It’s growing season, which means you have the opportunity to have a low-cost, healthy and fun new hobby to try out in your home. Even the most amateur of gardeners can grow fresh, low-maintenance produce with the right containers. It’s time to put those green thumbs to work!
Finding the right containers for your space
Do you have a bucket or other plastic container lying around? If so, you can easily transform it into a vegetable planter. Want to grow tomatoes? Turn old wire hangers or scrap wood into DIY trellises to help support your plants. These containers can easily fit on a patio or balcony, so you can garden regardless of how much space you have. You can even keep these inside where there is plenty of natural light, like a windowsill.
Plastic to-go containers can become an easy place to grow herbs like basil or thyme. Simply clean out the container, drill or punch holes in the bottom for drainage, fill with soil and plant your herbs! If you don’t have a drill, you can punch holes using a screwdriver or pair of scissors. Some potting soils include perlite, those small white balls, to ensure proper drainage. If yours doesn’t, you can add coconut coir, perlite or clay pellets for better drainage. Loosely packing your potting soil helps too.
The easiest way to get started is by buying starter plants rather than growing from seeds. Check your local grocers and nurseries for a variety of heirloom plants. Tomatoes and peppers grow particularly well in Colorado’s sunny climate. If you've never grown plants before, herbs are a great introduction to growing produce. Fresh sage herbs can really add a lot of flavor to any recipe and inexpensive herb plants are available at most grocery stores.
Leafy greens like spinach, bok choy and arugula can also be good plants to start with in a first growing season. Whatever you choose to grow, make sure your plants get plenty of direct sunlight.
When you buy a plant, it should come with some basic growing instructions to let you know how much water, sunlight and space it needs. However, you can also follow these basic guidelines:
- For watering, stick your finger about two inches into the soil. If the soil is dry at that depth, add some water. Be sure to let the soil dry out a bit before watering again—overwatering is nearly as common a problem as underwatering.
- In Colorado, most plants like tomatoes, peppers, basil and leafy greens need about 6–8 hours of direct sunlight. However, if it’s particularly hot outside, you may want to give your plants some afternoon shade.
- In terms of space, larger fruiting plants like bell peppers and tomatoes fit well in a 5 gallon bucket. Herbs, like basil or thyme, can do well in a 4–8 cup container.
Harvesting your plants
Depending on the plant, there are a variety of ways to tell when it’s time to harvest. Fruiting plants (plants that flower and grow fruit above ground) are the easiest to harvest because you can see them. Once they reach an appropriate color, you can pick them right off the plant. If you have to pull too hard to remove the fruit, it’s probably not quite ready to harvest. For fruits, remember: color, feel, smell.
Herbs are also easy, as you can use scissors to cut a small sprig from the larger plant, then rub the sprig in your palms. When it’s ready to use, you’ll get a pleasant fragrance. Root plants, like potatoes, are more difficult to time correctly. Your best bet is to do a little research on the specific plant you’re growing. Most potatoes take anywhere from two to four months before they’re ready to harvest.
Most importantly, have fun and experiment with different plants and growing techniques. Try new recipes! Show off your skills by mixing your homegrown herbs by throwing a little thyme or lavender into your lemonade, or spice up your dinner with some habaneros. If you end up having more produce than you can eat (success!) be sure to share your bounty with friends and family. As you gain experience with growing, you may be impressed with all you can grow right in your own home.
Sustainable Buffs is a series brought to you by the Environmental Center. Learn more sustainability tips and ways to get involved at colorado.edu/ecenter.