Small Container Gardening for Beginners!

A small garden bed is surrounded by rocks. Garlic chives and mint grow in partial sun.
A small wicking bed at ARTfarm holds water in a reservoir below the soil surface and produces herbs, lettuce and flowers, even in the dry season. The solar lamp in the center blocks frogs from entering a PVC pipe that is used to fill the reservoir.

Some of you who signed up for farm shares in the last few weeks have expressed interest in learning to grow your own food. We have great news! UVI’s Cooperative Extension Service will be hosting multiple FREE online video classes on Small Space Container Gardening for Beginners with Vanessa Forbes and friends, with the first session on Monday, April 27th at 10am. Everyone who signed up on our farm share order form was sent an invitation, and quite a few of you attended! Thanks!

If you missed out, the course will be repeated again. Also, below is a rough outline of what Ms. Forbes covered in the class. You can also check out this list of books to jumpstart your ideas. We are also still working on a longer article for this website with more information on gardening in the Caribbean. Soon come! Of course there are always lots of things to learn on the Internets about subtropical farming, we enjoy Rob Bob’s Permaculture YouTube Channel for ideas about container gardening!

Notes from Small Space Container Gardening for Beginners…

…held on Zoom and hosted by Vanessa Forbes, Horticultural Agent at UVI’s Cooperative Extension Service (summarized and combined here with a sprinkling of bonus thoughts from Luca, Christina, Bob and Rudy):

  1. Start with a DREAM list of what you’d like to grow, and then come up with a PLAN.
    • Start researching if the crops you like can grow in our climate, if they like wet soil or good drainage, full sun or partial shade. Hint: to grow well in a hot place with lots of bugs, you need crops that can grow quickly and be harvested before they rot or get eaten. There are varieties of crops that are specifically bred to grow better in a southern climate, so use sources of information specific to tropical climates. UGA is one source and here is a list of crops they recommend.
    • Ask your neighbors (with similar conditions) what crops have been successful for them. Literally small differences in exposure, wind, soil type and rainfall can make a huge difference. Things we could grow at Southgate in the old days (1998-2007) we can’t grow at ARTfarm (2008-present), and vice versa. So ask your neighbors! Wearing a mask! From six feet or more away!!
    • Visit the VI Department of Agriculture. In the greenhouse area (all the way in the back, east of the abbatoir), they sell slips (baby plant starts) to the public, for selected popular vegetable varieties that are proven in our climate.
    • With COVID-19 affecting businesses and shipping, some online seed companies are only supplying commercial growers right now (spring 2020), but local hardware stores may have seed.
    • Water is a precious resource. Start small and expand your project once you have done some experimenting!

  2. Location is important. SCOUT the spot for your container garden.
    • What conditions do your dream crops need? Is your proposed spot sunny/windy?
    • Is there enough space? Info on seed packets will often include recommended spacing between plants for optimal yields and plant health.
    • Is there a water source nearby? Does any excess water draining from your pots have a place to go?
    • Is it located in a spot where you’ll pass by frequently and remember to check on it?
    • Is it accessible to pets/pests/wildlife who might damage or teef your crops? Think of deer, iguanas, trushie bird dem, neighborhood cats looking for a litter box, chickens, rambunctious dogs… but don’t forget that some wildlife is important for pest control and pollination. Observe closely and you’ll begin to learn who eats what.
    • If you decide to grow on bare ground, don’t forget about root competition. A raised bed garden on the soil surface in your yard that is regularly watered will become a mecca for every surface tree root within 50 ft. and you will soon be watering a forest around your garden, unless you cut and trim a “root moat” around your garden.

  3. CREATE imaginative spaces for your plants.
    • MINI crops like a single herb, succulents or flowers can thrive in a large tin can, an old shoe or purse, a teacup or coffee mug…
    • MEDIUM sized crops like taller herbs, pollinator attracting flowers, can grow in planters, windowboxes, tires, vertical pallet gardens.
    • LARGE crops like lettuces, cooking greens, can be grown in vertical pallet gardens, raised beds, tires, cinderblock raised beds
    • DEEP crops with a substantial taproot like tomatoes, carrots, root vegetables; or with a vining tendency like cucumbers or melons, will need a larger garden bed with deeper soil depth.
    • Drainage is important. Most crop plants do not want to sit in heavy wet clay soil; they need aeration at the roots. So make sure to toss a few pebbles or some mulch in the bottom of grow containers or otherwise make sure the soil doesn’t clog up the drainage holes.
    • Fabric or poly reusable shopping bags past their useful life for groceries can be repurposed in the garden as a permeable growbag. You can place several of them together to create a little garden bed.
    • Tires as planters are a great way to UPCYCLE. Cut them apart with a sawzall power tool or simple box cutter, using safety protective gear in case you hit a steel belt radial while cutting. Tires are still being studied for the uptake by plants of chemical leaching, so to be on the safe side for food crops, line tires with water permeable landscape fabric/cardboard/paper, and/or consider painting them to seal in any dry rotting synthetic rubber polymers that may escape (of course paints are polymers too!). Use tire planters in partial shade to slow their degradation, and remember they can be stacked up to accommodate deeper rooting plants.
    • Shipping pallets are very popular for repurposing as planters, as they are often made of naturally termite-resistant tropical hardwoods. There are entire Pinterest channels devoted to their clever use either whole or disassembled for all kinds of gardening, storage, woodworking and crafting. Selecting safe, clean, untreated pallets is important so that they don’t contain harmful chemicals. Look for pallets stamped ‘HT’ for Heat Treated. (Pallets without the HT stamp may have been treated with highly toxic methyl bromide, which could leach into your crops!) Pallets can be used flat on the ground as is, filled with soil as a raised bed with plants growing between the slats. They can be wrapped with landscape fabric, propped up on end, filled from the top with soil, and propped up or hung on a wall as a vertical garden. You can place four of them on end in a box formation attached at the corners, to create a composting bin.
    • Plastic shipping barrels and old rum barrels make functional and even beautiful containers for planting. Drill holes for drainage.
    • Kiddie pools or wading pools can be repurposed as bottom waterers for your containers or growbags. Drill some holes in the sides a few inches from the bottom to allow excess rainwater to escape without drowning your plants. Anyplace in your container garden where water may sit, treat with a little food-safe soap or neem oil (from the hardware store garden section) to keep mosquitos from breeding within.
    • Cover your small garden area with a wire mesh tent or other barrier to discourage the hungry critters from feasting and exploring your little Eden. You will want pollinators to be able to get in, so use an open mesh such as hardware cloth or chicken wire!
    • Finish your containers with safety in mind. Make sure there are no sharp edges or tripping hazards to catch on clothing or skin, when you’re done.
    • Make sure you CLEAN any old repurposed or previously gardened containers prior to use. Chemical residue, funguses and plant viruses, even eggs from pests can remain on old containers, so clean them as if your food was going to touch them. (It is.)

  4. Now that your containers are ready and clean, let’s SOIL them.
    • Most trucking companies on St. Croix sell ‘topsoil’ but it’s often subsoil – soil that is heavier with more mineral content, with much less organic matter (humus) in it. Caribbean islands generally have very little topsoil. Create good topsoil by mulching, resting, crop rotating, aerating, and compost amending, your soil.
    • Bringing in topsoil from elsewhere on the island may invite weeds and pests to your property that were not already there.
    • Organic potting soil from the hardware store may be your best choice.
    • Mulch (chipped plant debris from Hurricane Maria) is available at the Department of Agriculture and by appointment at Body Slob dump site in Kingshill. You can also mulch with yard clippings, but be careful not to mow seedy grass as mulch unless you love weeding!
    • Pickup truck loads (or a few buckets) of sheep manure for composting and soil amending can usually be purchased through the Schuster family at Echo Valley Farm. Stop by their tire shop to inquire. The number is (340) 719-9944.

  5. Start your grand garden EXPERIMENT! (Here are some rando tips!)
    • Don’t count on huge yields that replace your need to grocery shop right away.
    • Remember that the soil in containers and pots will dry out much faster than ground garden soil. So keep checking moisture levels (a terracotta “worm” that changes color is a fun way to monitor soil moisture – or your finger is a higher tech, less expensive option you’ll probably never misplace)
    • The soil in container gardens can get compacted much faster than in a ground garden plot. Be sure to recycle your soil and repot your container garden on a regular basis to fluff things up.
    • Your plants will continue to remove minerals and nutrition from the soil, and you’ll need to amend it from time to time (hopefully with homemade compost from your own kitchen!). Repotting, rotating, and cleaning your containers when trouble arises, can reduce the effect of residual problems compounding over time that could lessen your success.
    • If you really want to get fancy with your bad hippie organic food-growing self, start learning about companion planting.
    • In general, watering in the evening saves more water and is more useful for your plants.
    • Drip or emitter irrigation conserves water, and lessens the spread of some plant funguses, diseases and pests compared to simply spraying your garden with a garden hose.
    • Gird your loins to the idea that you may have to grab an icky caterpillar or grasshopper or stink bug with your bare fingers and squish it. Unless you want to share all your crops with nature.
    • Weeds can be gorgeous. Native pollinators love them. Allow some biodiversity.
    • Observe, observe, observe. As with any other health concern, it’s best to detect an issue early on instead of when it is too late. Watch your plants like a hawk. Learn the difference between plant-destroying bugs and bugs who eat those other bugs. Don’t just try to kill everything with six or more legs!

There will be more classes coming up from UVI CES on container gardening. We’ll try to post more information as it emerges! If we forgot anything, please include it in the comments (link at the top of the article)! And PLEASE share pictures of your mighty garden with us!!

6 thoughts on “Small Container Gardening for Beginners!

  1. Good day I was just curious how to keep mosquitoes out of my water buffalo? I want to keep it safe to water my plants but also not provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes. I have a 200 gallon tank. Thank you for your time.

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