When I mentioned Cindy's idea of a gardening-for-dummies-type seminar, several people in the comments said, "Yeah, me too!" My favorite biker/lawyer/knitter/spinner, put it very well yesterday:
So, here's the thing. Is there an equivalent in gardening to giving a
spindle and a little roving to an interested, but non-spinning friend?
Digging raised beds, starting seeds, etc. seems like buying a
non-spinner a wheel and a dirty fleece to start out. Can I buy a
tomato plant and put it in a container on my deck? Can I start a seed outside, tomorrow that will still grow enough in the time remaining in the summer to result in food?
What about a starter-gardening post for the interested but scared and non-confident?
The answer is yes, yes, yes, and YES. What a very fun project for me. I promise to take all the scariness out of it for you, and I know that commenters will come in and help with their suggestions, too. We'll start very small. Your harvest will be small, but it might just be enough to get you hooked on growing your own food. And that's a very, very good thing.
Since Claudia's request is for container gardening, and since many people have expressed lack of space as one of their concerns, we will make the project about containers or raised beds. But by all means, if you have good native soil and have a place prepared, you can use that, too.
There is still time to grow some things this year in most parts of the U.S. I'm a cold-season (zone 3) gardener, and that's really all I know, but most principles will be applicable to you, too, I believe.
First I'll assign some homework to you (and to me, too, since I'm going to be doing it along with you). We'll get something planted before the weekend is over -- I promise.
1. Find your location. Vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day. Some can do with VERY LIGHTLY dappled sun, and some can do with a bit less than 6 hours. I grew the most mondo beets I've ever grown last year, purely by accident. They were next to the house, east-facing, where I'm quite sure it does not get 6 hours of sun a day. We had some excess compost that we didn't know what to do with. We dumped it near our deck. That part of the yard gets morning sun only, and deep shade the rest of the day. I watered my houseplants on the deck often, and I had some seeds that, unbeknownst to me, had fallen out of a seed packet and been washed into the pile of compost. I saw what I thought were Swiss chard seedlings starting to grow in the pile, so I didn't move the pile because I didn't want to lose the "Swiss chard." I kept on watering my plants on the deck and the excess would conveniently water the "Swiss chard." The leaves were GINORMOUS. One day I went to cut some "Swiss chard" from there for dinner, only to find that they were not Swiss chard after all, but GIGANTIC beets. One beet made a pint of pickled beets, that's how big they were, and they were perfect. Beets can get woody and not-so-good-tasting if not given the right conditions, but these were perfect. So that just goes to show you that you don't always have to play by the rules. Another thing that does well in dappled shade is lettuce.
So choose your location. Ideally you'd like to shoot for 6-plus hours of sun a day.
2. Choose your container. If you have 3 feet by 3 feet of space and want to go my new favorite route, build yourself a bottomless box (just a frame; NOT pressure-treated wood) that is 3 feet square, or order one of those plastic raised beds like I have. Unless they're horribly back-ordered, you will still have time to plant some things and eat them before summer is over. If you don't have that much space, and want to try something smaller, get a container, any container. It needs to have a drainage hole in the bottom, and ideally it should be 8 inches deep and wide enough for a decent amount of planting space. It can be an old whiskey barrel or wash tub that you get at a garage sale, a large plastic or clay pot -- round, square, oblong, or rectangular -- that you get at the Home Depot or Wal-Mart, or it can be a fancy self-watering container.
One thing I have learned: If you buy the best tools, you will have easier and better success, which will encourage you to keep on doing it. I got my mom a Tomato Success Kit for Mother's Day on the recommendation of Manise. EXCELLENT choice. You can really plant a lot of stuff in one of those (it can be other stuff besides tomatoes), it's got everything you need including soil and organic fertilizer, and it's self-watering. Well, that is a bit of a mischaracterization. You do have to water it every once in a while. But it has a large reservoir that holds a lot of water, so the plants get a nice measured, consistent supply of water through a wicking mechanism. Plants respond extremely well to that. I got the optional casters for my mom, which I think makes it that much more versatile -- you can roll it around easily on your deck.
3. Get enough very good potting soil for your container. I prefer that you use a nice organic mix from your local farming or gardening center, but if that's not available near you or you want to use Miracle-Gro mix from the K-Mart, go right ahead. No judgments here. It'll work either way. The idea is to get you started and to make you feel successful.
4. It's up to you if you want some gardening gloves to protect your manicure from getting dirty and a little scratched up. A small gardening trowel is good, but not essential, especially if you're planting seeds. If you need to dig anything, which you probably won't much in a pot, you can even use an old spoon.
5. Choose what you want to grow. You are a bit limited by the size of your pot, but there are few other limitations. Here are some ideas for you, with caveats and recommendations.
Tomatoes. You should probably choose a plant that is marked "determinate," or if it's not marked, ask a gardening helper to direct you to one. A pretty fail-proof and delicious tomato that is an example of a determinate tomato is Big Boy. Determinate means there is a specific size it gets, and no bigger. Indeterminate tomatoes are wonderful and varied, and I grow a lot of them, but they get taller than I am before the summer is over. They're slightly unwieldy in a pot, and they need a lot of support, but you can still do it if you have a place to tie them up and give them support. You'll get anywhere from three, like my neighbor (who basically leaves them to fend for themselves) to 20 or more tomatoes (like I do) off one plant. If you would prefer, buy a cherry tomato plant. These are especially suited to container gardening, and they fruit almost all summer. Very handy to just grab a few tomatoes each day for your salad or eat right off the vine as they ripen. Buy one or two tomato plants, depending on the size of your pot. The Tomato Success Kit holds two plants.
Swiss chard. There's still plenty of time to plant these (from seed) and have them grow into some lovely greens by mid-summer. Buy one packet of seeds.
Beets. I grow several sowings of beets each season, so I know there's definitely time for more of these. Buy one packet of seeds. I love Detroit Dark Red.
Zucchini or summer (yellow crookneck, for example) squash. These are very easy to grow, will do well in a large pot, and love the heat. The plants get BIG, though. So you'd need about a 3-foot-square area for them or one of those half whiskey barrels, for example. Buy one packet of seeds, but you'll only need 2 or 3 of the seeds.
Lettuces or mesclun mixes. One variety of lettuce that does well in summer heat is Romaine. There are also some mixes that are labeled "summer lettuce mix" or words to that effect. Go for it! Also, summer mesclun mix. Provencale mesclun mix. These are all interesting Euro-style greens with some bitter greens mixed in there, like curly endive. Buy one packet of seeds.
Beans. Either pole beans or bush beans. To get enough beans to feel like you've got a couple of meals out of it, I'd recommend reserving this for a spot at least 3 ft. by 3 ft. For pole beans, you'll need to buy some sort of -- yes -- poles. They climb. You can buy something like my bean towers, but you don't have to. Long bamboo poles or birch branches from your yard, or whatever, formed into a teepee shape. Make it tall. You would want a 6- or 7-foot pole. Otherwise, you'll be a tad disappointed, I think, because your pole beans will want to be much taller than a couple or three feet. Buy one packet of seeds.
Cucumbers. (OK, I know Claudia just went "ick," but I bet it's because she's never had a fresh-off-the-vine cuke) There are bush cucumbers available at gardening centers, and I've had nice success with them. Again, you'll need probably a 3-foot-square area for one. Or you can buy regular cucumbers and a trellis of some sort to let them vine up. This is another vining plant. Buy one packet of seeds.
Arugula. Fast to sprout and easy to grow. Adds a nice peppery touch to a sandwich or salad. Buy one packet of seeds.
Onions. This is a super-fun and super-easy one. Go to a garden shop or a Wal-Mart or even many hardware stores, and ask for onion sets. Get a small bag of them.
The point of this project being not to overwhelm you, I will stop there. If you have a favorite vegetable you'd like to try, shoot me an email and ask me if that will work. If I know the answer, I'll let you know.
Claudia asked that I discuss keeping critters away. I do not have much experience with that. Where I grew up, we had no problems, and here I have very few problems with that, too. But I will show you what I think might work with pots. When you're shopping for your homework, you might want to pick up some chicken wire and wire-cutters. I think we can fashion an easy wire cage around your potted garden. This might not do much for deer, but it will work for rabbits. I bet you there are lots of people out there who have more ideas, too.