Container Gardening, Part 1

High-Desert Gardening by Lesley Aine McKeown

There is so much satisfaction in picking a ripe tomato from your own garden.

Nurturing the young plant, the smell of the earth, rising every morning to water and inspect the growth, watching as your plants grow strong and flower with the promise of beautiful fruit — all this lures gardeners year after year to till their patch of soil and begin the cycle again. For many this is not innate or a skill learned from a gardening mother or grandmother. But the urge is still there.

This series is meant as a guide through the growing season here in Prescott for those who would love to garden but have yet to make the leap due to intimidation or uncertainty about what to do. For many the challenge is simple: space. This is where container gardening comes in. Containers offer a solution for those of us with space and time constraints, and can be every bit as gratifying as a full-scale garden.

Step One: Identify where you want to put your garden. Most garden plants and herbs require at least six hours of full sun per day to mature properly. In Prescott we have a fabulous growing season, but June can be a scorcher for young plants. Tomatoes tolerate the heat quite well, but pepper plants can suffer. Plan your container placement accordingly, or consider putting pots on small rolling stands so you can move them out of the afternoon sun.

Step two: Containers. You have a lot of options when choosing a container for your plant, and size is the first consideration. If growing tomatoes, choose a pot that holds least five gallons. It's best not to use black or metal containers, as they can heat the roots. Plastic five-gallon buckets, plastic muck buckets from the feed store, fabric grow bags (these tend to dry out quickly and you'll need to water more often), wooden planter boxes, and ceramic pots can all work fine.

Whichever you choose, it's important that there are drain holes in the bottom. Many pots come with punch-out holes, if not you will need to drill several holes.

A vertical garden is an excellent way to maximize space, and is fun and attractive. There are many vertical options, including pillar tier gardens, hanging felt pocket bags, and wooden boxes. It can be fun to arrange your containers in groups, such as an Italian theme with basil, tomatoes and rosemary! Adding flower pots to your grouping can add color, attract pollinators and deter pests. Marigolds, borage, nasturtiums, lavender, chamomile and cosmos are just a few good candidates.

Step Three: Soil, Soil, Soil. The soil you choose for your container is the single most important part of a successful garden. For container gardening it's doubly important.

I prefer a good organic potting soil, which has a higher variety of nutrients than regular potting mixes. Do not use yard soil in your containers, it tends to compact and won’t drain properly. In preparing your soil you'll need to mix organic, granular fertilizer into the containers from top to bottom before planting.

Place a paper towel in the bottom of your pot to prevent the soil from spilling out. Don't use rocks, they can clog your holes as the soil packs around them.

I like the fertilizers below, produced right here in northern Arizona by Sweet Corn Organic Nursery. You can order online with free shipping at, and they offer a wide range of fertilizers, a vegan selection, live seedlings and seeds!  

MegaMator - Organic Fertilizer for Tomato Plants  

MegaVeggie - Annual Soil Amendment for Vegetable Gardens  

MegaSea - Water Soluble Seaweed Powder

Step Four: Select your plants. Choose plants that are suited for growing in containers. Ask the garden attendant if you're not sure, and check the attached list (facing page). Healthy, strong plants are the key to growing in containers. Our local nurseries Native Garden, Mortimer’s Nursery and Watters Garden Center all carry organic plants started right here in Prescott.

Choose plants with single straight, thick stems and healthy, dark green leaves. I prefer hearty heirloom varieties. But be sure to choose one that doesn't need pollination (some cucumbers and squashes do not self-pollinate). Ask which plants will work for your garden project.

Step Five: Water! Water your container plants thoroughly. How often depends on many factors, including weather, plant size, and pot size. Don't let the soil dry out completely, as it's hard to rewet. To keep large containers attractive, spread a layer of mulch on top, as you would in the garden. I use a layer of chopped straw in my garden, which comes in plastic bags from the feed store and are easy to store and handle. This will also help retain moisture. Be sure to keep the mulch an inch or so away from your plant stems.

Finally, a note about planting your food plants: handle them with care. Do not plant in the midday heat, which can stress the young plants. Tomatoes should be planted deep, with dirt covering most of the stem. The stem hairs are fragile, so try not to damage them in handling, they are future roots and will sprout when covered with soil. Water your plants after planting and be sure not to let them dry out as they settle into their new homes!

Next month: Fertilizing, caring for your new plants, pests and pest-control, and companion plants. Till then, happy gardening!

Download handy tomato care instructions

Lesley Aine McKeown has been gardening organically in the Arizona high country for 42 years.

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