In a perfect world, every home would have an ideal spot for a vegetable garden with plenty of sun, loose rich soil that’s not too dry and not too wet, and no weeds.
If you find that Eden, let us know, because it doesn’t exist in our yards. Debbie deals with limited sun and acidic clay soil. Carol has dry sandy soil and rampant wiregrass. And neither of us is the proverbial spring chicken any more, meaning that stooping, heavy digging and bending can lead to sore backs.
There’s a creative, easy and beautiful solution: Containers.
Plastic and terra-cotta pots are fine, but think beyond those and you can give your yard a boost with plantings that are both attractive and edible. Container gardening is also more friendly to those with back problems or arthritis.
Almost any size or shape item will work – if it will hold dirt, you can grow in it. Try rusty red wagons, worn-out wheelbarrows, galvanized metal washtubs or wooden barrels. Still have rectangular plastic recycling bins around? Those are great for growing leafy greens, carrots or beets. Remodeling? Save that old bathtub for gardening. Carol has even planted herbs in old pairs of galoshes.
Baskets – hanging or on the ground – can be lined with layers of newsprint before adding potting soil. Old cookware that can’t be saved would be interesting for kitchen gardens.
A Washington State University study advises against using pressure-treated landscape timbers near food crops, suggesting these alternative materials for building raised beds or vegetable containers: untreated cedar, redwood or juniper; lumber treated with copper and boron rather than arsenic and chromium; synthetic lumber made with recycled plastics or rubber; or concrete blocks.
Before filling nonporous repurposed containers with soil, sterilize the interiors by misting with a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach. Then rinse with plain water and add a layer of paper, coffee filters or used fabric softener sheets to keep soil from escaping through drain holes
Exposure to full sun can superheat metal, so place metal containers where some shade is available.
Any container you use must have drainage holes. Use a drill or awl to add several if the container doesn’t have them. You’ll know if there are enough holes if you see water flowing out after watering or rain.
Glazed ceramic and containers made from nonporous materials, such as metal or plastic, retain moisture longer than unglazed or porous ones.
Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. If you don’t have that much in one place, use lightweight containers and move them when necessary.
Match the size of the containers to how much space the plants’ roots need. Leafy greens can grow in soil as shallow as 12 inches. Taller plants need deeper containers.
When choosing plants, experiment with combinations of colors and sizes of vegetables. Approach each container as a colorful and interesting showpiece for seating areas or walkways. Use vegetables to add color and texture in containers of ornamental trees and shrubs. Try colorful salad greens, multicolored Bright Lights chard, and bluish-green Dragon kale.
For help in planning your container garden, N.C. Cooperative Extension offers a chart with planting and harvest times at http://nando.com/11f.
In the kitchen
Containers are important in the kitchen, too The right kind of storage in the right location helps cooking staples stay fresh longer.
Airtight containers kept in dry places prevent things like flour and sugar from attracting insects. Cornmeal can be kept in a container at room temperature, although some artisan stone-ground companies recommend the freezer or refrigerator to maintain freshness.
Experts say that keeping coffee, either whole beans or ground, in the freezer or refrigerator causes it to lose flavorful oils faster. An airtight container at room temperature is best.
Debbie cringes when she sees people storing bottles of dried herbs in racks above the stove. The heat and light from cooking will cause them to lose flavor more quickly than if they were stored in a cupboard or drawer in a cooler spot.
To keep their full flavor, extracts and flavorings should be kept away from direct light and heat as well.
Some cooks like to use containers as decorating statements, matching their canisters to their appliances or some such thing. Debbie considers ingredients beautiful on their own and uses clear plastic airtight containers – which also makes it easy to see when you need more.
Dried beans are particularly attractive on display. With their varied colors and sizes, they start you thinking about what to cook just by looking at them. Keep this bean soup mix in a glass jar in your kitchen and – like the container gardens in your yard – you’ll have something pretty to look at and delicious to eat. It would make a nice alternative to a bouquet of flowers as a hostess gift, too. The recipe is adapted from one in “The Great Vegan Bean Book,” written by Durham author Kathy Hester.
Reach Carol Stein and Debbie Moose at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Win a copy of “Edible Spots & Pots: Small-Space Gardens for Growing Vegetables and Herbs in Containers, Raised Beds, and More,” by Stacey Hirvela. To enter, send email by 5 p.m. Saturday to email@example.com with your name and address. Put “Book drawing” in the subject line. A winner will be chosen by random drawing.
Indian Red Lentil and Split Pea Soup
To prepare the soup mix for storage or gift-giving, use a clean and dry 1-pint jar with a screw top. Alternate layers of split peas and lentils, about 1/4 cup per layer. Screw on the lid. Place the spice mixture in a small recloseable plastic bag, and attach it and the recipe to the jar. Adapted from “The Great Vegan Bean Book,” by Kathy Hester and Renée Comet (Fair Winds Press, 2013).
6 tablespoons dried minced onions
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 cup dried red lentils
1 cup dried green split peas
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
COMBINE the dried minced onions, garlic powder, ground coriander, ground ginger, turmeric, brown mustard seeds, chili powder and cumin in a small bowl. Set aside.
BRING 10 cups of water to boil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. When the water is boiling, add the spice mixture, lentils and split peas. Stir. Return to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour or until the lentils and split peas are tender, and most but not all of the water has been absorbed. Stir a few times near the end of the cooking time to prevent sticking. Taste, then add salt as desired.
Yield: 8 servings.