10 April, 2011

Creative Container Gardening Nourishes Ourselves And Our Earth

(This is a reprint of an article that first appeared in LA Yoga magazine, June, 2009.  It is still applicable.)

NOTHING COMPARES WITH THE TASTE of freshly picked, vine-ripened, home-grown tomatoes. Sweet, juicy, delicious, colorful, bursting, it’s something special. Even the most organically grown, farm fresh produce isn’t quite the same as the loving care we take with growing our own food. While we may long to grow our own, we may feel constrained by apartment or urban living. By thinking out of the container a little bit, it’s possible to grow food in a very small space, even a patio or balcony. If we are creative about it, it can be an exercise in artistic living. It’s time to scrap the old mentality that has food production in containers looking like little mini-farms with Roundup-clean fields. We can cultivate containers filled with edible plants that are as glorious to look at as they are to eat.
Growing food is a project with a time commitment that gets stretched out over several months. Before beginning, it’s a good idea to meditate on why this is important in order to prevent (or minimize) any potential for the spirit to start flagging midstream.
Some popular reasons to grow your food include:
  • A feeling of freedom from the food grid.
  • Knowing this food was grown without chemicals. • Making an ecological statement that the current methods of peroleum-based food production and shipping miles before consumption is a precipice built on cheap and abundant fossil fuels.
  • And, dare we say it, love.

Plants nourish us in so many ways, yet our modern society has attempted to reduce all life to a soulless materialism based on constant consumption. A focus on growing our own food breaks the societal patterns which pull our heads in a million directions with constant messages about spending and conforming. Actually growing food is at odds with the consumptive mindset. This can force some uncomfortable decisions. When the plants need attention, do we dare choose the silence and peace of growing plants over the glitter of a night at the movies? It is important to remember the benefits of having your own garden: the taste of freshly-grown produce, and the connection with the earth and the cycles of life. These benefits are motivations to water your plants before you fall into bed countering the temptation to neglect our garden, especially after coming home exhausted after a rough day.
There’s an affirmation here, though, growing your own food, even if it’s a small portion of what you eat, makes a very direct statement, to you and to the world, of your intentional love of yourself. By enjoying food cared for with love and intention, you express your love for the planet so many people call home.

Once you have decided to grow some food, you need to realistically appraise your site. Light, of course, is very important as plants utilize the energy from sunlight to grow. The city presents some opportunities an urban farmer can exploit due to the abundance of reflective surfaces. We are told that food plants must have a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day, but that figure doesn’t take into account the massive amount of reflected sunlight that shines all around us.
North, South, East or West?
First, determine which direction the open side of your growing area faces. If your site faces north, your choices will be the most limited as your growing area will likely fall in the shade of a building most or all of the day. But look around, since a light-colored wall that gets plenty of sunshine and happens to face your growing area can reflect sunlight back onto the plants.
East-facing sites are the next most challenging. In these cases, again, look for reflective surfaces and an increase in the available light in the form of a bright building, a street or another large light-colored object.
West-facing usually makes for abundant sunlight. The South-facing direction, though, is the cream of the directional crop. However, in some city situations, West or South, combined with lots of reflective surfaces can be too hot. Still, too much sun can be solved more easily than too little sun.
Have Hope And Begin
Plants are more willing to grow if there’s hope. And the situation might not be as bleak as perceived; there may be windows of light here and there that are not readily apparent to a human (non-plant) eye. If in doubt, start your container garden with some perennial herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme or marjoram. If these hardy plants do poorly for lack of sun, it may be time to stand in line for a community garden plot.
However, if you successfully cultivate some sprigs of fresh thyme or oregano to add prana (life-force) to your cooking, then you can move on to something a little more challenging. Different plants have different light demands.

The Light Continuum

Most light-intensive
Grains: corn, wheat, rice, barley
Legumes: beans, lentils, peas
Fruits: eggplant, tomatoes, peppers
Least light-intensive
Edible leaves: parsley, lettuce, cabbage
Edible flowers: broccoli, artichokes
Edible roots: carrots, beets, radishes
Start with leaves and roots and give it a whirl. Allow the plants to talk to you in a way that informs you of their needs for sun and water.
Equipping Your Space
You will find there is not as much to buy as the gardening magazines tell you. And of the things you do need, make the conscious decision to invest in them. Tools are not the most important thing to consider. However, the container itself and soil you put in the container are both very important.
Plastic permeates our lives today. It is not sustainable and is a blight on the Earth. Use it if you must (because of weight), but do so understanding that it is not ideal. There are lightweight paper pots sold in most nurseries and big box stores that durable for three years. They eventually rot out, but they are about as fossil-free as anything else is today. And they come in a variety of sizes from small to those able to hold a large artichoke.
Found objects make great pots. The two requirements for any found object are: it can hold soil and it has a hole in the bottom to allow excess water to drain. (Drainage is necessary; please don’t kill your plants by drowning.) If the container doesn’t allow for drainage, it is not an acceptable choice. Cover the bottom hole with a piece of screen – readily available at hardware or other stores. A lifetime supply will cost about five dollars and only needs to be large enough to amply cover the hole. Do not use a broken piece of pottery, called a ‘shard,’ to cover the hole, as shards make a lovely home for snails, slugs and other plant-eating critters. The screen is a marvelous improvement.
In Southern California and many urban areas, thick containers are almost essential – like those made from wood or pottery. The sun that beats down here can raise the soil temperature in a plastic pot to a temperature very uncomfortable for plant roots. Black plastic, often found in nurseries, has killed more plants than the so-called ‘black thumb.’ Terra cotta is a beautiful and practical choice for Southern California – the properties of breathing (terra cotta isn’t completely sealed and there is moisture and air exchange that closely resembles a more normal environment for plant roots), beauty and variety of form makes it a good choice for our homes. It is breakable, of course, and for people with overactive children or animals, another choice might be more intelligent. Wood also has many of these same characteristics, but it does tend to rot over time (if it’s treated to not rot, it’s not fit to grow food!)
The container needs to be large enough to accommodate a plant’s root system – while experience will be the best teacher, a simple look at the size of the plant and its growth pattern will tell you a lot. Root plants (carrots and beets) will need much deeper pots than lettuce or any of the culinary herbs.
One last technical detail and you can plant: Soil. Do not get cheap potting mix and don’t get a potting mix loaded with fertilizer or the new ‘soil polymers.’ These are manufactured ‘beads’ in the soil that are supposed to hold water for a longer period of time – if you dig up soil that had these beads in it a few months ago, they are now gone. “Where did they go?” you might ask. They dissolved into the water around the roots of the plants and went into your food. Are they harmful? Like most new inventions, they’ve never been tested in human food. If that bothers you, make sure your potting soil doesn’t contain them.
A potting soil labeled ‘organic’ should be somewhat more expensive than the non-organic blend; if it is cheaper than the non-organic mix, be suspicious. Sand, which is a very valuable part of a good potting soil, is heavy and costs more. If the producer has substituted some other ingredient, the soil will not drain sufficiently to keep your plants happy.
The bag should also be labeled “potting soil.” Planting mix, organic compost and other bagged items are not acceptable for container plants. Soil from the local ground is not acceptable either.
A plant in a pot is not in a natural environment. Plant roots need water and (surprise!) air to be healthy. Potting soil is a mix of many ingredients that allow the roots to live happily inside the pot. Beginning gardeners will especially benefit from a lot of sand in the potting soil.
Planting Day
A tomato is a rather large plant. It needs a deep pot – imagine a five gallon bucket, the ubiquitous white plastic bucket that ships everything from paint to pickles these days. That’s about right for a tomato. But while it wants all that depth for its roots, the tomato will do very little with all the surface area of such a large pot. That space can be used for color and for more food plants. A tomato will grow to be at least four feet tall. Think about filling in the space in the pot around the tomato with something of visual – as well as culinary – interest that can please your eye as you gaze at the tomato. A perfect companion, to the eye as well as the palate, would be basil which could grow to about two-and-a-half feet tall. Then think about another plant that grows closer to the soil and could be planted beneath the basil. Oregano, in this case, would be a wonderful addition. That almost makes a pizza garden!
One could easily add a small flowered plant as well – in the city, I love to use alyssum, a small white-flowered annual that smells a lot like honey. Usually sold in white, a color which lends itself to blending with all other hues, the scent is heavenly and it is carefree and exuberant in a way that pleases the spirit. Other choices are the little lobelias that come in many different colors although they lack the same alluring aroma.
Most of us have a mental model of growing food in austere conditions that consist of only one plant surrounded by lots of bare soil. This is the image given to us by a culture divorced from nature. In truth, if you look at the real world of plants, they are all mixed in together – there are a multitude of species happily occupying the same space. Not only is it possible to mix lots of plants together, it is preferable. You will have happier plants and a more pleasing visual atmosphere on your balcony or patio.
When asked how often to water, anyone who answers “once a day” or “once a week” isn’t being accurate. That is another holdover from an industrial, mechanized worldview that simply doesn’t apply to living, growing beings. Water your plants when they need it. Stick your finger in soil to the first joint. Is it wet? Hold off. Moist? Add some water. Are you finding yourself having itchy skin because of dryness in the air? Water. Santa Ana winds blazing through the land? Water. By tuning yourself to what is going on around you in the natural world and less to what is on the radio, being able to discern the needs of your plant on a daily basis will become more natural to you.
Growing even a small portion of your food is not just healthier eating, it is a way to manifest your natural presence in a world of honking horns and concrete. It is satisfying to the soul and brings a peace beyond the simple act of looking at a growing plant. Growing food brings a person into a harmonious circle that resonates with life and nature. No one more than modern ‘civilized’ man needs that blessing.
David King is the Gardenmaster at The Learning Garden, located on the Venice High School campus. He teaches Southern California gardening at The Learning Garden and for UCLA Extension. His blog is found at: beautifulfoodgarden.com

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