Contain Yourself: Veggies Fresh off the Patio, Balcony, Deck or Porch – The Pilot


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A garden is a commitment. Containers are fun.True, the method suggests ornamentals – mini-evergreens, seasonal flowers – but some edibles do well in containers. So instead of “Honey, please pick up the salad stuff at the supermarket on your way home,” try shopping the patio for staples like tomatoes and exotica, like herbs.To befriend herbs, grow them in pots, then experiment. Choosing chives means a bonus; lovely violet flowers crown tall, deep-green stems. Or, for almost instant gratification, scrape cantaloupe seeds into a pot of soil. Before you can say “vine-o-mite” up spring the leaves.
Hilarie Blevins, the container-trainer in the landscape gardening program at Sandhills Community College, will conduct a free workshop on container gardening on March 25 (see box). Blevins’ subject is ornamentals but her experience, shared here, includes veggies.First, the containers. Nothing wrong with big clay pots although almost anything with generous drainage holes will do. Weathered tin buckets and basins look smashing as do tall aluminum or spatterware stock pots found at Goodwill and tag sales. Same for wooden (except pressure-treated) boxes and crates. A row of identical varicolored plastic waste baskets from Dollar (and a quarter) Tree liven porch stairs or railings. Surprise the neighbors with a stake dripping cherry tomatoes emerging from a tall rubber boot. Or, invest in large footed planters for the deck; sweet peas today, pansies come fall.“Experimenting is the fun part,” Blevins says.Pots should hold plenty of rich, fertilized soil, especially for tomatoes, which require high soil volume. Don’t economize by filling the bottom few inches with stones, Blevins advises. Investigate organic using organic seeds, OMRI-certified soils and fertilizers.

Hilarie Blevins displays a container garden of ornamental plants. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Most container gardeners start with plants although less-expensive seeds work fine if pots have a sunny, warm location – perhaps against a south-facing brick wall which acts as a solar collector. The seed packet will estimate germination time. Kids are notoriously impatient to see tiny green shoots emerge. For speedy gratification Blevins recommends cukes, radishes and squash.Blevins suggests starting seeds or plants inside, then transferring out after about April 10, unless a late frost is predicted. Pots are easier to protect than raised beds.
Ornamental and edible may be separate classifications; however ornamental isn’t edible but edible can be very ornamental, especially red, yellow, orange and purple peppers, also baby orange or white eggplant, some wearing stripes or tiny polka dots. Zucchini begin with blossoms to fry or stuff but know that only female blossoms produce fruit. Flowers simply fall off males after pollination, a lesson in botanical husbandry.Pots of colored peppers and variegated eggplant interspersed with yellow, orange and red cherry tomatoes look festive with minimum effort considering the dual reward.Warning: Seed/plant catalogs can be addictive.Make herbs the centerpiece of your container caper. Everybody grows Italian basil for pesto. Go beyond with lemon, Thai or cinnamon basils. Feathery dill adds flair to ordinary chicken, egg or tuna salad. Cilantro’s a must for tacos and burritos, also some Asian preparations. Rosemary explodes into a veritable bush, while fresh or home-dried sage and thyme guarantee a memorable turkey stuffing.Warning: Fresh herbs can be addictive, too, especially in this simple yet sensational salad dressing: Put a handful of assorted fresh herbs along with some chives or scallions in the blender. Cover with best-quality olive oil. Pulse until herbs are finely chopped. Add salt, pepper and more oil, if necessary, for pouring consistency. Let sit for an hour, add fresh lemon juice, buzz again and sprinkle on lettuce until it glistens. Try brushing this pungent mixture on salmon or bland chicken before grilling.As for those glossy skinned eggplants, slice lengthwise if small or crosswise into half-inch thick rounds if medium. Brush cut sides with the same herbed oil. Grill until tender alongside burgers. Place on toasted buns, add condiments and watch the carnivores turn green with envy.For elegant hors d’oeuvres, thread just-picked cherry tomatoes and storebought baby mushroom caps onto short skewers. Brush with herbed oil and grill until browned. The ultimate finger-food appetizer: mini-peppers in several colors, sliced lengthwise, seeds removed, cavity filled with veggie cream cheese moistened with a drop of hot sauce, topped with a small shrimp.Kids love to grow spuds in plastic buckets. To harvest, simply upend the bucket.Seeing is believing. The unsung collateral of container gardening is watching plants sprout practically overnight, grow day to day, finally harvested for a meal fresh from the earth in minutes, not miles.

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