There are many reasons to make gardening a part of your life: to add beauty to your surroundings, to benefit the environment, and to promote relaxation and reduce stress. And as we all try to be healthier, growing your own produce (and herbs) is another advantage of getting down in the dirt. Read on to learn how to set up a container garden and get started on your way to better living—right in your own backyard. (Limited space works fine, since your container and/or raised bed garden can be as big or small as room permits.) As in anything worth doing, becoming a gardener takes practice—and there is a learning curve. According to Payne’s Nurseries (Santa Fe) Manager Tom “TJ” Jones, gardening should be fun and experimental—he advises doing your research but also finding out what works or doesn’t work for you. He says that he has worked in the garden business for almost 43 years and continues to new techniques and best practices.
What is a Container Garden?
As you may imagine, a container garden is created in a “contained” space. It could be a raised bed (such as a wood box), clay pots, plastic containers, barrels, some people even use milk crates. One thing to keep in mind is the size of the container versus what you are planting. For example, Jones recommends just one tomato plant for a 12-inch pot to avoid overcrowding and plant failure. It is also important to consider a plant’s root depth—tomatoes will need 18-to-24 inches in depth. (Read the planting instructions carefully to avoid disappointment!) However, with chiles Jones says you can plant 4-5 plants in one 18-inch pot. Another thing to consider is portability. If you believe you will want to move the plant in the future, keep the container light (that is why plastic is a good option.) Also herbs usually can share close space. You also can consider adding flowers into the mix. “I mix chile plants with marigolds for nice color and as a pest prevention method,” explains Jones.
Location, Location, Location
A very important consideration is garden placement—which relates directly to what you intend to grow. Is your garden going to need full sun for plants such as onions, peppers, leeks, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and most herbs like rosemary, basil, and mint? Or will you plant partially shaded produce such as peas, lettuce, and cabbage. Partial sun means at least 4-5 hours of sun per day but best in the morning in order to New Mexico’s harsh afternoon and late day sun. You may find you still need to create some sort of shade protection even for those plants deemed full sun. Also keep in mind the dreaded New Mexico wind—this is important. Perhaps you can find a more sheltered space along your home’s exterior. One option is to use burlap or shade cloth (a bit pricier) around plants along with some sort of built up cage (to lessen injury to plants) to combat wind. However, only utilize the wind protection on the windy side, don’t completely wrap the plant! And it is a good idea to attach top-heavy plants to something to keep from blowing over.
It is recommended that you use potting soil for your container garden and not dirt from your yard. Why? First because of notorious New Mexico weeds and, second, because our soil contains a high percentage of clay, which is bad for proper drainage. So give your garden a good start with a quality potting soil. Also don’t forget to include some sort of fertilizer on your shopping list to boost organic matter and help your plants thrive. A good rule of thumb is to feed your plants every 2-3 weeks. You can go with granular fertilizer or water-soluble fertilizer. The first is sprinkled onto the dirt and watered, while the other is mixed with water and sprayed on. “The most important thing about fertilizer is to follow the directions and not overfeed,” cautions Jones. One option is a slow release granular fertilizer called Osmocote, which makes the process easier and is long lasting.
The Shape of Water
“Watering is an art,” says Jones. You can’t just set a schedule and forget it, he explains. You need to test each plant for moisture and learn its requirements—because all plants are different. Jones uses the second joint of his index figure as a test gauge for moisture. “Stick your finger in the dirt; if it comes up moist, no water is needed. If it comes up dry, go ahead and water.” And with his plastic pots, he uses two fingers to lift the edge of the pot—if it moves easily he knows it is time to water. It would be reasonable to expect you will need to water your plants several times a week. As plants develop a more substantial root system, they will need even more water for survival. Of course, monsoon moisture will play into your watering cycle.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid using pest control methods if you see no evidence of pests. Examine your plants for aphids, caterpillars, squash bugs, etc. and be sure to always check underneath leaves. If you find just a few critters, rub them off with your fingers. However, if you see an infestation you need to take action. Insecticides are created to do one thing, kills pests. Although some people have an issue with them, they are often a necessary part of gardening. Jones says to never use vinegar on plants because it will kill them. And avoid using a systemic insecticide (one which attacks through the roots and spreads throughout the plant) on edible crops—it can hurt animals and other people who are unaware of the usage.
Timing is Everything
Root crops (carrots, radishes, onions, garlic, etc.) can be planted in early spring as well as cool season crops like lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach. Warm season crops like peppers (hot, bell, jalapeños), eggplant, squash, and tomatoes must be planted after the hard freeze—usually after May 15 in New Mexico. (There is slight variation between zones in New Mexico. Urban Farmer has a terrific vegetable planning calendar per NM location to help you plant at just the right time.) Herbs also do well when the soil warms up, so wait until late spring for that as well. The germination period will depend on the care and cycle of the plant. Some plants will continue to re-grow throughout the season, while others will only have one harvest. When you remove the veggies and herbs use care, so that the rest of plant can continue to grow. Also, if you want red chiles, don’t pick your green chiles! If you allow them more time to grow, they will turn into red ones.
Remember, with a little education, sweat equity, and perseverance you can grow a container garden and enjoy the fruit (or veggies) of your labor. There are many fine nurseries with helpful staff ready to help you get your garden started. Here’s a list to consider:
Agua Fria Nursery (Santa Fe)
Jericho Nursery (ABQ)
Newmans Nursery (Santa Fe)
Osuna Nursery (ABQ)
Payne’s Nurseries (Santa Fe)
Plants of the Southwest (ABQ and Santa Fe)
Rehm’s Nursery (ABQ)