While walking in San Francisco. The blue flower is Lobelia.
The discussion around inexpensive containers for indeterminate tomato plants in a recent post has brought up a good point regarding how to conceal the clinical blandness of food industry buckets. The conversation in that post reminded me of a brilliant camouflage technique I discovered on a Saturday walk through my own neighbourhood a few years ago. I have shown this image during several presentations yet it did not occur to me to share it here. I’m not sure who the gardener/designer is although I’m fairly certain it is connected to the small restaurant that is located at this intersection. Whomever they are, what they have done to transform this corner with very little money is brilliant. The tomato plants seen in the foreground are growing in your average industrial food industry bucket but has been concealed using cheap bamboo blinds.
Putting something like this together is incredibly easy and very nearly free. The blinds are cut to size, wrapped around the container, and secured in place by wrapping string around everything and tying a knot. Try securing with wire first and then covering it up with string if you’re concerned the twine won’t hold on its own. Jute is a very affordable but weak string. It can be replaced with a stronger twine made of cotton or sisal. All kinds of decorative options are available in abundance in the curbside economy. Replace bamboo curtains with wood curtains, grass beach mats or any combination of discarded natural fibre rugs, mats, or blinds.
These materials will probably only last a year outdoors but at least you have given them another year of life out of the landfill. By the end of the year they may even be weathered enough to break into bits and put into the compost bin.
Another trick I employ when I can’t find anything to disguise ugly containers is to surround them with prettier pots. Organize larger, utilitarian buckets and garbage bins at the back of the arrangement, placing smaller, decorative pots with attractive plantings of pretty flowers and brightly coloured heirloom veggies in front. If the smaller pots are too short raise them up using larger decorative pots turned upside down as props. Make shelves out of bricks and discarded pieces of wood and then disguise that layer behind a lower tier comprised of smaller pots that sit on the ground. This tactic can be a little bit labour-intensive over the course of a growing season since it requires rearranging as the plants expand and grow. But containers generally require rearrangement for this reason regardless.
The fluidity and possibility for change that comes with container gardening is a positive that big money designers use to their advantage. While most of us can’t afford to swap out expensive containers for new expensive containers on a whim, with a little ingenuity and creativity any of us can fancify ugly buckets or simply rearrange pots to improve the overall look of our container gardeners.
I’ve got a question on tomatoes. I’ve recently ordered about nine tomato plants. They’re still kind of babies, but it turns out that they’re indeterminates, not determinates like was expected. In the book it says that garbage bins work well, but if I chose the cheapest ones I found (they’re 13 bucks) that would be 117 dollars. What else could I stick them in that might be cheaper and easy? – Emily
Before I answer your question I’m just going to fill-in beginners on the terminology you used. For those just starting out in tomato growing, tomatoes come in two types that determine their growth habits and in turn, the needs you will have to meet to grow them successfully. Determinates are tomato plants that grow in a bush habit. This means they are likely to stay short and probably won’t require staking. Determinates are the best tomato varieties for container growing. Indeterminates on the other hand are the really big varieties that grow into tall vines and are traditionally trained to grow upwards using cages or stakes. The root systems on these plants can get to be quite large and demanding requiring ample space and water. It is hard to meet the needs of a large plant in a small space. This accounts for a lot of the difficulty and frustration experienced by gardeners who are new to container-growing. Container soil dries out much faster than in-ground gardens and tomatoes drink a lot of water, especially when they are producing fruit. Dry soil can put a lot of stress on the plant causing disease and unproductive plants.
That said, indeterminates can be grown in containers. The trick is to give them lots of room, keep them watered, and make sure that the pot is appropriately sized for the plant. Do not put more than one tomato plant in the same container!
When it comes to purchased containers, garbage bins are about as cheap as you’re gonna get. The lowest price I have come across for a good-sized bin (about 25 inches tall by 14 inches wide) was $10. Generally, containers of the same size purchased in the garden section of any department or hardware store is going to run you almost double that price.
Thrift stores can be good for containers however they generally don’t carry containers that large — I suppose this is because when garbage bins are put to their intended use they are used until they are no longer fit for reuse.
I think your best bet in this situation is to look for your containers along the curb on garbage day. No, I don’t mean steal your neighbor’s garbage bin! Instead look for large buckets and tubs that are being thrown out. Just because it can’t hold water anymore doesn’t mean it can’t hold soil. Look outside restaurants and laundry mats where oil and detergents are kept in bulk sizes. Better yet, go inside and ask if there are any empty buckets that you can have. Growing really large indeterminates in buckets can be tricky since the buckets aren’t as big as garbage bins, but I have seen it done many times.
To ensure success in a smaller container I would recommend spending some money on a good container soil that holds water but is also light enough to allow for good air circulation — you don’t want those roots to get crushed and compacted in such a tight space. If air circulation seems like an issue try drilling holes in the sides of the containers (and the bottoms). This means more water runs out but what you lose in water you gain in air circulation. And finally make sure to keep the soil moist. Monitor the moisture levels of the soil, watering everyday during the hot months if not twice daily when the heat gets intense.
If all of this seems a bit overwhelming you could try trading some of your indeterminates for less demanding determinate varieties with someone who has the space. That way you don’t lose any money but gain less hassle.
I desperately need to clean up my rooftop garden. Desperately. Double desperately. It’s horrible how long I’ve let it got this year really. The warmer Fall temperatures were wonderfully evil and I just went with it pretending that Fall would continue forever. I rewarded myself for cleaning up at the community garden so early this year. I can put it off a little longer, I said. It will be just like last year, I said. There will not be snow until January and by then everyone will be freaking out and talking about the blooming crocus and dandelion flowers and how the end of the world is neigh and it won’t matter that some of the pots weren’t empty or that the strawberries never did get replanted from the big pot into the ground.
And now I am in this dilemma. It has already snowed. The ground is probably frozen. I say probably because I haven’t had the courage to check. I would take a picture and post it here for you to see what I am talking about but that would mean having to look and I can’t bear it. I avoid looking out there entirely preferring to pretend it doesn’t exist. From memory and the occasional tiny peek I do seem to recall an assortment of clay pots that are usually emptied, washed and put away by this time every year prior to this one. I’m pretty sure that tender Echeveria I’ve been over-wintering indoors for years is now dead. The shiso was never harvested. Lifeless bean stalks cling to string and a few remaining lantern-like tomatillos hang from leafless branches.
Today would be the perfect day to get out there and do it already. The sun is shining, the temperatures are above zero, and anything that was recently frozen is probably melted after yesterday’s torrential downpours. I could cut back the plants, remove and wash the terra cotta and be done with it. And I would be totally on it too, I really would, except that I have come down with a terrible cold complete with body aches and a nose that runs like a faucet. So instead I will go back to bed with a pile of hankies and a warm tea, putting those self-preserving powers of denial to work for one more day.
During the spring and summer months I grow indeterminant tomatoes (large, vine plants) in large garbage bins like this one purchased for $10 each a number of years ago at the local Ikea. The flat grey colour has faded significantly over the years but the containers are still holding up under the wear and tear of hot summers and winter heaving caused by fluctuating temperatures.
I typically fill each container with a single tomato plant and surround it with 4 basil plants. With the weather being warmer this fall I decided to try and keep the rooftop deck productive AND aesthetically pleasing by replacing the spent tomatoes with attractive, cold-hardy edibles previously growing in smaller, individual containers. This also allowed me to get a head start on clean-up bringing in some of the smaller, terra cotta containers that will eventually come indoors for the winter.
In This Container:
- Tri-color sage
- Pansy (will keep flowering. Flowers are edible.
- ‘Lacinato Blue’ Kale aka ‘Dinosaur’ Kale
- ‘Red Bor’ Kale
- Cinnamon Basil (not cold hardy but surprisingly still going strong.)
Everything in this container is edible. Unfortunately, while we were away a squirrel made a hearty lunch of the dinosaur kale but everything else is still thriving and ready for picking whenever we need a bit of sage for our eggs, some flowers for a salad, or kale to flavour a soup.