September 26

Organic Container Gardening for Beginners

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Organic Container Gardening: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

What is Organic Container Gardening?

Organic Gardening: Growing plants in a way that is regenerative, renewable, sustainable, and intended to conserve soil, water, health, and the environment as a whole. 

More specifically, organic gardening does not utilize pesticides, herbicides, synthetic ingredients, septic sludge, ionizing radiation, or bioengineering. 

Container Gardening: Growing plants in enclosed containers, such as pots, boxes, bowls, or any other form of container, rather than directly in the ground. You may container garden inside or outside.

Why Should You Start Organic Container Gardening? 

Why Garden Organically?

Organic gardening can be summed up into three little words: “nature knows best.” 

Organic gardening puts more thought and emphasis into feeding the soil to be healthy, rather than centering all focus on the plant. Healthy, natural soil that has all of its needs met and a functional life cycle is working hard beneath your plants’ roots. 

Not only is organic gardening better for the soil and the environment as a whole, but there are also many benefits for you, the gardener, as well. 

According to this review by The Soil Association, organic food contains higher levels of Vitamin C (27% more), magnesium (29% more), iron (21% more), and phosphorus (14% more) than conventionally grown food. Organically grown foods also have somewhere between twenty and forty percent more antioxidants than traditionally grown foods. 

Why Do Organically Grown Foods Contain More Nutrients?

A study by Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources also proved that organic foods contain more nutrients. But why? 

Co-author of the study, Charles Benbrook, reasons that organically plants make more beneficial antioxidant compounds (such as flavonoids and carotenoids) in order to survive diseases and insects. 

Traditionally grown plants are sprayed with more synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. The farmer does the majority of the work for the plant. 

Organically grown plants have to overcome these obstacles on their own. These plants are being eaten by significantly more hungry bugs. As a result, organic plants have to create more antioxidant compounds to save themselves. 

And because organic plants are given smaller doses of fertilizer, the plants grow slower, and sometimes their finished produce is smaller than commercially farmed produce. This means that the resulting organic food is much more nutrient and flavor-dense. 

Why Garden in Containers?

Containers allow you to do four incredible things with your garden.

  1. Hand-pick all of the soil that your plants and food will be grown inside. You control everything about your food’s growing conditions. 
  2. Grow plants inside your apartment or house. If you don’t have access to an outdoor garden, you can still grow your own food. 
  3. Grow plants in a condensed, ultra-efficient space. Plant in trays on shelving units, hang your little garden in baskets from your curtain rods, scatter your garden in terracotta pots all throughout your home, or plant in boxes inside or outside of your windows. You can also buy or make raised garden beds for your balcony or patio.
  4. Create a safe environment for your garden. You can bring your plants indoors to protect them from frost, inclement weather, heavy winds, hungry animals, and even pests and diseases. 

Supplies You’ll Need for Gardening Organically in Containers

  • Small containers for starting seedlings. Egg cartons, take-out containers, pie tins, tin cans, and other small reusable containers all work fine. Of course, seedling trays and tiny terracotta pots work too. 
  • Large containers for growing more mature plants. Pots, garden containers, window boxes, coffee cans, bowls, buckets, and any other containers that hold soil and water are good enough. 
  • Potting soil. We’ll discuss this in-depth in just a moment. 
  • Watering can. Use a watering can, a hose, or even a cup. 
  • Hand weeder shovel. You can always just use your hands, but this tool is nice to have. 
  • Hand weeder fork. Same as above, optional, but handy. 
  • Fertilizer. Will discuss in-depth below. 
  • Seeds, or Started Plants. More on this in a moment too. 

Organic Gardening Containers

Raw terracotta pots and unglazed ceramics are my preferred style of pots because they aerate the soil, wick away moisture, and are the most earth-like option. Unglazed pots, however, are more fragile, do not stand up to freezing temperatures very well, and require the plants to be watered more frequently. 

Glazed terracotta and ceramic pots hold more water and do not allow for as much airflow, but on the upside, they tolerate frost better. 

Plastic and metal containers do not have any airflow, their drainage is minimal to non-existent, and they are frequently made with toxic chemicals. Their main benefits are their affordability and durability.  

Organic Container Gardening Soil and Potting Mixes

You can purchase ready-to-go organic potting mixes or potting soil in bags or by the truckload. 

You can also create your organic mixes. There are hundreds of recipes online, but the best recipe that I recommend for beginners is this:  

  • 50% organic soil.
  • 50% high-quality organic compost.

If your mix is staying too wet for too long, add sand or perlite. 

If your mix is too dry, add some compost or peat moss. 

If you want lightweight gardening containers that are easy to carry, consider going soilless. Here is my favorite soilless mix recipe:

  • 50% Compost.
  • 50% Perlite or peat moss. 

It really is that simple. 

Organic Seeds and Plants

Be sure to look for USDA-certified organic labels. You do not need a special seed for container gardens, organic is all you need to look for. You also don’t need to look for special plants for container gardens. 

If you want to seed-save so you can grow more plants, look for heirloom labels as well. 

Starting from seeds is a cheaper alternative; purchasing seedlings or small plants is less work. Both options are valid and reasonable. 

Pay close attention to the lighting needs of every plant species you purchase. 

Organic Fertilizer

You may purchase ready-made organic fertilizer or make your own. 

Homemade fertilizer is cheaper, but I will warn you, the stink is real! 

Comfrey (it’s an herb) is a standard homemade fertilizer. 

Nettles, borage, or seaweed are also great solutions. 

You can also make liquid fertilizer by soaking organic compost or aged manure in a bucket of water for two weeks (obviously, I don’t recommend this option to my apartment-dwelling friends) and then further diluting the fertilizer with more water until it looks like a light-colored tea. 

Another option is to mix one part of urine with forty parts of water. While unconventional, it is instant, sterile, and has a healthy dose of nitrogen and potassium. 

Lighting Solutions for an Indoor Organic Container Garden

If your plants don’t receive adequate lighting they will become ‘leggy’, meaning they are too tall, weak, thin, and unhealthy.

If your container garden is going outside, it likely doesn’t need any help with light. 

If will be gardening inside, and you have a lot of natural lighting and can place your plants in south-facing windows, you may not need artificial lights. 

If you do need some form of supplemental lighting, here are your options:

Fluorescent

These lights are energy-efficient, relatively cheap, pretty bright, they last a long time, and put off little heat. Fluorescent lights work for low to medium-light needs plants. High-light needs plants such as tomatoes and squash will not thrive nor bear fruit under this lighting. 

LED

These are very bright and efficient. They are less affordable than fluorescent but more affordable than HID. 

High-Intensity Discharge

This is the very best option, with the brightest lights and the most efficient use, albeit they are the most expensive form. Greenhouses and serious gardeners rely on this light source. 

How to Plant Your Organic Container Garden

While you can absolutely plant your garden inside, it can be a little messy. Take your containers outside to plant them, throw down a tarp or trash bag in your kitchen for easy cleanup, or even take them to your bathtub for a no-fuss planting zone. 

First, mix your planting mixture, or add the premade soil to your containers. 

Next, read the labels of your seed packets or seedling tags to determine the plant’s light and space needs. Container gardens generally do not need as much spacing between the plants as traditional gardens do. 

As a general rule of thumb: 

  • A ten to twelve-inch pot usually holds three or four plants.  
  • A fourteen to sixteen-inch pot usually holds five to seven plants. 
  • A sixteen to nineteen-inch pot typically holds six to nine plants. 

Now you’re ready to plant. 

For seedlings, follow the packet instructions for depth and spacing. 

For plants, follow their tag instructions, and be sure to shake off excess soil from the roots, tease the root system out a bit, and tap out any air bubbles that may occur after being replanted in their new container. 

After planting your seeds or seedlings, water thoroughly and move the container to its new location. 

Do not add any fertilizer at this point because the seeds are too weak for it, and your seedlings are in too much shock already from the transplant. 

Wait about six weeks before you begin adding fertilizer to your organic container garden. 

How to Water Your Container Garden

Place saucers (or trays or plates) underneath your containers with drainage holes, so you don’t ruin your floors. Remove and empty these saucers after your plant is finished drinking. Or move your hole-y containers outside or to the bathtub when you water them. 

Consider bottom watering your plants if possible. To do that, place their container in a larger bowl or your bathtub with a few inches of water, and let the soil soak up water from the drainage hole at the bottom. 

If your containers don’t have drainage holes, be more mindful of how frequently you water, and use a little less water when you do water. 

If you have a lot of indoor plants, consider purchasing a tiny hose and attachment designed for your bathroom or kitchen sink faucet. It makes watering very quick and efficient. 

Of course, a simple watering can or drinking glass suffices too. 

How to Organically Combat Pests

You have several options here.

  1. Keep your plants indoors at all times, not opening screenless windows.
  2. Handpick pests off your plants as you see them.
  3. Release beneficial insects to eat the problematic ones (ladybugs are amazing aphid-killers). 
  4. Use barriers and traps to stop the pests. 
  5. Water and fertilize properly, healthier plants can fight off pests much better than stressed, dehydrated, or malnourished plants can. 
  6. Purchase natural and certified organic sprays. 

Conclusion

Organic container gardening is a fantastically ethical, sustainable, and healthy gardening option.

It is surprisingly easy to do, affordable, and space-efficient, so everyone can participate in organic gardening, especially those in apartments. 

Give it a try for yourself; you’ll love the process and results. The fruits of your labor have never tasted sweeter. 


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