Fool proof patio gardening

Grow fabulous fresh patio tomatosI have a black thumb. It is a shame, as I grew up around wonderful gardeners. My father and grandparents kept wonderful flower and vegetable gardens. My father even had a small backyard corn field. The produce was wonderful; I was spoiled for the goodness of it for much of my early life. 

I will never be another CZ Guest. I am no fan of soil and sun. But, the cook in me is tempted to explore patio gardening, as I long for the fresh garden tomatoes of my youth. So I went to the experts at Burpee for basics on patio gardening. They assured me in this wonderfully-informative interview that it is possible for anyone to learn to grow vegetables in a small space for a very modest investment of time and money.
CZ Guest: style maven, socialite, horse woman, fashionista, and garden expert.The recent shortage of tomatoes, as well their sky rocketing prices, should make this a must read interview for anyone who longs for a warm, ripe garden tomato.
DD: Is it possible to grow more than window-sill herbs on a small balcony? Can a beginner grow tomatoes or anything else in pots on a small balcony?
BE:  Yes. Thanks to advances in breeding, a variety of vegetables, herbs, and lettuces can be grown in containers and small spaces.  These varieties are bred to be compact, making them ideal for pots and patios. A few examples include Burpee’s Patio Princess tomato, which is a nice slicing tomato for sandwiches, Cucumber Spacemaster, which has short, hardy vines and great tasting cukes and a new tomato from Burpee called Cherries Jubilee. This is a sweet cherry tomato that produces an abundant number of mini-cherry tomatoes — up to 500 from one plant.

DD:  What kind of pots and soil work best for a balcony garden – and how do you prepare the pots for planting?
 On average the pot should be 18 to 24 inches high, about 15 to 20 inches wide.  Be sure to use one with holes at the bottom to promote good drainage.  You don’t want the roots to rot from too much water sitting in the bottom of the pot. 

Look for an organic potting soil, available at most garden centers.  When adding it to the container, be sue to use a spade to loosen it up. You want to make sure that the soil is loose and airy for good drainage and air circulation.  If the potting soil does not contain a fertilizer already mixed in, you can add a good quality organic fertilizer, using your spade to work it into the potting soil.

DD: Is it better to start with seeds or little plants?
BE:  Both seeds and plants are equally good choices.  Some people prefer plants because they don’t have a lot of space to start seeds indoors.  Seeds are a little less expensive, so gardeners with the room to start their seeds indoors often go the seed route to start their garden.

DD: Are some vegetables easier to grow than others?  Tomatoes from the garden are so delicious, is possible to grow them in pots? Is it difficult?
 Yes.  Some veggies are more difficult to grow than others for gardeners in certain areas of the country.  If you live in the NE and have a short growing season, you’ll want to avoid certain vegetable varieties that take a long time to mature.  Simply because the growing season isn’t long enough to sustain the plant.  To avoid this, check the seed pack to find out the days to maturity and make sure that the last and first frost dates in your area have enough days in between to allow for full maturity of the particular plant.

If you have a short growing season for example, and want to grow tomatoes, you are best to select an early maturing variety.  This is one that matures faster than other of its kind.  One example of this is Burpee’s Fourth of July tomato.  It is ready to harvest 49 days after the being planted.

Tomatoes can absolutely be grown in pots.  For best results, you should select a variety that is compact and/or is labeled as being "good for small spaces or containers.

Tempting little ripe tomatoesDD: Do you need to fertilize or feed your plants? Is there a book or chart to tell you when to do it, and how to water the plants so you don’t kill them?
Feeding plants is important.  However, it is equally important not to feed them too much or too often.  The best advice comes from the label on the fertilizer you use.  Follow the suggestions for the amount of fertilizer to be used and the frequency of application.  More is not better.  The info on the label is solid advice based on numerous garden trials and research.  Remember, if you prefer not to fertilize regularly, you can select a slow release fertilizer that delivers nutrients into the soil slowly over time.  These come in 3, 6 and 9 month formulas.  Also, it is best not to add fertilizer to a potting soil that already contains fertilizer in it.  This could be an overdose; you could end up killing the plant.

DD:  How do you protect plants from predators and disease? Even non-gardeners hear about tomato blight. And I imagine that little veggies and fruits would be tempting to birds and squirrels. It’s all a bit daunting. There must be some gardening tricks to save beginners and their plants.
BE: There is not much you can do for certain diseases like tomato blight.  Using heavy chemical pesticides and fungicides is also not a good idea since you will eventually eat the produce.  Plus, it’s just not eco-friendly.

The folks at Burpee keep their kitchen garden pest-free by using hand-held spray bottles full of water to remove pests, and also remove some pests by hand.  Remember too, some insects are beneficial.  Killing them all with a pesticide is not always a good thing. 

Another good tip: water the plants’ roots and not the leaves.  Water sitting on the leaves can encourage diseases.  Focus the stream of water right down near the roots.  Water will be used more efficiently that way too.  In our trial gardens at Burpee, we use a drip irrigation system that deposits water into the soil where it can efficiently reach the roots.  Such systems are available for home gardeners, but they aren’t necessary unless the garden is a relatively good size.  For small gardens and container gardens, simply take the extra time to focus the water from the house at the base of the plant so it soaks into the roots. Spray a slow stream of water that soaks into the soil to prevent runoff and wasted water.

Birds, squirrel and deer can also be a problem.  There are a number of organic products on the market that are designed to ward of such creatures; many use scent to deter them.  These come in liquid sprays and tape. 

DD: What edibles grow well together? Are there any that are foolproof for beginners?
BE: The best thing to remember with all plants is to make sure the growing requirements for all that you are grouping together are the same.  For example, they all require full sun and well-drained soil, or they require shade and moist soil.

A few plant edibles that make nice pairs in small spaces and containers include: herbs and edible flower-like nasturtium as well as lettuce varieties and violas.  These are two easy-to-grow combinations that work very well together.

DD: How much do you need to spend to set up a modest garden of one to three pots. Is it possible to actually produce some fruit or vegetables from all this first-timer effort? 
BE: Absolutely.  The best advice is to start small.  Try growing a patio tomato or two, and a couple of containers of herbs and lettuces.  Be sure to pick vegetable varieties that are "heavy producers" since you will be growing only a few plants.  Cherries Jubilee is one good example of such a high-producing plant.  Also, try growing herbs and lettuces that withstand heat.  Burpee’s heatwave lettuce is one example of a heat tolerant lettuce.

The cost to do this would depend on a number of factors.  You could go the high-end route spending loads of money on decorative containers — some more than $100 per pot — or you could purchase very inexpensive plastic containers for a couple of dollars apiece.  You can also save money by starting plants from seeds.  A pack of Cherry Jubilee seeds costs $4.95 compared to an order of three plants for $12.50.  There is not a whole lot of difference between the cost of name brand and generic potting soil. 

Remember, the cost-savings of growing your own produce compared to buying these edibles at the supermarket is extraordinary. Burpee found through a 2008 cost-analysis study that there is a 1 to 25 savings ratio for home-grown produce over store-bought.  There are extra savings too, if you compare organic homegrown foods to the cost of store-bought home grown foods.  Plus, home grown/locally-grown foods are better for the environment and they taste much fresher than store-bought produce. That’s because in many cases there is a matter of weeks before store-bought produce actually makes it to the dinner table.