One of the things I miss most about growing up in a small town is having the space to garden. When I was a kid, my dad and I planted a vegetable garden every summer and we grew squash, corn, beans, pumpkins, carrots, and potatoes. My dad is the sort of gardener who follows the directions on the seed packets to the letter. For example, when planting beans, he’d use a length of twine to create a straight line across the garden plot, then we’d go along the string with a ruler to plant the bean seeds – two in each little hole. During the summer months, I’d earn my allowance by weeding and watering. When it was time to harvest, my mum would can, freeze, or make soup out of any vegetables we couldn’t eat.
Since moving to Toronto, I’ve lived in apartments with teensy balconies or no outdoor space at all. In my current apartment, I’m lucky to be on the ground floor and have a huge back patio that gets a lot of sunlight. Last summer, I experimented with container gardening, using storage totes to hold mini gardens. I was able to grow a few vegetables, but my soil had problems with drainage and some of my plants didn’t fare so well. This summer, I improved my system by adding a layer of rocks and changing the mix of soil I use.
Here’s how I built my garden:
Plan out how much you want to grow and figure out how many bins you’ll need. In my experience, one 38L tote bin holds about four plants. This year, I grew eight cherry tomato plants, four hot pepper plants, four kale plants, as well as lettuce, string beans, and herbs – seven bins total.
Drill holes in the bottom of the bins to allow water to drain out. If you don’t have a drill, you can twist a screwdriver into the plastic to make holes. You’ll need quite a few holes, spaced a couple of inches apart.
Add a layer of rocks to the bottom of each bin, making sure there are enough rocks to completely cover the bottom. This creates space beneath the plants for your soil to drain. I used landscaping rocks from the garden centre.
Add your soil. I used a 50-50 mix of potting soil and garden soil to help boost moisture retention. For every ten scoops of soil, I mixed in a scoop of manure. After you’ve added your soil, the bins will be quite heavy.
Prop the bins up. I set the lids of the bins down, label side up, then used chunks of styrofoam (leftover packing materials from my move) to prop the pins up a few inches from the lids. What good would all that drilling be if we set the bins directly on the ground, covering the holes?
Planting time! I planted seven bins this summer: two bins of cherry tomatoes (four plants each); one bin of kale (four plants); one bin of hot peppers (four plants); one bin of beans (six plants); one bin of lettuce (one row of romaine, one row of boston); and one bin of herbs (one each of: basil, savoury, mint, and chives.) I also added some annual flowers in between my vegetable plants to give the garden a bit of colour.
After planting, I moved my garden into a sunnier part of my patio. One advantage of using storage totes is that they come with handles! For the first two weeks, I watered my garden every day. Once the plants were a bit bigger, I switched to watering every second day. Another advantage of container gardening: almost no weeding.
Within a month, my plants had more than doubled in size. Now that it’s mid-July, I’ve got fresh tomatoes, kale, lettuce, peppers, beans, and herbs ready for picking. :)