Someone asked me recently why I’m so interested in container and raised bed gardening when I could just put our plants in the ground. Well, my answer is that our soil in South Florida is less than conducive to growing vegetables successfully. Rock, sand, muck, and marl (alkaline limestone) in our area has a high pH and doesn’t retain either water or nutrients efficiently. As such, we have to amend our soil to make it more fertile; containers and raised beds allow us to take the “lemons” we’ve been given and make “lemonade”.
Preparedness and Growing Food
From a preparedness standpoint, many communities that have large populations today would be unable to sustain themselves due to soil conditions or limited space. In an uncertain world, we have to do what we can to make growing food a possibility.
Even in unfavorable conditions, raised beds and container gardening just makes logical sense. Stocking up on food items may not be enough in a long term disaster situation. Eventually, those food items will be used up and some sustainable options are needed to, at least, supplement a healthy diet.
The learning curve for container gardening, or any gardening for that matter, is steep. Placing that first seed in your garden AFTER a disaster has occurred is a surefire way to starve to death. Lessons learned will be much less painful if you experience mishaps before things go South. The word mishap does not mean mistakes you have made; there are many unforeseen natural issues that can ruin your food production. Too much rain, droughts, wind, storms, disease, and pests, are just a few that come to mind.
Preparedness: Planning a Garden
The first step in growing a vegetable garden of any type is planning. A favorite axiom of successful food growers is “right plant, right place”. Learn what grow zone you live in; it doesn’t make sense to start a banana plantation in Montana. A helpful website to find that information is at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/ . This is the first critical step when deciding what vegetables you would like to grow. Each area of our country is divided into zones and almost all vegetables have areas where they will thrive and areas where they won’t.
Container and raised bed gardens offer the best solution for many communities with soil issues. The benefits of these gardening methods are numerous and include:
1) Initial control of soil condition and type. If your native soil is poor, you can amend it with compost, natural fertilizer, manure, and other items to make it more fertile. You can control the pH with natural additives; for example, coffee grounds will decrease the pH of the soil and make it more acidic. This is useful if your soil pH, like ours, is very alkaline. Commercial products are also available such as organic azalea soil acidifier.
2) Better drainage and watering control. By drilling ¼ inch holes at the base or sides of your containers, you can control how much water a plant gets. This will prevent waterlogging and root rot. If you notice muddy soil or standing water in your containers or raised beds, you can drill more holes as needed.
3) Less weed problems, due to better control with mulch and their raised nature.
4) Better production. Container or raised bed gardens has been shown in studies to be 2-4 times as productive in growing food per square foot when compared to ordinary garden beds.
The next step is choosing your type of gardening and obtaining the supplies. There are so many choices for container gardening, and you are only limited by your imagination. Containers which do not have to be moved around should be as large as your growing area will fit, which provides the root systems lots of extra room for growth. Smaller containers can be moved to where there is enough sun or even inside in inclement weather.
Now, let’s put together some quality soil. Fill up your containers with a mix of gardening soil, peat moss or coconut coir and compost. Here is a step by step formula for my container soil:
1. Begin with 1 brick of Coconut coir, put this into a large container and begin adding water. It will start to break down as you add more water. It takes an incredible amount of water to turn it into a fluffy consistency so don’t give up, just keep adding more water until it is all broken up.
2. Then add 1 bag of ORGANIC garden soil. Mix well.
3. Add 1/2 of 5 gallon bucket (orange ones from home depot) of pine straw. This provides some air pockets for proper drainage.
4. Add as much compost( cow manure) as the container will hold and mix it all up.
5. Next, mix in worm castings. This is will serve as fertilizer and won’t hurt or burn the plants like “chemical” fertilizers!! Worm castings also adds the micronutrients that plants need to grow. If available, you can add some greensand, a good source of potassium and micronutrients.
Your primary focus is nourishing the organisms in the soil that feed the root system, such as mycorhhizae fungi. Mycorrhizae fungi are beneficial microorganisms that attach to the root system. The roots “feed” the mycorrhizae carbohydrates and in return the mycorrhizae “feed” the roots water and nutrients they ordinarily could not reach. By way of example, the mycorrhizae fungi are the truckers that go out and get the food and water and take it to the supermarket (the plant roots). The fungi also compete for nutrients with harmful microorganisms and keep their population down; this keeps your plants healthier.
Humic substances (humic acid, fulvic acid, and humin) are broken down organic matter that “store” water and nutrients until the roots can use them. It is the “storage facility” for the plant. These substances also prevent leaching of nutrients during heavy rainfall.
Mycorrhizae and humid substances are available commercially and work together to help the plant become:
More drought tolerant
Less watering dependent
More disease resistant
Here’s some advice you may have gotten in the past: Put some rocks or gravel in the bottom of your containers. Once thought to help with drainage, this has been exposed as a myth. The truth is: Those fillers will actually hinder water movement!
Fill up the container about 3/4 full with your soil mixture. Now, add and blend in a balanced organic fertilizer to the top 6 inches. It will “seep” down to cover the entire root system. This is adding the macronutrients N-P-K; nitrogen, phosphate and potassium.
N= Nitrogen is essential to proper functioning of plant metabolism. It increases the protein content of food crops and is needed by most leafy vegetables, foliage plants and grass. Nitrogen gives plants their dark color and helps the growth of leaves and stems.
P=Phosphorus is the most important nutrient in root formation, creating good fibrous root stems. It encourages blooming and seed formation, helps plants resist disease and increases the vitamin content of plants. Lettuce, potatoes, carrots, for example, require good reserves of phosphorous.
K= Potassium (in the form of Potash) stimulates flowering and makes fruit tastier by converting sunshine into starches and sugars. Tomatoes, strawberries, beans, peas and flowering plants require especially high levels of potash.
In addition to these macronutrients, also add some soil amendments with micronutrients like boron (B), copper (CU), iron (Fe), chloride (Cl), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), and zinc (Zn). This is especially important if your native soil has high pH levels, as micronutrients are less available in this situation. Conversely, the macronutrients N-P-K are less available at low pH levels.
Other soil amendments include other organic matter, such as grass clippings and green “manure” (cover crops that you plow under from time to time to improve soil fertility. Various other substances such as bone meal, blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, kelp meal and even ground-up fish (fish emulsion) are useful additions to any raised bed or container garden.
Once you have put together your soil, you are ready to begin planting seeds. In the near future, we’ll talk in detail about the best ways to plant that raised bed or container garden so as to get the highest production and quality of food.