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!!

May Showers and Hugel Beds and Freeman Rogers!

Farmer Bob builds a hugelkultur bed at ARTfarm using leftover storm debris. Hugel beds improve drainage, sequester carbon, reduce cultivation work, increase good fungal growth in soil, save on irrigation water, tidy up storm debris and grow huge healthy plants… What’s not to love? More below on DIYing your own hugel bed at home!

Six months ago, in November 2017, we had newly opened for the season and were giving away birdseed amidst barren trees and broken everything. We were hosting our farmstands on the roadside due to Hurricane Maria damage. Around that time, a journalist from the BVI Beacon, Freeman Rogers, visited us while researching a Caribbean-wide story on climate adaptation and resiliency. He is a humble and thoughtful character and his findings are well-researched and noteworthy. Hope you’ll enjoy a read and share on social media! (It would be great if his story made its way to a major news outlet!) There are mentions of St. Croix and quotes from Luca and other residents in both articles listed in this link, do take a few minutes to read them both, and share:

Saturday farmstand, 10am down the South Shore Road: Plentiful sweet salad mix (thanks to recent, frequent small rain showers that made the size of the lettuce heads grow bigger), a very few slicer and cherry tomatoes, Italian basil, parsley, lemongrass, some seasoning peppers, serrano and chili peppers, lots of fresh ginger and turmeric, cooking greens, bunched arugula, some papaya, some watermelon, some pineapples, and zinnia flowers. For the growers: lots of native trees, bigger pots of rosemary herb, small pineapple slips! For the art lovers: we have performance/raffle tickets to the Caribbean Dance School 2018 show available, Friday and Saturday June 8 & 9 at Island Center, $15!

Okay, get a cuppa and a few minutes for some deep farm talk here: Farmer Luca and Farmer Bob have been busy this week building some new hugelkultur, or “hugel” beds on the farm. And YOU CAN TOO!!! Read on if you like food and want to save the planet!!! The secrets will be revealed!!! Mom! Dad! Uncle Fungus!!?

Hugelkultur is a ridiculously simple permaculture farming technique with a fancy name and multiple benefits: carbon is sequestered, water and fertilizer is conserved, erosion prevented, and messy, organic storm debris such as logs and branches are repurposed and turned into a valuable resource.  You make a tidy brushpile, and you bury it in soil. No burning, no chipping. And then you grow food or other plants on it. That’s the whole story. And it’s AMAZING!

A hugel bed is a raised garden bed that is naturally, passively aerated and thus doesn’t need any cultivation (tilling or plowing or other soil preparation) other than mulching and weeding. Hugel beds hold micro-pockets of air and water underground, as the slowly decomposing wood in the center acts like a sponge. Plants growing on top LOVE it. After a rainstorm, the beds require much less irrigation for a looong time. This is a great garden bed technique for the lazy or forgetful gardener, as it is forgiving!

Here’s how it works at ARTfarm: Farmer Luca has modified the typical hugel bed stacking technique for our dry, subtropical latitude and conditions by partially burying the hugelkultur bed into a minor trench in the soil where water can collect. This low spot helps to slow runoff and erosion, conserve water and topsoil, and limits the bed’s exposure to wind and sun. Farmer Luca’s basic process involves the digging of a large, relatively shallow bed area (carefully setting aside the topsoil), the burying of the brush into the hole with that topsoil, and mulching, and it can be done on virtually any scale. Here’s the step-by-step:

  • Dig a shallow area (18″-30″ deep as you wish) to fit the brushpile you want to bury, reserving the topsoil nearby.

  • Optionally, you can line the bottom of the hole with compostable plant-based material to help slow down water flowing out of the bottom of your hugel bed. Seaweed adds essential nutrients and minerals (with an added plus – burying kills the stink of decomposing south shore sargasso seaweed!) Also effective on the bottom might be cardboard packing material, leaf litter, grass and yard clippings, or even old cotton clothing.

  • Add the brush and logs into the hole. The neater you stack ’em, the more you can fit in the bed, which is good. Stack a few inches above the original soil level.

  • Optionally, if you want to get fancy and improve the bed further you can sprinkle or layer nutrients such as charged bio-char, compost, more seaweed, coconut husks, green waste, some woodchips. We haven’t had time to experiment with this yet!

  • Replace the removed topsoil back onto the bed to bury the brush and logs. Pack the soil in well – stomp on top or agitate as you go – don’t leave large pockets of air in the bed that will erode in the rain!

  • Cover the topsoil with a thick, heavy layer of mulch – such as wood chips or hay.

  • The finished bed will be raised about 8-10″ above the original soil level.

  • Add drip or microsprinkler irrigation.

Bigger logs were used in a hugel bed we built in 2016. These logs grew some great watermelons, and are now growing peppers.

Beds can be built consecutively next to one another to create a larger hugel bed growing area, if desired. Our objective was to bury tons of wood to sequester carbon, but you can take a little more time to add even more nutrition to your bed by adding composted materials as suggested above. Think of the worms!!

To start, Farmer Luca chose areas in the gardens to build hugelkultur beds where he had observed the soil was underperforming – that is, where crops were less successful. These spots, he discovered as he excavated, had very hard, compacted clay-like subsoil. If you’re not sure how your soil is performing, you may want to choose a spot that tends to collect water, if that is an option.

The type of wood used in the bed is not terribly important, although known toxic tropical varieties such as manchineel apple are best avoided. A mix of both harder and softer wood varieties (mahogany, manjack and palm trunk, for example) is probably most effective. It’s better to use both large and small sized wood pieces (both logs and branches), but whatever you have will work. Fresh cut wood is arguably better in the short term since it already contains a lot of moisture, but it can also start growing in the bed (we’re talking about you, Beach Maho and Madre-de-Cacao)! We have mostly used old, dry wood materials and that works too. Fine material such as wood chips alone might decompose too quickly, whereas larger diameter hard logs offer a more slow-release effect over the course of years. Hugel beds are a monster sized, long-acting injection of fertile organic matter into your garden’s topsoil!

The quality of the available nutrition for plants in hugel beds change over time, tending to improve for a wider variety of crops as the interior wood composts into humus, and fungal growth and diversity inside the bed starts to really kick in. That’s yet another big win-win of hugelkulture: a biodiverse world of fungus, that create mycorrhizae, a working symbiosis with fungi and living plants, creating more bioavailability of nutrients and breaking down dead plant material. (Think kombucha or sauerkraut!) We had noticed years ago on the farm that impromptu/accidental hugelkultur beds created by the bulldozing of old brush piles with some topsoil resulted in an almost bluish-green color, drought resistance and vitality in the grasses that grew on those spots, even after the pile itself was moved away. Go fungi!!!

After establishing the first hugel beds, Luca started some simple trialing of different crops into the hugel beds with every transplant set. So every time a few hundred seedlings went into the drip-irrigated garden rows, he’d also put a few plants from that same batch into the hugel beds. The hugel plants tended to be noticeably healthier, larger and stronger, without the additional fertilizing and regular daily irrigation that the row plants got. WOW!

This finished hugel bed, with young watermelon vines, is approximately 15′ wide by 55′ long.

Crop plants that seemed to best tolerate the environment of a new, freshly layered hugel bed included pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, herbs, and peppers. Corn, sweet potato and jicama (a crispy root vegetable) were not as successful in the newest beds. Our oldest hugel beds were built during the extreme drought of 2015, and exploded with zucchini in their first year. Those three-year-old beds are now successfully supporting lettuce and brassicas like kale. (Whenever we have extra tree trimmings and a little time, we build another hugel bed.) Even more exciting, Luca has been trialing fruit trees in a few of those older hugel beds. Citrus, mango, avocado and coconut trees are so far very healthy and show robust growth.  We are especially excited about the success of the avocado, which is a variety that normally requires heavy watering and has never really taken to ARTfarm’s high-drainage, rocky south shore soil and dry conditions.

Farmer Luca uses water-conserving drip irrigation or microsprinklers on his hugel beds, so the plants do receive some irrigation in dry periods, but only every 3 – 4 days instead of daily, as the row crops require. And if it rains heavily, the hugel beds can go for weeks without watering. In our super dry conditions on the South Shore, this is essential resource conservation. So a new hugel bed made from dry woods will need a bit more irrigation, but once it gets a good heavy rain, that seems to prime the bed, and water is soaked up and maintained inside for an extended time.

Slugs and snails and termites, oh my! With all of the fantastic nutrition available in a hugel bed, of course there may be some less welcome visitors. Our experience has been that, given a bit of time, balance happens and the pest invaders leave of their own accord. Here’s what happened:

There was a period after the 2015 drought broke when conditions were very wet on the farm, and our existing recent infestation of slugs and snails (who hitchhiked here in some donated pots in 2014) started booming. These creatures were probably attracted to the hugel beds’ moisture as conditions began to dry out, and were feeding on the leaves and fruit of the crop plants. Farmer Luca stopped planting and irrigating in that bed for about six months and gave it a lot more mulch, and the problem resolved itself. As for the slimy population of intruders, they were virtually wiped out all over the farm after another year or so by another stealthy predator, possibly mongoose or night herons.

Termites seem to be the biggest fear with this technique. We have had surprisingly little issue with them except for one hugel bed that was built only 3 meters away from an existing huge woodpile with a very large termite colony that was extremely active and untreated. They built tunnels above and below ground into that hugel bed. After a few years, they disappeared from the bed. The termites did NOT affect the watermelon crop in that bed, but they probably did a lot to aerate and decompose the wood within! I might not build an enormous hugel bed right under my untreated wood house, but it seems that generally speaking we have not seen termites sprouting up in these beds despite having active colonies around the farm. In general, termites are always around whether we see them or not, so the presence of a hugel bed is not going to create termites. It might even divert them from structures! Here’s a discussion about it:

Gungaloes (large armored millipedes) are also attracted to the hugel beds, which is great because they can improve soil (much in the way that earthworms do). But they would sometimes eat the skin off the stem of very young plants, girdling and killing them. The solution was to pull the thick mulch layer back from around the seedling, and/or to put a small ring of stones around the base of the plant to protect it.

Farmer Luca would love to see agricultural researchers in the Caribbean do more experimentation and dedicated trials with hugelkultur beds. Unfortunately, since ARTfarm is a commercial production farm, we don’t have the time or staff to devote to approaching all the variables from a purely scientific method or collecting more than anecdotal data – but the early results show that this technique is incredibly productive while solving a post-storm solid waste problem at the same time.

You can read more about hugel beds here: and also here:

And if you missed it this week, here’s an article in the St. Croix Source about farmers and post-storm mulch material. Ask any farmer how they feel about all of the downed tree debris being shipped out of the territory:

Is ARTfarm Organic?

Q: Is ARTfarm food really “organic”?

A: It depends.

Luca has been farming on St. Croix to the specifications of the USDA’s National Organic Program (which regulates the certification of organic produce and farms in the USA) continuously since 1999. According to the techniques logged in our detailed farm records, we have either met or exceeded the USDA standards for the production of organically grown produce consistently over that entire period. ARTfarm in its current location is situated on pastureland that has been farmed and ranched (free of any chemicals or non-sustainable methods) continuously since the 1700s. However, we have not been certified officially by the USDA as a certified organic farm. Therefore, even though all of our produce is organically grown to USDA Organic specs, we cannot and do not legally claim that any of our products are “USDA Organic”.

MANY if not MOST small farms that fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA have chosen NOT to get certified, not because they aren’t practicing organic production techniques, but because it is a lengthy and rather expensive process that for the most part does not justify its expense. Unless you are a large farm growing commodity amounts of a crop to be sold as certified organic for use in packaged products, organic certification with the USDA is a marketing strategy. It does not change one’s farming philosophy or choice for or against sustainable techniques.

So, if a customer asks us if our arugula is organic, the answer is “officially, it is not considered organic by the USDA because it is not certified.” If a customer asks us if our arugula is grown to the standards of the USDA National Organic Program, we would say “Yes, all of our produce at ARTfarm is grown to the USDA organic specifications. We keep detailed records, we use sustainable farming methods, only when absolutely necessary do we sparingly use nonsynthetic treatments only of the type that are OMRI certified for use on organic farms. However we have not been inspected by a USDA approved organic certifying agency.”

If a customer asks us WHY we are not certified organic, we’d say, “We pursued it seriously and actively and found this: it’s incredibly expensive and not eco-friendly to fly in and house a USDA certified inspector from off island ANNUALLY, it involves reams of federal paperwork that is onerous and uses up many man-hours in labor, and we don’t believe our customers want to offset that cost in our prices. We’ve already got enough documentation chores from the local Department of Ag, and the USDA’s NRCS and FSA. We’d rather spend the time and energy growing more food. It simply does not align with our core values or the needs of our business to spend money and time getting USDA Certified.”

If a customer asks us WHY we bother to grow sustainably and organically, we’d say “We’re parents. We care about safety and want to trust that our farm is free from harmful substances. We’re artists. Organic sustainable growing is more harmonious, fascinating, challenging, and personally and aesthetically satisfying. We’re conscious humans. We care about stewarding the environment in the next seven generations and beyond. Big Ag loves to debate it, but we and the FAO think growing organically with sustainable practices is better for the planet. We’re foodies, and we agree with our customers and chefs who constantly tell us the food tastes better when you put that kind of care and love into it.”

Does it really matter if your produce is: locally grown with organic approved methods, by conscientious people you know personally, or: certified organic by a federal agency?

Our position is, yes, and no.