by Connie Oswald Stofko
First of all, there is still time to plant vegetables.
The best time to plant vegetables is the first week in June until about June 10, said Jen Weber, retail manager at Mike Weber Greenhouses, 42 French Rd., West Seneca. The ground is warm, the nights are warm and the danger of frost has passed.
So yes, you still have time to plant vegetables, but do it soon–The Fourth of July is too late, she said.
While you have to hurry a little, don’t be one of those people who try to get a head start on the season.
“It’s worse to plant too early,” Weber said. There are people who try to get their tomatoes planted around Mother’s Day. Even if the plants don’t get damaged by frost, they get stunted by the cold weather and it takes time for the plants to come back.
A bazillion reasons to plant vegetables in a container
I admit that I’m a lazy gardener, and that’s why I’m going to try planting tomatoes in pots this year. Growing vegetables in pots can be easier and can take less time than planting vegetables in the ground.
You don’t have to prepare a whole garden bed. There’s no rototilling and no digging. Gardeners who have a disability or who can’t bend as well as they used to like the ease of planting in containers.
I don’t routinely rototill my beds, but I always have to clear out the weeds before I plant, then I try to keep up with the weeds throughout the season. Every grass seed and weed seed that floated anywhere near my yard seems to be drawn into my vegetable garden. I’m hoping that using pots for my vegetables will cut down on some of that aggravating work.
Weeding is a big deal for a lot of people, Weber said, and even she has struggled with it in her home vegetable garden.
“I had a 20 by 30 vegetable garden,” Weber said, “but I’m not home. I don’t get home until 9:30 or 10 at night, so if I don’t have a flashlight, I’m not gardening. The weeds were as high as my tomatoes. That garden became a 20 by 30 disaster.”
Yes, I can relate! Even though I work from home, summer is my busiest time of the year. If I’m not at my computer, I’m out photographing other people’s gardens. I was relieved to hear that someone else had weeds that were obscuring their tomatoes.
So this year, in what used to be the vegetable bed, I’m laying down newspaper and mulch and setting pots of tomatoes and herbs on top of the mulch. I think it will look better than the weedy mess I’ve had in the past.
Another reason I’m going to try growing tomatoes in pots is that I hope I will get better results. You’re supposed to rotate your vegetable plants every few years to help prevent diseases that might linger in the soil from year to year. That’s hard to do in my yard because I have only a few sunny spots. I hope that using fresh soil each year in my containers will help protect my vegetable plants from disease.
Vegetables need full sun, Weber emphasized. Peppers especially need full sun or you won’t get fruit. And that’s another reason to plant veggies in pots–You can move the pots around to find the best location. If you’re dedicated, you could even move your containers from the spot in your yard that’s sunny in the morning to the spot that’s sunny in the afternoon.
Finally, if you don’t have room for a big vegetable garden, or if you don’t have a yard at all, you can still grow vegetables in containers. If you have a balcony or back stoop, you have room for a pot. And if you move in the middle of the summer, you can take your vegetable plants with you!
Container size, soil and general tips
A good rule of thumb is to plant one vegetable plant in a 10-inch pot, Weber said.
If you have a very large plant, you may want to consider using a clay pot, she suggested. A ‘Beefmaster’ tomato that gets four feet tall and has fruit that weighs a pound each could tip over if it was in a 10-inch plastic pot.
For some varieties, you can go with a slightly smaller gallon pot, which is about 8 inches in diameter. There are smaller varieties of tomatoes called patio tomatoes that will do well in a pot that small. These smaller varieties, such as ‘Better Bush’, are sold in gallon pots at Mike Weber’s, so you can actually keep the plant in the pot you bought it in and it will do well all summer, she said. How easy is that?
If you want to put two plants in a pot, Weber suggests your pot be 24 to 26 inches in diameter.
If you already have pots that you want to use, make sure you measure them. I have what I thought were great big pots, but when I measured them, I was surprised to find out that they were only 18 inches in diameter.
Use potting soil, not soil from your garden for your containers; the soil must be light and airy. Choose a potting mix that has nutrients already added. Replace all of the soil every year– Plants use up the nutrients and, especially with tomatoes, you don’t want any diseases to carry over.
Mixing vegetables and herbs in containers
“People are always asking me, ‘Can I mix herbs with tomatoes?’,” Weber said.
The answer is yes. You can plant whatever herbs you want in the same pot as your tomatoes. You could do a container for spaghetti sauce, planting tomatoes with oregano, basil and thyme.
Check out the photos of the mixed pots to get an idea of how many plants will work in a certain size pot.
Tip: Plant marigolds along with tomatoes. The marigolds will keep away beetles that can damage the plant, she said.
If you don’t want to plant this up yourself, you can buy them already planted up at Mike Weber’s.
Two tips on caring for vegetables that may shock you
Some of you may know about this first tip, but a lot of people get it wrong.
The tip is simply this: Don’t overfertilize your vegetable plants. If you are using a potting mix that has nutrients already in it, don’t fertilize at all, Weber said. Next year, replace the soil completely because the nutrients will be used up.
Even if you’re planting in the ground, be careful not to overfertilize. Don’t fertilize your vegetables, especially tomatoes, after they have flowered. If you do, you’ll get big, beautiful plants with no fruit, she explained.
Here’s the tip that may really shock you: Wait until your vegetable plants wilt, then water them.
I asked Weber for clarification at least four times to make sure I was getting this right.
“Yep, let them flop over, then water them,” she said.
It sounds counterintuitive, Weber agreed, but you want the plant’s energy going into producing fruit and not into the plant itself. If you look at a farmer’s field at harvest time, the plants look dead, but they’re yielding fruit. If you baby your plants, you will get big, healthy-looking plants with a small yield, or you will rot them.
While the plants that are placed out for customers at her garden center don’t look wilted, as the plants are being grown in the back greenhouse, the plants are allowed to wilt. If the plants get too wet, they could get fungus, which is a huge problem, but “A little bit of sagging isn’t going to hurt them,” Weber said.
If you have a mixture of plants in a container, go by the looks of the individual plants. If the marigolds are the only plants that look sad, water just the marigolds, she said, or you’ll be overwatering the tomato.
Here are some tips for specific vegetables.
Zucchini, yellow squash and cucumbers
Some people think you can’t grow zucchini in a pot, but you can. People get confused, Weber said, because directions for zucchini say you have to plant them in a “hill.” Planting them in a hill means you plant two or three plants together as if they were one plant. It doesn’t mean you plant them in a mound of dirt.
Zucchini needs to be planted in twos or threes so they will pollinate properly, she explained. The same goes for yellow squash and cucumbers.
Mike Weber Greenhouses sells zucchini with two plants in each cell of a six-pack. That means you’re actually getting 12 plants, not six, but don’t separate the plants; keep them in pairs. Put one pair in a pot. Plant zucchini in twos or threes even if you’re planting in the ground.
You can grow a regular cucumber plant in a hanging basket. Weber said her kids do this and they sell out every year. You pick the cucumbers when they’re a little smaller so they won’t fall off. Not only is this an interesting way to grow a cucumber plant, it keeps the rabbits from getting at the plant.
If you put two plants in a pot that is too small, they will crowd each other and the parts in the middle won’t get sun. You can try pruning the leaves from the center to let sun in and help those tomatoes to ripen, she said.
There are determinate and indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Weber remembers the difference this way: Determinate varieties are determined to grow up straight and don’t need to be staked while indeterminate varieties get floppy and need to be staked. You may want to choose determinate varieties for containers.
For support, you can use a stake, a bamboo hoop or a small trellis. You can also set the pot up against a fence and let the plant grow up the fence. If you have a wooden fence, you can nail some 1 by 2 pieces of wood horizontally on the fence to form a lattice.