Patio farming brings your harvest close to home
May 16, 2011
  • /Crop Sciences
Farming on your balcony, patio or unused driveway is a great alternative when you cannot raise produce in the ground, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"A container garden allows you to enjoy fresh vegetables and fruits when space is limited or the soil is poor, or if bending over is a problem," said Nancy Pollard. "Grow vegetables and fruits individually in containers or combine a variety of annual vegetables and flowers in a large container for an eye-appealing effect. Perennial plants like strawberries are best grown separately from annuals."

When placing your container garden, look for a full-sun location if possible. Produce needs full sunlight to collect enough energy for a good crop.

"Pots can also be placed on dollies or wheels to follow the sun if necessary," she said. "An old child's wagon will grow lettuce nicely and can be moved to where the sun shines. Taller plants may be too top heavy to move easily. Don't have eight hours of full sun? Try some leafy vegetables in light shade."

If a container holds soil and has drainage holes in the bottom, it can be transformed into a container garden. Big containers are best. They must be able to stay upright with fully grown vegetables in them — unless it is of the hanging variety. Large containers also make it easier to keep the soil moisture from fluctuating wildly.

"Consistent soil moisture and good drainage help to avoid problems like flower or fruit drop; or, on tomatoes, cracking and blossom end rot," she noted. "If your containers are not large or you expect to be away for more than a day, consider one of the many do-it-yourself patio drip irrigation systems available."

In the container, use a potting mix, not heavy garden soil. Many have slow-release nutrients or fertilizers already added.

"When you just need a few cubic feet of potting soil, pre-mixed is your best bet," said Pollard.

"There are many good brands of potting soil mix on the market," she said. "Though they may cost a little more, the results are worth it. For large numbers of pots, mixing your own soil may be a cost-saving measure. Search Extension websites for soilless potting mixes."

The size of the plant determines how much soil it will need. A gallon container will grow about five leaf lettuce plants, but only one plant of Swiss chard collards or kale.

A gallon or two of soil is needed for most pepper transplants. Many good varieties are available. Tomatoes require 3 to 5 gallons of soil per plant. Consider varieties like Jetstar, Celebrity or Super Bush. Small-fruited grape or cherry-type tomatoes are also good choices.

"If you decide to grow cabbage, don't be afraid to harvest a few leaves at a time as you need them, instead of waiting for the whole head to mature," Pollard recommended. "The same is true for herbs like basil or parsley. Farming on your patio puts the harvest close at hand."