Container gardening for the Rocky Mt region

david52 Zone 6August 6, 2011

I have a large, 'regular' garden, however I've found I have better results with some plants in containers. So I thought I'd post my experiences with this.

I live at 7,000 feet altitude, with a 90-100 day frost free growing season. Night time temperatures are at their highest now, about 50 - 55 F, day time temps in the 80's, low 90's, but most of June is 40's, low 80's. What this means is that the soil temperatures don't warm up until mid july. So its a challenge for warm weather plants. I'm trying to take advantage of a microclimate on the west side of the buildings where it gets pretty darn hot every afternoon. The best way seems to be containers. I drag these out doors the first week of June.

The economics of it all. These containers are a combo of $4.00 Walmart wonders, old nursery tree pots, and a few fancy wicking ones from Johnny's. Most are well over 10 years old. I do see some UV deterioration, I've had to toss few over the years. In the front of the array are some 4' by 4' by 3' "window boxes" where I do basil, cilantro, herbs, one here has green onions, something I will not repeat. Not shown are 4 large tree pots where I have okra growing this year, 4-5 plants per pot, those are on another west side of a building.

I recycle the potting soil, year after year. In the early spring, I dump it all out on the concrete porch, smash the root mass, pull out the big bits, then add several bags of compost and a shovel or two of dried pond muck for the trace nutrients. What happens with the potting soil is the organic matter, usually peat, breaks down, leaving the structural elements - the perlite, bits of sand and gravel, etc. intact. Mix it all up again, shovel it all back into the containers and off we go.

In this picture, there are 6 pots with one eggplant each, the tall foliage in the left, behind a row of peppers, there are a dozen-so pots with 3 pepper plants in each. I've got another half dozen scattered about the place.

I fertilize them with a combo of Miracle Grow - use the acidic plant one for the peppers - and 'compost tea' made simply with a shovel of compost inna bucket, soak over night, then water them. I've only done that twice this season - seems to be enough.

For results - I'm picking my first eggplants today for lunch. I've already picked 2 dozen fully ripe 'Gypsy" peppers and the plants are all loaded - jalapeno, JImmy Nardano, a hot Hungarian something. With the egg plant, I'll pick 5-6 per plant. Peppers, I dunno yet, but its going to be at least 3-fold what those in the garden produce. These pepper plants are already twice the size of the garden ones, and they were the smaller plants to begin with. For the okra, out of 4 pots and 15 plants, I'm already picking handfuls every time i think to check.

The only real difficulty is in watering - too much, you drown the roots and stunt the plant. Not enough, the plants wilt and are stunted that way. So right now, I'm watering them all once every three days with about 3 qts each pot, and there are a few outliers on both extremes.

The same bug issues as the 'regular' garden apply - aphids, spider mites, etc, This year, I'm lucky and haven't had any problems worth noting.

I've tried cucumbers and tomatoes as well. Meh, not so great. Thats likely because of a poor choice in varieties, not the technique.

Theoretically, I can bring the pots indoors for the first few frosts and keep them going. I usually don't bother because by that time, I'm overwhelmed with produce from the regular garden and getting tired of the whole thing. The exception is basil, oregano, and rosemary, which I'll save and nibble on over the winter.

Anyway, its kind of fun if you have the time and patience. If you recycle the potting soil, it is economical over the course of a few years - it wouldn't be if you replaced the soil every time. And you can produce significant amounts of stuff in a relatively small, micro-climate space.

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highalttransplant(z 5 Western CO)

Thanks for sharing your container experiences with us, David!

I always have lots of containers of annuals on the front porch, a few will do really well, some will be stunted or ratty looking. They are on a southern exposure and require watering almost daily throughout the summer. They would do better if I would remember to fertilize them occasionally, and if I could keep the grasshoppers out of them.

As far as edibles go, my results have been pretty much the opposite of yours this year. I have two Earthbox's, which I've tried growing tomatoes in but had issues with blossom end rot, and didn't get much of a harvest. I've also grown peppers in them. Usually, the plants get huge, and are very productive. This year I didn't order the potting mix/fertilizer replant kit from them, and tried to recycle last year's potting mix, adding to it like you do. My results have been horrible! It held way too much water, the plants turned yellow, and lost most of their leaves. When I realized what was going on, I removed the black plastic covers to let the soil dry out. The plants are starting to look better, but I doubt there is enough time left this season to get much of a harvest from anything in those containers.

Obviously my skills at making a homemade mix are not as good as yours : ( Yes, I've read through those posts on the container forum, but most of the ingredients in that guys formula aren't readily available where I live.

Meanwhile, after recovering from the ridiculous winds we had this spring, the in ground pepper plants took off, and are loaded with pods.

I tried the okra in containers last year, after having no luck with it in the ground, and the plants did well. The only problem I had was there was only one container with 3 plants in it, so I never had enough at one time to actually do anything with it.

With my limited space here at the house, containers are a great way to increase my harvest, if I could just get the mix right ...

    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 1:17PM
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david52 Zone 6

I don't do that container forum mix for the same reason - I can't get any of that stuff. So what I have is a mish-mash of what ever 'decent' potting soil is on sale each spring, this past year I threw in a bale of that Sunshine Pro mix that Skybird talks about.

Again, the trick is in Goldilocks watering - not too much, not too little. Those wicking pots from Johnny's work pretty well, just fill up the bottom. But those pots are pricy at $15 a piece - but they are well made and will last forever.

Here is a link that might be useful: link

    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 3:04PM
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Dan Staley

That's cool David. I make my own Self-Watering Containers and the only ones left the BH lets me keep are the 5-gal buckets. Cost me about $7 to make. I'd like to use Turface in my mix - planted a tree at Coors Field for the Rockies and the trees out there LOVE IT!!!!!! - but won't pay the shipping. Instead use pine bark fines.

I've grown in containers for over a decade and IMHO OK for some things. Still can't get potatoes to go & mainly stick with tomatillos, toms, peps. I use them for summer squash-zuke to keep production in control. Trying 'Butterbush' for first time in one. We get tons of those 25-30 gal tree containers so lots of volume available.

I think if I could get mine to look as good as yours, I might get a couple more containers around here...


    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 5:58PM
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I am at a little bit of a loss regarding container size. Surely, there are personal preferences and I'm not trying to make trouble - "gotta be this big of a container and no smaller!!" I'm just curious what seems to have worked for you, David.

Are you saying that the individual eggplants are in 14" pots?

After back-to-back near record cool springs, I'm getting a little discouraged as a pepper/eggplant grower. The peppers certainly are stunted by the cool temperatures most every year - there is no doubt in my mind about that. They come thru but not very well.

After the potato bug devastation of 2010, I'm afraid that I will have ZERO eggplants this year because of the cool conditions early in the season. SAD. . .

I've got lots of peat moss every spring - storing 300 dahlia roots in the stuff will do that. This year, I think I found a decent bagged "top soil" that wasn't 80% bark. I have a number of pots of rosemary and such using about 1:1 soil:peat with perlite thrown in. Nutrients were added to the mix by using Whitney Farms organic fertilizer. This worked fairly well.

I hasten to say that tiny seedlings were not started in this potting mix. These were plants that were potted up to larger containers. I have also made a mix using my own top soil. I'm sick of that. Not only do I have toooo many rocks that I am NOT going to screen out using anything smaller than 1/4" hardware cloth but I'm never going to find soil without weed seeds! So, it is too heavy and too weedy!

The bagged topsoil I used in 2010 was junk but the NuLife topsoil seemed acceptable in the mix in 2011. I never quite know what best to do with all the peat moss and can't risk using it again for storing the dahlias.


    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 8:12PM
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Interesting to read about your methods and results. Although I've gardened for 40 plus years I really never used containers till 2 years ago. This is my 3rd growing season with them. So far I've mainly grown tomatoes in them. Have one pepper plant in a container this year. Last year was better than the first and so far this year the plants are looking good for what they are and as late as I planted most of them. Due to the drought and my current work situation I only have plants in 11 containers. I use the 25-30 gallon feed tubs. I can get all I want for free from about any farmer/rancher around here who has cattle. They work well. I've grown in smaller containers. My personal opinion is the bigger the better and I would want at least a 5 gallon for even a smaller type tomato. I know several growers who have good results in ten gallon containers. I recycle my mix like you do. This year I added some HuMore compost and a little of the organic fertilizer I used this year. I tried a product from Fox Farms called Happy Frog for tomatoes. I've been impressed with the results. I also mixed a little in around the top and will again around Sept 1st. My plans for my container plants is I will move them from the partially shaded area they are currently in to full sun as the temps cool and then on into my lean to I put up and hope to extend my season 4-6 weeks. Some of these plants will be just starting to produce I figure about the time I move them inside. One thing I've found here in our heat that David don't have a problem with is the containers and especially the black ones will get real hot and even cook the roots. This year I put straw bales around the containers and also mulched the top well. I can tell a big difference even in the extreme heat we had this summer. I've used several potting mixes. I prefer the Ball mixes. I don't use potting soil. I have mixed in some manure compost before from my pens, some pecan hulls and some leaves if I have them. But this year it was just the HuMore mixed in with what was in there except the last 2 which got some Soil Mender I had handy and wanted to use up.
Bonnie and anyone else growing okra in a container. I wonder how Stewart's Zeebest would do in a container. It is a big bushy plant so one to a container would be plenty. And one of them will usually out produce several regular plants. And a good eating variety also. In the garden I space them 3-5 feet a part. Jay

    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 11:20PM
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kvenkat(5a Colo)

My favorite aspect of container gardening - portability. With the awful winds we had this spring, I was grateful that I could move all my pots up against the house.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 1:16AM
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Just a 2 cents, no expert here. I'm in Wheat Ridge, not foothills, so no elevation excuses. I container garden on my northfacing deck which mostly gets full sun in the summer, and in my southfacing courtyard which because of the shape of the house, gets full sun in increments of 4 hours as the sun crosses the sky. I have good tomatoes and a beautiful eggplant going on the deck, besides flowers and basil, just a good jalapeno in the courtyard. Soil is whatever nice potting soil I find mixed with compost, manure and leftover soil from last year's pots. Fish fertilizer works well, and I've been using Gardens Alive fertilizer this year as well. The yard is too shady with too much wildlife to grow veg's, so the bulk of my gardening is at a community garden nearby. But we all have to have something at home, don't we?

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 9:45AM
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david52 Zone 6

Steve, I put one eggplant in those 14" pots due mainly to the leaf size/stem structure of the eggplant - the things get big enough that one plant overflows that diameter and shades everything else. I suppose, theoretically, if I separated the pots out on 3 foot centers, I could put in three plants in each and let them over-hang way out, like an over-sized ice cream cone. In contrast, 3 pepper plants seem, at least so far, to be fitting in nicely, because they have smaller leaves.

Jay, I'm pretty sure you can use white acrylic paint on black pots. I dunno if that would reflect enough heat or not. That Fox Farm stuff is great, but here, its $18 a bag - which makes for some very expensive peppers! But I will sure use again it for starting the pepper seedlings off, I've had the best results with this, by far.

That wind protection thing is another big advantage - I had to move them indoors a couple of afternoons this spring.

I forgot to mention one of those inadvertent discoveries - using styrofoam packing peanuts to build up the soil bulk. But thats getting rare because they're using corn starch ones these days.

For okra, I'm growing Clemson Spineless, but thats because I had the seeds. I'll try that Stewart's Zeebest - never heard of it.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 11:36AM
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David I have painted a few white and it helped. The thing with using the straw if you can is that when it start cooling off you can remove the bales and get some heating on the container. And in the spring they tend to warm up faster. That is if I get around to getting them prepared for the new season.

I will attach a link to a thread on the OK Gardenweb forum that has some info about the Stewart's Zeebest.

And I thought the 12-14 dollars I've been paying for the Fox Farm products was high. Guess that should make me feel better. I don't use it at the strength they recommend due to cost but so far I'm impressed and would recommend it with the caveat it is a little pricey. Jay

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 11:56AM
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Forgot to attach the link before posting. Jay

Here is a link that might be useful: Stewart's Zeebest Okra

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 12:11PM
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