Photos courtesy of Naples Botanical Garden

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No-Fail Tips for Starting a Container Garden at Home

The horticulture manager at Naples Botanical Garden shares how to start your own garden, so you can feel close to nature while social-distancing.

The pandemic has most of us spending more time indoors, which can be tough on our bodies and minds. Humans naturally crave and need to connect with nature to remain physically healthy and mentally sharp. It’s no surprise, then, that during this time many people are turning to gardening as a hobby. 

Planting gets us close to nature, allows us to grow our own food and flowers—and, fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get started. Over the past few weeks, the Naples Botanical Garden crew has been sharing tons of green thumb ideas through their Stay Planted series. They got us feeling inspired to start planting, so we turned to horticultural manager Elizabeth Beans for guidance. 

Think you need a ton of acreage to start your own garden? Think again. Beans says the easiest way to start planting is with container gardening. That means empty cans and cartons will do the job. Here, Beans shares everything you need to start a container garden, using materials you likely already have at home.

 

Getting Started  

If you live in a high-rise with no access to your own plot of land, a small container garden is going to be the way to go. Beans recommends using an old coffee tin, a bucket, a soup can or even an egg carton for planting seeds. 

Once you select your container, you’ll need to make drainage holes. “Take a drill bit and drill four to five little drainage holes in the bottom,” she says. This will help prevent overwatering. 

If you have some acreage to work with, Beans suggests making your container garden out of leftover lumber or sections of a chopped tree. The planks can be used to wall in an elevated plot of soil, preventing water runoff. 

What to Grow: Flowers, Food or Both?

The answer is both. Many varieties of flowers and edible plants thrive in our subtropical climate. Beans rattles off a list that includes tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, mangoes, herbs, marigolds and native salvia and Blue Daze flowers. Most fruits and vegetables grow best during a specific time of the year, so Beans says to first research the varieties of the item you’re looking to grow to make sure it will survive the season. Also look for plants that come in dwarf varieties, which make caretaking much easier if you’re living in small quarters. 

Growing Fruits

Summer is primetime for growing fruits, which thrive off the sun and showers. In sunny Florida, many fruits are year-round options. Beans adds that scientists have also bred fruits to adapt to different climates, so some varieties, like mangoes, will produce fruit into the winter months, too. 

For her fruits, Beans likes to use a fish emulsion fertilizer, which is organic. She says you should always read the label to determine what’s best for the plant, as well as how much fertilizer to use.

You’ll want to be mindful of watering these plants. Fruit trees and bushes will need more and more water over time, as growing roots and additional soil will uptake the water quickly. They should also be planted to receive full sun.

Beans warns against planting citrus trees for fear of citrus greening, a disease that infects the trees and their fruit by stunting growth and ultimately inhibiting their ability to take in nutrients. There is no cure, and the quality of the crop diminishes. “Your plant is going to be a vector for the disease and you’ll end up spreading it,” Beans says.  

Growing Veggies

Fair warning—vegetables are going to be hard to grow in the summertime. “Our growing season for veggies is the winter,” Beans says. “The sun and heat are less intense, and humidity is not as high.”

Still, you have options. Tomatoes might still produce a couple rounds of juicy orbs before the summer gets too hot. Others like hardy sweet potatoes and herbs like rosemary, basil and chives, will last through the summer and be ready by fall, she says. 

To create optimal growing conditions for your veggies and herbs, you’re going to want high-nutrient soil. Beans recommends a mixture of half potting soil mix and half compost. Place veggies and herbs under full sun, and water the plants when the soil is dry. 

To figure out when you need to water your plantings, stick your finger into the soil to feel if it’s wet; if it’s not, add water. Another sure sign—if your veggies are starting to droop over, they need a drink. 

Be sure to plant your veggies along with flowers, which attract bees and other pollinators. “If you’re going to have your veggies in a container, you’re going to want pollinators,” Beans says. She recommends planting native varieties like salvias and coreopsis (tickseed) to the same container or in another container near the veggies. She personally likes to plant marigolds, which double as a natural pest deterrent. Lastly, she recommends using a granular fertilizer.

Long-Term Care

Over time, most fruit trees and bushes will need to be repotted, which is why it’s important to consider a dwarf variety if you’re unable to easily repot a large plant. As long as vegetables are in a large container—roughly 1 foot across in diameter—they should be fine. If the plant started as a seed, you may want to move it to a larger container as it grows. 

Beans reassures that you won’t have to fret over plant care after the crisis subsides and you’re spending less time at home. Just check on them when you get home after work to see if they need to be watered. Otherwise, simple daily interaction will reap a rich reward. Happy planting!