By T. Eric Nightingale, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
Gardening and a love for nature is on the rise these days. Many people I know would like to garden more but believe they can't because they live in an apartment or have only a small yard. That's not so. While they may not be able to have massive oaks or cultivate long rows of tomatoes, there are still many ways to grow plants.
The first task in any small space, be it a balcony or yard, is to understand the microclimate. Small yards are often protected from the elements by overhanging roofs and fences, while balconies may be more exposed to wind and rain. Study where sunlight hits your growing space. Spend a day at home watching the patterns of sun and shade as the day progresses.
Even if you have only a small yard, you can increase your growing capacity by using containers. Because they're mobile, you can “go vertical” and put them on shelving or place them in spots that would normally be impractical as a growing space. Think creatively
about where your containers can go.
Most plants, properly cared for, will do well in a container for a while at least, but they may require extra attention to keep them healthy. From personal experience, I recommend firm resolve and objectivity during the plant-selection phase. It can be easy to talk yourself into attempting to grow a cactus on a shady patio or a fern on a baking-hot balcony. In the end, both you and the plant will be unhappy with the situation.
When planting in containers, choose an appropriate potting mix. Soil pulled from your yard or garden will likely be too dense. Commercial potting mixes contain perlite and other porous ingredients that enhance aeration and drainage. If you fill a container with garden soil, the soil will settle over time and become compacted, eliminating pore space.
I have seen container gardens that incorporate old charcoal grills, rubber boots, teapots, pasta colanders and paint buckets. If it can hold soil and you can make a hole in the bottom, it can be a planter. For food production, look for food-safe containers. Certain plastics, metals and even woods may leach small amounts of chemicals. This may not be a problem with an ornamental plant, but it is undesirable for edibles. Otherwise, you are limited only by your imagination. Of course, no one will criticize you for just using terra cotta pots.
Compared to in-ground gardening, container gardening presents a few unique challenges, Plants in containers tend to need more frequent watering. Extreme weather conditions also take more of a toll. Plants in containers are more exposed and can't rely on the warmth and water reserves that soil-grown plants can access. In winter I move most of my potted plants against the house to a provide a little more shelter and warmth. Keeping them well watered and covered with frost cloth is also important during harsh winter nights.
One aspect of container planting that caught me by surprise is the issue of water quality. Over time, minerals in the water build up in the soil, sometimes to excess. This buildup is more likely when a plant is not getting thorough watering. To prevent the buildup, deep-water container plants occasionally, watching for water to flow from the bottom of the pot. This tactic will help flush out excess salts and minerals.
If you have a garden hose fed by an in-home filtration system, you may not experience mineral buildup. But if you are using softened water, you may have more problems than expected. Water softeners add salts, which quickly affect plants. One sign of excess salts and minerals in a container is a whitish crust on the soil surface.
I see this buildup in my houseplants, which are lightly watered and never exposed to rain. Poor plant health also signals soil problems. Excess salts can cause a pH imbalance, which can keep the plant from absorbing nutrients. Adding fertilizers, which contain salts, may only make the problem worse. In fact, fertilizer can also build up in containers and should be occasionally flushed as well.
Container gardening offers flexibility and the potential for creativity. It's a hobby anyone can enjoy.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will hold a workshop on “Culinary Herbs and Cocktail Garnishes” on Saturday, June 23, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at Central Valley Hardware, 1100 Vintage Avenue, St. Helena. The workshop will be repeated on Sunday, June 24, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Plant a plethora of herbs to add color and delight to your plate and to your beverages. Cilantro, basils, thymes, mints and their flowers, nasturtiums, roses, pansies, borage and calendula are only the beginning. Learn to grow these useful plants. Demonstrations and hands-on activities add to the fun. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment). To register for the Yountville workshop, call the Parks & Recreation Department at 707-944-8712 or register online.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.
- Author: Carol Glaser, UC Master Gardener
With spring still weeks away, many of us are only starting to think about planting our summer gardens. Our garden beds may be empty, but the soil is far too wet to be worked. Still, we have an itch to tend some plants and harvest something for dinner.
Growing pea shoots in containers is an easy alternative to a winter garden. Never eaten pea shoots? These tasty greens—the young, tender, leafy parts of the pea plant—are nutritious, easy to cook and rarely seen in grocery stores.
Peas can yield a rewarding crop of greens while you wait for your soil to warm and dry out enough for spring planting. Even if you have no garden beds, you can commandeer a sunny spot on a patio or balcony and have a harvest in two to three weeks. Growing pea shoots is also a fun and educational experience for children because of the short time between planting, germination and harvest.
Before planting, you need to obtain whole pea seeds. Garden stores have small seed packets for English peas, snap peas and snow peas, but you would need to buy a lot of these expensive little packets to plant intensively enough for a sizeable harvest of shoots.
Sometimes you can find whole dried green peas (not split peas) in supermarket bulk bins—Indian markets are a good source—but I order my pea seeds on line. From my research, gray sugar pea seeds are recommended for flavor, but any whole pea seed will sprout and produce greens. Seeds germinate poorly if stored too long, so try to purchase just the amount you need this year.
Now choose your container. A broad pot, tub or even a sturdy wooden fruit box will work if it is at least four inches deep. Be sure your container has plenty of drainage holes. I like to line my planter with old screen. This allows water to drain while soil remains in the pot.
You can purchase commercial potting soil or make your own. Calculate the volume of your container to know how much soil you need. You can find recipes for homemade potting soil online. Many gardeners like to have some on hand at all times.
Before planting, soak your seeds in tap water or filtered water for at least a few hours or overnight. Soaking softens the seed coat, so you get better and faster germination. Fill containers with two to three inches of soil, leaving about two inches of headspace so you can put more soil on top of the seeds. Moisten the soil so that it feels like a damp sponge. It should not be so soggy that water seeps from the drainage holes. If you overwater, let the soil dry a bit before planting.
Drain the seeds and place them on top of the damp soil. Plant them closely, with just the width of one seed between them. Cover the entire planting surface with seeds. You will harvest the tender seedlings before they mature, so the plants won't need room to develop an extensive root system. Cover your seeds with another inch of soil or compost, tamping it down gently to eliminate air pockets. Spray or lightly water the top of the soil. I like to protect my containers with a permeable row cover (such as Reemay) to prevent scratching birds, digging pests and munching insects from invading my miniature garden beds.
Peas are a cool-season crop in California. They germinate best when the soil temperature is 55°F to 65°F, the air temperature above 50°F and below 80°F. They can handle a light frost, making November through March a good time to grow pea shoots in containers. Place your containers in a sunny spot and keep the soil moist but not soggy. Seeds will most likely break through the surface of the soil within a week. Because the seeds are planted so closely, the emerging plants will lift the soil “blanket” that has been covering them. Gently break up this blanket and lightly place it around the seedlings.
Allow the plants to reach three to five inches in height before harvest. Using scissors, cut across the plants just above the lowest set of leaves. Sheared plants will continue to grow and produce a second harvest if you water them. I have found that the plants and soil are somewhat spent after that and are ready for the compost bin.
The shoots have a delicious “green” flavor with slightly sweet overtones. They make a delicate salad dressed with lemon vinaigrette and shaved Parmesan. Soups, risottos and stir-fries also welcome the addition of these succulent, tender green shoots.
Workshops: Join U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County on Sunday, February 28, for a “Garden Forum” from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Bring your garden-related questions. Do you have a fabulous flower or magnificent melon you would like to recommend to others? Maybe you have a question about fertilizer, watering, pruning, planting or simply what to purchase at the nursery. Master Gardeners will be on hand to offer research-based information and resources. Register at the Parks and Recreation Department at 707-944-8712 or on its web site.
U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will lead a workshop on “Growing Spring and Summer Vegetables” on Saturday, March 12, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Learn the requirements for success with summer vegetables from seed to starts. Topics include soil types and temperature; when to plant seedlings, how to water, fertilize, harvest and manage pests and diseases. On-line registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only).
The workshop repeats on Sunday, March 13, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington Street, Yountville. Register for the Yountville workshop at the Parks and Recreation Department at 707-944-8712 or on its web site.
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County ( http://ucanr.edu/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden
Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.