Container gardening can be a rewarding experience for apartment dwellers, aspiring gardeners and green thumbs who want garden-fresh produce but are limited by land size.
"You can grow several varieties of herbs in the same pot, keep (them) by the back door and pinch off what you need," says Laura Kolba, the primary container gardener at Mackey's Orchard, Route 519 in Belvidere.
But container gardening requires more care than just sticking a plant in a pot and watching it grow.
Beverly Hoyer has been inside Buzas' Greenhouse on Newburg Road in Easton since her parents started it in 1961. She says choosing a pot to plant needs to be a calculated decision.
"Sometimes they'll see a pot they really like but it's not the right shape or not enough soil volume," Hoyer says.
She recommends vegetables be grown in plastic containers because they are better at retaining water. Herbs such as rosemary and thyme do well in clay pots because of breathability and the material's ability to release extra water.
Know the root span and the plant's projected size at maturity before choosing a container.
"People want to put tomatoes in small containers," Hoyer says, when they should be in a 5- to 7-gallon pot.
Hang 'em up
For decorative hanging baskets and containers -- pair wisely. It is necessary to know how far the foliage and roots will spread.
Hoyer says crawlers like sweet potato vines will choke out all other plants in a container. Mint is known to take over wherever it is planted.
"The biggest mistake is people buy plants at different rates of growth. You want to buy plants that grow at a similar rate," Kolba says. Fast-growing plants may take over slower variations.
Soil and drainage are critical to prevent rot and to keep plants hydrated. Hoyer says a coarse soil works for drainage.
"You cannot use garden soil unless you amend it," Hoyer says. "It gets like concrete in a pot." She says a potting soil that drains well is best. Hoyer says if you use the right potting soil, there also shouldn't be any worry of weeds. In the long run, shoveling dirt from the ground may cost you more in failed plants.
Some flowers or plants prefer shade to sun, or vice versa. If using the plants for decorative purposes in a specific area, know the sun level of the spot before buying plants.
"Vegetables and herbs need sun," Hoyer says. "Inside is tough. I wouldn't recommend it. They also need a lot of air." Hoyer recommends putting pots on a patio.
Vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and lettuces will do well in containers, but some will not. "Cucumbers need cool roots. They don't like to be hot," Hoyer says. She recommends those types of plants for the ground.
Water and fertilizer
Watering is crucial. Hoyer says daily watering is required, especially as plants get larger. Hotter summers require watering twice a day.
Kolba has worked at Mackey's Orchard in Belvidere for 15 years and helped to start the greenhouse six years ago. She says watering is the pitfall of container gardening.
"If you ever let a container plant dry out completely, it will never come back," she says. This is especially important for containers on wood or concrete surfaces, Kolba says.
Hoyer recommends granular and slow-release fertilizers for container gardens and reminds customers that vegetables need more than herbs.
Timing is everything
Container gardens are held to the same planting rules as ground gardens.
"You don't gain a whole lot of time," Hoyer says of planting early. Tomatoes and peppers will sit with a greater chance of rot, especially without proper drainage.
Hoyer's daughter Julia, who helps to plant ready-made container gardens for sale at Buzas', says the best guide is to monitor "whenever the nights consistently stay above 50 degrees," despite the May 15 benchmark some gardeners use.
There is help
"A lot of it is trial and error if you are just starting," Hoyer says.
^ Contact community colleges for gardening classes.
^ Find tips and resources through county Cooperative Extension offices.
^ Visit local greenhouses. Let them know where you are planning to plant, what container you're using, what colors you are looking for in terms of decoration or what vegetables you would like for your favorite recipes. When those people come in and don't know where to start, Hoyer says, "we take them by the hand."
^ "Tips For Container Gardening" by the Editors and Contributors of Fine Gardening (Taunton Press, $19.95).
Reporter Tiffany Bentley can be reached at 610-258-7171 or firstname.lastname@example.org.