounding plants. The fungal system is so vast, especially in established forests that these communication signals can be sent from miles on end.

If you’re not sure if your bagged soil contains mycorrhizal fungi, you can also add it to your soil separately.

Always try to fill your pot to the brim with soil. And if you see the soil level go down (which will eventually happen), make sure to keep “building soil.” You can do this by not only adding more soil, but also, by adding earthworms, or composting worms to your pot, crushing eggshells or incorporating the fruit and vegetable shavings from your juicer to the soil. Get started with composting and learn more about using your compost in your garden.

When you do add food be sure to “work it into the soil” and add a top layer of straw. This will help mask the smell of food from any unwanted pests.

3. Choose smaller sized plants

Peas growing

Another tip for container gardening success is choosing the right variety of plants to grow. I recently came across this helpful infographic from Anglian Home.

As you can see from the image, the vegetables listed for a patio garden include cucumbers. But not all cucumbers will do well in pots and planters. If the cucumber fruit is large, it will require very large planters.

So select cucumber varieties that are smaller such as the Mexican Sour Gherkin or the Miniature White Cucumber especially if you are attempting to grow cucumbers in medium-sized pots that are easy to carry.

The first year my husband and I grew cucumbers on our deck, we had very poor pollination.

That was because we hadn’t yet learned about the concept of permaculture guilds.

Want to learn more about Growing Food in Small Spaces?

We love interacting with fellow food-growers so come to our webinar on “Growing Food in Small Spaces!” If you arrive 10 minutes early we can even do a little virtual “meet and greet” where you can tell us about your forays into gardening and ask us questions.

Sign-up for our webinar on June 19th at 2 PM Eastern.

Growing Food in Small Spaces

What is a Permaculture Guild?

A permaculture guild is a collection of players, working in concert to support each other’s growth and needs. It is more than just having a good companion plant next to you. It’s having a whole team working towards an abundant harvest!

The infographic above is also neat because it showcases different possible groupings of plants that are likely to grow well together. However, these are not necessarily container friendly. You will have to balance both the needs of your plants to grow in groups as well as their ability to do so in confined spaces.

My cucumber needed more insects to pollinate its flowers, and thus more flowers to attract the insects. These additional flowers had to have the same bloom time as the cucumber flowers.

So, in case you’re growing cucumbers in pots and are wondering what flowers might be useful to it: marigolds, nasturtium, yarrow, sage, campanula and bean flowers are all good choices.

Veteran gardeners, help me out and make this list longer in the comments below.

Not only is it important that these flowers bloom in early spring to summer, but it’s also important that they come in various shapes and sizes so as to attract different species of pollinators.

You see, it’s not just about growing that one crop that you want to get a harvest from. It’s about nurturing a diversity of plants (and animals!)

4. Different Layers, Different Functions

Marigolds and tomatoes

We mentioned the physical space that plants need to grow in. Let’s take that to the next level and think outside the planter box.

If you can encourage even more growth, why not allow your plant to occupy vertical spaces as well? Why not let them vine on a trellis?

When you grow something like cucumbers, which are vines, it is very important to allow them to climb up sturdy trellises that you can connect to your planters. Allow your small space to perform multiple functions. Sometimes, you can even use a tree as a trellis.

“A tree? But I am growing in pots,” you may say.

Yes! You can grow trees in pots. In fact, we highly encourage you to do so because trees give back so much more for almost the same amount of effort we give to our annuals. Plus, once you plant a tree, no need to plant it again!

A fig tree (which can be grown in a pot) can act as a trellis for a vining bean plant for instance. It may not be a good companion to a cucumber because their soil pH needs are slightly different.

If you were planting “in the ground” in permaculture, you would be encouraged to create a polyculture or a guild occupying 7 (or more) layers! But in pots, I like to boil it down to three.

5. Thriller Filler Spiller

Flowers growing in a barrel

When planting in large round containers, I take my cues from the flower arranging world and try to have a “thriller,” a “filler” and a “spiller.”

In the edible world, a “thriller, filler, spiller” example could be what’s known as the “Three Sisters Guild: Corn, beans, and squash.”

Corn would be the “thriller,” beans, the “filler” and squash would be the “spiller.”

A “thriller” is the star of my planter. It is the vegetable that I would like to get the most harvest from and that would occupy the largest space in the container. Some examples of these could be a:

  • container grown tree (try lemons, figs, pomegranates or even bananas)
  • tomato, eggplant or pepper (only 1 not all three in a pot)
  • tall cereal grain such as rice, quinoa, amaranth or corn
  • bush beans
  • berry bushes

There are so many more possibilities! I cannot list them all, but I hope you get the idea. It is big and showy, and you expect a lot out of it.

A “filler” is a plant that has tight or fluffy foliage Some edible examples are thyme, oregano, mint, and many green, leafy herbs.

Finally, a “spiller” is some plant that will cascade out of your container. This could be nasturtium flowers (which are edible), geraniums, begonias, certain succulents like “string of pearls,” strawberries or even sweet potato are options for plants that will gracefully “waterfall” out of your pot.

By the way, not only will sweet potato’s foliage (which is a great spinach substitute) act as a perfect “spiller,” it will also occupy the “root layer” of your planter under the soil. That will give you even more bang for your container buck!

Some of the Best Plants to Grow in Containers

Herbs

Herbs are often the best things to grow in containers. They give you a huge ROI as they are costly to buy as cuttings from the grocery. Plus, herbs can tolerate small spaces and don’t need as many hours of sun as a tomato does.

However, when growing them from seed, beware that it can take months before your herb is ready to harvest. This is normal. Some herbs grow quickly if it’s hot and sunny, like basil.

Some, like cilantro, grow moderately indoors because they like the cooler weather, and some just take their sweet time to grow, like lavender and rosemary.

So be patient.

Herbs growing

Peas & Beans

Members of the legume family also make for great “fillers” because they are dependable. These plants are easy to grow and help boost the performance of the plants around them because they have the uncanny ability to “fix” nitrogen into a plant edible form.

Beets, Swiss Chard

These are members of the Chenopodiaceae family and they also provide beautiful foliage for your container guild.

Microgreens

Finally, if you cannot wait to grow your own food, we always recommend starting by growing your own microgreens. These can be harvested in a week and result in nutrient-dense soup, salad and sandwich toppers. You can do this year-round, no matter where you live. Even if you live on a spaceship!

Microgreens and salad

See all the Kitchen Stewardship Gardening Posts here!

Permaculture Techniques for Container Gardening

Do you grow your own food in a small space? Share your tips below!

Nicky and Dave SchauderNicky and her husband Dave are passionate about helping suburban families grow their own food. Together, they run Permaculture Gardens at growmyownfood.com, a website dedicated to help you grow abundantly!

In 2017, Permaculture Gardens won the grand prize at the Green Festivals in Washington DC for “Most Innovative Sustainable Brand.” Their work has been featured in the Huffington Post, Permaculture Research Institute – Australia and GreenAmerica.org. They also volunteer at their local Title 1 school and started a permaculture garden after-school program for the elementary kids there.

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