Cultivated Container Produce

Some people have a green thumb. I am not one of those people. I’ve grown lots of produce in pots on my patio here on the north shore of Chicago over the last twenty years, but I’m still not sure I am doing things “right.” Here are the no-fail plants even I can do each year:

Lettuce Start seeds outdoors late March, early April at the latest. I’ve had no luck starting seeds indoors- they need more sun than I can give them and they end up sad, spindly little things. Lettuce likes it cold and has no problem with a frost. What it doesn’t like is heat, so you need to plan to grow and harvest this before it gets too warm. It takes about a month and a half, so plant late March, eat mid-May to early June, then plant some basil in that pot- basil hates the cold and loves the heat. Lettuce needs regular water but must have well-drained soil or it gets sickly. I grow it in large pots on the patio and also hanging baskets. Lettuce is shallow rooted, so you need a pot that’s pretty wide, but as little as 8” deep is fine. You’ll know it needs water or is too hot when it all just lays down on its side. Don’t worry- water it and shade it and it will perk right up, like Lazarus rising from the dead. Amazing. Remember, though, you must kill your darlings eventually. For a while you can harvest just the outer leaves and let new leaves keep growing from the center. I tend to get attached (as I do) and not want to do the final beheading, but if you wait too long the lettuce becomes bitter and inedible. Harvest the whole head before that happens and get your basil into that pot!

Peas Peas are crazy fun to grow. The vines are delicate and pretty with sweet little flowers, and they easily and quickly twine around whatever you place them near. They are on the same time schedule as lettuce, and like lettuce you can plant them both spring and fall. Personally, by fall I’m tired of the gardening, but I have done it and it works. Peas are also fairly shallow rooted so an 8-10” deep pot is fine, but you will need a trellis at least three feet tall, taller depending upon the pea variety. You’ll want to harvest these just as soon as they are full sized pods- they get bitter very quickly if you leave them on the vine. When the plant is done it withers up rapidly, usually sometime in June. It wasn’t you, that’s just the plant’s lifespan.

Tomatoes I don’t have the patience to wait for a tomato plant to grow. In the middle of April I go to Home Depot and buy the biggest cherry tomato plant they have available, usually one that already has some flowers starting. I bring it home and put it outside covered with two layers of BetterReds Greenhouse plastic tomato covering around some garden stakes that are at least 18” taller than my plant, and twisty-tie the plastic tube closed at the top. On the few nights it gets cold enough to freeze, or even all day on the rare snowy day, I throw a blanket over the whole thing. By mid-May I pull one of the layers of plastic off. By mid-June it’s plastic free and I’m eating tomatoes. I can usually keep harvesting cherry tomatoes all the way through October, sometimes even November in our new warmer climate.

Tomatoes like a LOT of water and full sun. They can take the heat, too. The pot doesn’t need to be very wide, but a really deep narrow pot will make a happy tomato plant. You’ll need some nice tall garden stakes. I usually need 5 foot high stakes. When your tomato plant gets tall, don’t delay tying the plant to the stake so it doesn’t break off. It’s so easy to say, “Oh! It’s getting bigger. I should tie that up higher tomorrow,” right before the whole branch breaks off. If it does break, even if it looks like it’s nearly broken through the branch, it can usually be saved. Tie it up right then, broken as it is, and it will impossibly keep growing and producing tomatoes on that branch. I have no idea how it manages to get water and nutrients through that scrap of stem that remains, but it does. Here’s another tip- that BetterReds plastic? Wipe it down, dry it carefully, and fold it up and you can use it for several years.

Basil Mmmm, basil. Basil is easy to grow. It likes it warm, so wait until mid- to late May at least to put it in. Pretty much just stick it in the dirt in a sunny to partly shady area, keep it watered and watch it grow. Once the plant is 8” tall, harvest leaves at will from different sections of the plant. Don’t let it get too tall- when it starts shooting up quickly in the middle chop it off at the center stem just above one of the groups of leaves. I usually grow a LOT of basil and I’ll prune all of them back at once and make a giant basil/tomato/mozzarella salad, or pasta with wilted basil for dinner.

Peppers Peppers also need very little help to grow. Jalapeno, Banana, and Mad Hatter peppers are our favorites, especially the Mad Hatters- these make delicious pepper poppers. Plant them in the sun and water them and you can’t go wrong.

Other herbs We also grow rosemary (which I still have only successfully overwintered in a heated pot), chives (which come back every year in their deep outdoor pot), common sage (which also comes back every year in the big pot), parsley (which always ends up covered with Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars and I won’t let anyone eat), and thyme (which I bring in for the winter in its cute pot).

Mini pumpkins- probably not edible. I don’t do this one every year, but it’s worth a mention anyway. Last year I grew a mini pumpkin plant. It was a random purchase. The pumpkins are mini and the plant started mini but rapidly became a GIANT 5 foot wide monster. It required nothing but a very large pot of dirt and a lot of water. I couldn’t have killed it if I tried. I’m not sure anything could have. It produced about a dozen mini pumpkins. The incredible size of the plant was wholly unexpected and wildly entertaining.