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Every year, a lot of new people are interested in gardening, food preservation and general self-preparedness.
The focus of this article is the grower that might not have a large, dedicated space for a garden. You might want to start out with a smaller garden, to see how you like it. You might be a renter that can’t just put in a garden.
You will also learn, that even as semi-advanced gardeners ourselves, we have heavily integrated container gardening concepts into our subarctic food production techniques.
We want everyone to know that it doesn’t matter where you live or what space you have, you can likely have a garden.
A Container Garden Lets You Have A Garden Anywhere, No Garden Required
It’s important to know that you don’t need a big plot of land or other specially prepared area for a garden. You don’t have to be a home owner with land, either.
There are traditional gardens but there are also other non-traditional approaches to gardens as well. Both are are potentially valuable to the potential grower.
The easiest way that almost anyone could have a garden is with containers. You can grow practically any plant you want in containers.
From roots like carrots to tomatoes or broccoli. These can be grown almost anywhere the sun hits. An apartment balcony, a deck, a front porch or a small slice of your yard.
The container garden is simple and really easy to maintain. It requires a container, soil and plants or seeds. They will need regular watering and occasional fertilization throughout the growing season.
Even Advanced Cold Climate Gardeners Can Use Container Gardens
All the benefits that container gardening provides to a new grower, can also benefit the advanced container gardener.
You can have a garden where you typically couldn’t. You can grow in otherwise challenging areas. The maintenance is fairly easy.
We knew that container gardening was a fairly effective technique in cold climates, but this was especially evident growing in the subarctic.
As we learned about gardening in the subarctic, one of our tests was to do side-by-side trials of various plants in containers versus in the ground.
Most of our plants did much better growing in containers than they did directly in the ground. Since that test, container gardening has been one of our core gardening techniques in our subarctic gardens, since basically the beginning.
We use them for serious, home scale food production. At this time, we garden across 100 different containers. We’ll talk more about that later.
What Kinds And Sizes Of Containers Are Needed For A Container Garden?
In general, there are many types of containers that could be used for general gardening. You can use re-purposed containers or purpose built containers.
Some examples of these types of containers are:
- Milk or water jugs
- Fabric pots
- Nursery pots (and other purpose built containers)
- Sub-irrigated containers/buckets
- Other plastic containers that are cut open
In general, for food production purposes, bigger is usually better. The larger the container is, the less frequently you will have to water the plants. More importantly, the size of the container can limit the size of the plant.
Remember, quality of the plant’s growth is vital to the quality of what it will produce.
A larger container is especially important later in the season when the plants have grown to full size. They will drink a lot of water! You will likely need to water once or even twice a day during warmer conditions.
For home food production, it is also beneficial to have a scalable system built on commonly available parts.
Five gallon containers are a good starting point and the common five gallon bucket will work for almost all types of plants. In general, you could use the following for general guidelines for minimum size requirements:
- 2-3+ Gallon Containers
- Root vegetables (6+ inches of depth)
- Greens (lettuce, arugula, mustard, etc)
- Onions/Green Onions/Chives/Leeks
- 5+ Gallon Containers
- Brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, cauliflower, etc.)
- Tomatoes/Huckleberries/Tomatillo/Ground Cherries
- 6+ Gallon Containers
The containers will need some sort of drainage. Several holes should be drilled in the bottom of the container to allow excess water to leave the container.
If you don’t create adequate drainage, there is a good chance the plant will not survive. Rain water can cause the container to fill the bucket with water, effectively drowning the plant.
If you are re-using or re-purposing your containers, be sure to give them a good cleaning. Especially if the container was used previously for something that could be harmful to plants.
The Sure Fire Subarctic Container Gardening Method
As we mentioned earlier, container gardening is a core technique that we’ve found to be quite beneficial for growing things in Interior Alaska.
GroBuckets are basically a kit that turns a normal 5 gallon bucket into a sub-irrigated planter. They are our current preferred container gardening method, at least for food and herb production.
- They require a lot less water and have less frequent watering requirements. This is particularly advantageous for off-grid gardens.
- They help eliminate drought conditions, which can help your plants be more healthy.
- In cold climates, they also keep your plant’s roots much warmer than traditional soil gardens. This can significantly benefit growth, especially in warmer climate vegetables like tomatoes and peppers.
- It is easy to identify when the plant actually needs more water.
- They can be used almost anywhere, even on top of concrete and decks.
- Sub irrigated systems can be centrally irrigated, both on and off grid, quite easily, You can use central irrigation techniques to automate your garden’s watering for weeks or even months.
We’ve grown a ton of different kinds of vegetables in these.
They work for root vegetables, herbs and greens as well as your largest of plants including tomatoes and peppers. Thus, they have become a staple in our gardens and we can recommend them highly.
While there is a cost to this equipment, it’s also very effective and solves a lot of common container gardening problems. We think it’s worth the cost over many other container gardening techniques, especially for food-focused container garden production.
Your Container Garden Soil Is Important!
It would not be a good strategy to just fill your containers up with dirt. You will experience a number of issues if you go this route.
There are some properties that you’re looking for with good container garden soil. These are:
- Good at draining water
- Moisture retention
- Fairly loose (non-clumping) structure
There are a couple ways to go about getting good container garden soil.
For a five gallon bucket, you will need about 2/3 cubic foot of soil per bucket.
Additionally, you can build your own soil from raw materials. This tends to be a bit cheaper than potting mix when you’re container gardening at scale.
There are many different mixes out there that will work for growing in containers. The previously linked article offers many different recipes based on several different types of materials.
You can also infuse fertilizer into your container garden soil when you are preparing it. Most fertilizers will give you an amount to use based on the soil volume. If you are purchasing potting soil, and it has fertilizer in it, you don’t need to add more to it.
Eating and Preserving Your Harvest
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves here, but there are two major strategies for using your garden to maximum benefit.
The first is fresh eating. This is the greatest benefit of having a garden, having access to fresh food that you grew.
Don’t feel guilty about eating things fresh, that’s probably the most important thing to do. Fresh food has more nutrients and better taste than almost any preservation method of the same food.
Food preservation is the second strategy for maximizing your garden’s production. It is a huge topic.
Overall, there are many techniques that you can use to preserve your harvest for later. These different techniques depend on the vegetables you’re trying to preserve.
The various food preservation techniques include:
- Canning (both water bath and pressure canning)
- Cold storage (e.g. refrigerator or root cellar)
Different vegetables and fruits will take well to different preservation techniques. This could be a topic in and of itself.
In general, most vegetables have one or more techniques that are particularly good for that plant. It’s good to do some research. It’s often as simple as searching for something like, “how to preserve *vegetable*” to find a good starting point.
The most important thing with food preservation is following food safety guidelines. Food safety is especially important in canning where improper techniques can put you at risk for food borne illness.
Canning recipes have to be basically vetted for safety. As an early canner, it’s very important to follow recipes very closely. Don’t deviate and just assume you can preserve something, that’s not safe.
That isn’t to say you can’t go “off recipe” with canning. But, to safely do this, you have to have a command of the principles involved. You need expertise in canning anything you intend to preserve. It is solely an advanced canning technique and designed for experts with many years of experience.
The most trusted source of information for canning is the Blue Ball Book of Canning. It is pretty much the standard for most people that teach themselves how to can.
There has been a recent surge of preservation groups like “Rebel Canners” that present preservation techniques that we would directly caution against. Some of the things we’ve seen recommended by these groups are downright dangerous.
We are even cautious about using social media, in general, for accurate canning information. We recommend, that until you have an expertise, you “play it by the book.”
If you’re looking for something different but also safe, check out Not Your Mama’s Canning Book.
A Community Garden Is Another Great Way To Start Gardening
If container gardening isn’t for you, there are other less expensive ways to get into gardening.
For many years, we have used community gardens. In fact, to this day, we still utilize community gardens.
These are commonly private or public organizations that build and operate community focused gardens. A community garden is place that people can “borrow” or “rent” to grow a garden.
The majority of community gardens allow you to grow your own food for your own self. Some are more socially oriented, requiring the gardener to share their harvest with other gardeners.
Community gardens have exploded in popularity and can be found in most larger communities. Most community gardens offer access to garden tools and water They are a also great way to meet other local gardeners as well.
We Hope This Is Your Year To Start Your Victory Garden!
Anyone can learn how to garden. There was a time when we were beginners too.
Today is a good day to start down the path.
The most important thing to know is that gardening is a learning process.
Don’t concern yourself with the complexities of gardening. Having a garden will teach you more about gardening than anything else! Don’t be afraid to potentially fail. Every failure presents a potential to learn how to do things better.
We hope that we’ve shown you that you don’t need a large amount of space or a dedicated garden to make it happen. Get out there, grow your victory garden!
That’s All We Wrote!
We have an ever growing list of insightful and helpful subarctic gardening articles, waiting out there for you!
- Gardening Basics
- Advanced Cold Climate Gardening Techniques
- Growing From Seed
- Family Scale Food Production
- Subarctic Growing Techniques, Methods & More…