Have you been thinking about growing some of your own fruits or vegetables? Fresh foods taste so much better and can save you a ton of money. Gardening doesn’t have to take a lot of space or time (especially if you learn from my mistakes). Here are some tips for getting started with plants you can grow in pots or a grow box on your patio.
What To Grow
Our first year trying to grow our own vegetables was a disaster. I don’t know why, but we planted cucumbers and zucchini. They started to grow out of control and produced a lot of flowers, but little fruit. I read that I should try pruning the plant so that more of its energy could go to growing the fruits. But I didn’t know exactly how to do that, so I ended up pruning it back too much. We did get a couple of cucumbers and zucchini out of it. Then I remembered, I don’t even like cucumbers or zucchini!
The next year, we focused on fruits and veggies that are easy to grow and that we actually enjoy eating.
We eat a lot of tomatoes in our house. We buy them weekly to make fresh salsa and pico de gallo, and I love them in salads. So why not grow them ourselves? There is no comparison between store-bought and fresh off the vine tomatoes.
The first thing you will need is a cage for your tomato plant. They grow very tall and cannot support the tomatoes themselves. The cage allows the fruit to ripen and not pull the plant over.
The first year we tried to grow large slicing tomatoes. It did not do well at all. We only grew a few small tomatoes that were more core than flesh.
The next year we tried cherry tomatoes. The plant grew over 6 feet tall and produced hundreds of tomatoes! We have also had good luck growing roma tomatoes (the kind we buy at the store), they are smaller and produce several times during the growing season.
Just like tomatoes we also eat a lot of jalapenos. They are very low maintenance and very easy to grow. When we started our garden this year we purchased a new plant to replace our dreary yellowing one from the previous year. I was removing the old plant and noticed that it wasn’t looking as bad as I thought. So I planted it in a separate pot to see what it would do. It has improved in appearance and is currently producing two jalapenos and sporting another bud!
I never knew that a jalapeno plant could survive the winter (we live in a very hot climate and have mild winters), but as long as it is in a container or pot and not in the ground it will do fine until the next spring.
Just like jalapenos, bell peppers are very easy to grow in a plant box or pot.
We wanted a smaller tree that we could grow in a pot, so we decided to get a key lime tree. It does very well in a pot on our back patio and has produced a lot of fruit. It currently has a few limes growing but they aren’t quite ready to be picked.
We needed lime juice for making pico de gallo so we picked one up at the supermarket. When at the register it rang up as $0.41 not the usual $0.25 for one small lime! I couldn’t believe it had almost doubled in price. Needless to say we put the lime back and can’t wait for our little limes to ripen.
Tip: When the limes are ripe, we keep them in the freezer until we need them. The same can be done with lemons
Our brother-in-law had a small pineapple plant the he had grown and it produced pups (or new plants from the “mother plant”). He gave several to us and other family members. We planted two of them in pots on our patio. One produced fruit the next year.
Since pineapple plants are bromeliads they only produce one flower and fruit, but the pups that grow will produce fruit themselves. The other plant fruited the next year and had several more pups. We then planted the new pineapple plants in our front flower bed and hope to have several pineapples each year. They are the best tasting pineapple I have ever had!
The top of pineapples also can be propagated into new plants. Pull the top off as carefully as you can. Peel a few layers of leaves off the bottom until you can see little nodes that are growing out of the stem. These will turn into roots for your new plant. You can plant this right in your pot or you can grow the roots out by placing the stem in water. Then plant in the ground or pot.
Strawberries are fun for the kids to grow. We have two plants that we grows in pots. They weren’t growing very well and producing little fruit. We had made the mistake of putting our pots where there was no direct sunlight. We moved them into the sun and they are doing much better this year.
Fresh basil is a must in our house. We use it for caprese salad and homemade tomato sauce. I was buying a few bunches in the produce section for $1.99 when I noticed a potted basil plant (also in the produce section) for $2.99. I promptly replaced the bunch of basil back on the shelf and purchased the plant. I was able to use much more from the plant at a much lower cost than buying bunches that would go bad if not used right away (basil does not freeze well).
Tips for Growing
When starting your vegetable garden, you may want to check out the website of the nearest university with an agriculture department. Many of these programs have great on-line tips about what grows well in your climate.
Local botanical gardens are also a great resource. Many offer classes on gardening, and are happy to answer any questions.
Regardless of your climate, here are some general tips to keep in mind.
Seeds versus Transplants
When starting your garden you can grow everything from seeds or buy seedlings that you transplant into your container or garden. We have never had any luck growing from seeds. The seeds we planted would grow great until they were about 3 inches tall and then would die. We have had much better luck with transplanting seedlings (i.e., young plants).
Grow Box and Supplies
If you don’t have a lot of space to grow a full garden in your yard, a patio raised garden bed grow box is a great compromise. We have used our 20 x 24 inch box for years with excellent results. It was purchased at our local home improvement store for $28.97. It has just enough room for a large tomato plant (which requires a cage, $3.87) and two smaller plants like jalapeno and bell peppers (which don’t require cages).
Once you have your grow box you will need to fill it with potting MIX ($6.97 for 40 Qt.) leaving 2 inches to the top of the container. This is not potting SOIL so make sure you read the label carefully.
Add a thin layer of garden lime or dolomite ($5.48 for 6.75 lbs.) and spread evenly. Fill the rest of the way with potting mix. Add fertilizer ($4.98 for 3.5 lbs.) and mix top layers of garden lime, fertilizer, and potting mix. Plant your seeds or seedlings and cover with mulch ($2.50 for 2 cu. ft.).
Total cost $52.77. After this initial investment we have only repurchased potting mix and new plants. We still use the same garden lime, fertilizer, and mulch after 4 years.
I use the same potting mix for 2 years before changing. You do have to add a new layer of garden lime and fertilizer every year before replanting. Add them into your container and mix with a new top layer of potting mix.
Fertilizer will provide nutrients for your growing plants. Always read the label to make sure you are adding the correct amount. Too much fertilizer can harm your seedlings or get lots of flowers with little fruit. Make sure the fertilizer has all 3 numbers between 5 and 15.
Better yet, skip buying fertilizer and mix your top layer of potting mix with compost from your compost bin.
The grow box comes with a plastic sheet to cover the box and keep moisture in. I did not use this as it was very hard to position properly over the box and then cut holes for the plants to grow. I simply covered the container in regular wood mulch. At the end of the growing season this mulch has usually composted and just needs to be mixed back into the top layer of potting mix.
Checking for bugs
Every year I go to war with the hornworms on my tomato plants. They will eat their way through your tomatoes and plants until you don’t have any for yourself. I am opposed to using insecticides on foods that I am going to put in my body. So I just look over my plants daily and remove any worms I find munching on my tomatoes.
Last year we had a large beetle problem. They got to most of my jalapenos. I ended up throwing more out than I got to keep. I had never had this problem before and I am already seeing a lot of beetle again. I am going to add the jalapeno plants to my daily bug patrol!
For years we thought about growing our own fruit and veggies. But we were worried that we didn’t have enough room, didn’t know what we were doing, and were afraid of wasting money on the start-up costs. But in reality it has saved us so much money on the produce we buy every week. Plus, after eating freshly grown products, you really can taste the difference.
What tips do you have for growing produce?