I don’t approve of container gardening. I sympathize entirely with the plight of the modern urban dweller, that plight being very specifically the lack of a yard to grow in. I sympathize but I do not agree with the adaptive methodology of container gardening. I am frequently asked questions about scale and the viability of urban farming, specifically its capacity to feed a city in realistic terms. My answers: I want to believe, The truth is out there, trust no one. The point though, whatever skepticism myself and the world hold towards the prowess of urban farming ought to be focused instead on container gardening and concentrated with powerful lasers a few hundred times over. It doesn’t work, it will steal your money then break your heart. You’ll probably try anyway, but you should probably do something else instead.
It Doesn’t Work
Plants. They get their energy from the sun and their nutrients from the soil. They use their leaves to harness the infinite power above, and their roots to pull nourishment from below. This nourishment in the earth is made available to plants in complex and mysterious ways. In a word or two, through the soil ecosystem. The soil ecosystem is a marvelous enigma that is in many ways as unknown to science as the heavens themselves, or gut bacteria.
This is relevant to container gardening because the soil used in container gardening is contained. It may have a limited ecosystem writhing within, but all the things that make a garden and the plants growing therein work alongside natural processes do not exist.
Let a zebra roam the grasslands and it will live well on its own (not so much on it’s own but with the help of its loving herd. The metaphor stands okay?). Put a zebra in a zoo, and it will live, but you must feed, water, and wash it constantly. Put a zebra on a preservation and it will thrive, because inputs have been put in place to ensure that the ecosystem is perfectly tailored to its maximum happiness and the happiness of all the other living things it now shares this space with. It is the same with the zebra-striped tomato.
To clarify, the zoo is the container, the zebra is the zebra-striped tomato. If you put a zebra-striped tomato in a container it will have no capacity to take care of itself whatsoever. You must water it every day and consistently add nutrients to the soil to ensure even moderate growth. Additionally, the roots will only have so much space to roam in a container. In a more free-range environment such as a garden bed the roots can exercise their willful desires. If the tomato started life in a particularly nutrient-poor spot of land, the roots would wander until they found what they desired for optimum health and happiness.
To clarify further, this applies to all vegetable plants, not just zebra-striped tomatoes. Plants grown in traditional containers simply do not grow as well as plants grown in beds, mostly because you aren’t god and you cannot replicate the natural conditions required to optimize plant size, health, and happiness.
It’ll Steal Your Money
Okay, hydroponics is real, greenhouse growing is real, soilless container gardening is real. They are all very real and very credible, nay, incredible cutting edge ways to optimize plant size and health, though almost certainly not plant happiness. Even if you have no regard for the emotional wellbeing of your plants, these methods are ungodly expensive. If you want to play god you must pay the devil. The initial costs to growing in such a manner are humongous, and the upkeep is equally expensive. Climate control, proper lighting, water circulation, fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer. Someday it will probably be the best way to make food happen affordably in the real world and in the comfort of your gardenless home, but until people are willing to pay $20 for a gram of kale at street level, you aren’t going to find many vegetable growers experimenting with such breakthrough technologies.
Though far less costly, container gardening is still very expensive for the home gardener. If you want your plants to have any chance at feeding you anything at all, you will need pots of a reasonable width and depth, you’ll need a high quality potting soil, and you’ll need to fertilize regularly. Two liter coke bottles with the tops cut off filled with homegrown compost are not going to work even a little bit. You can, and if you want success probably should, easily spend $50 to grow three pots full of vegetables. Three pots means three vegetables in most cases. Three vegetables worth of produce for $50. Perhaps people are already willing to pay $20 for a gram of kale at street level. If you are out there, you should know that I’m right here and I’m perfectly willing to sell you kale for half that.
It’ll Break Your Heart
You will spend all that money anyway because you really want to start growing your own food, I know. You will spend money on all the right things, your pots will be large and you will put them in an appropriately sunny space. You will water them every day and you will give them fresh nutrients regularly. You will dig your hand in the soil one day and find worms in there and know you must be doing something right.
But you waited months, and that lettuce head never got quite big enough to justify harvesting. The beets never sprouted. You did get that one delicious tomato though. Also a few carrots. They were the size and shape of birthday candles, but they tasted amazing. You had enough kale to make a smoothie once, but the plant died a week later.
You gave them so much and they gave you so little, and now you have surrendered, never to try your hand at food gardening again. Still...
You’ll Probably Try Anyway, but You Should probably Do Something Else Instead
If this hasn’t ruined the prospect of container gardening for you entirely, good. I encourage you try it. I’ll even try to help. Not today however, so stick around or whatever.
Next time: How to Grow Veggies in Containers and Reasonable Alternatives to this Hopeless Venture.
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.