Part 1 of our How to Grow Veggies in a Window Box Series will cover background research such as how to determine plants that will work in your area, where to buy seeds, when you should plant them, and what soil to use.
First things first with this project: Don’t overcomplicate it. You can spend all year planning or researching (or more plainly, procrastinating), or you can plant some seeds and see what happens and begin your learning process. You can’t get better at it until you start.
If you actually love the research stage, there are a few great books if you want to dive in, but don’t let the idea of homework or planning keep you from getting going. For the reading/researcher types, try McGee & Stuckey’s Bountiful Container which is the best book I’ve ever read about growing food in containers. You’ll also find useful information in The Urban Homestead and The Backyard Homestead.
How to pick which plants to grow.
1. Make a list of all of the vegetables you ACTUALLY EAT ON A REGULAR BASIS. This is the most important part of this whole process. If you don’t like eating a particular food, don’t waste your precious energy on trying to grow it, especially for your first attempt.
2. Look at options for those vegetables you identified in #1. I recommend the following seed companies because they have heirlooms, organics, and I’ve had good customer service when using them: (1) Seed Savers Exchange (2) Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and (3) Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. On each of their sites you can look up the veggies you listed in step one and get a ton of helpful information.
How to determine if a plant will grow in your area.
Before you start planting a little of everything interesting, you need to find out what plants will actually live if you plant them in your climate. If you really want to grow lemons and almonds, but you live in Western New York, that’s going to be complicated because those plants simply don’t thrive in colder northern climates. If all you want is collard greens, but you live in Arizona, you might be setting yourself up for success.
The reason is that certain plants are best suited for growing in certain climates. They have been breed selectively for countless years to encourage them to grow in extreme heat, for example.
Here’s the good news: this isn’t a roadblock. Seed companies include a little blurb about each type of plant they offer so you can pick one that will work for you. You don’t even need to know anything about USDA zones and last frost dates or any of that technical stuff. You simply need to know (1) what you like to eat and (2) what are the conditions you want to grow the plant under.
How to choose varieties.
It’s smart at first to choose 1 or 2 varieties of each type of vegetable. Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to realize that there are actually hundreds of different kinds of carrots you can choose from and you are going to want to try and grow at least half of them. I totally get it. Your best option right now is to pick only 2 kinds of carrots and to make sure the seed packet or info says “easy to grow” or “works well in containers”. You can branch out down the road.
This seems complicated!
Let’s walk through this with an example: I live in central North Carolina. Our climate is temperate (meaning it changes through the year) with hot AF summers with sky-high humidity. So I head over to Seed Savers website and start looking for lettuce I can grow because I want to be able to make salads all summer. I have 40 varieties to choose from. I start reading the names and I’m already overwhelmed! Ah, maybe I shouldn’t grow anything after all!
Take a breath.
I look at Red Salad Bowl Lettuce first and read the “Instructions” area where I see “Very slow to bolt”. That means it can stand warmer temperatures, so I add one packet to my cart. Now I want some green lettuce to go with it. We like to eat baby lettuce mixes in our house, so I look at Baby Oakleaf Lettuce mix and think it will work. Give it a try.
Now I want to add some carrots to chop up on my salad. Carrots are very long veggies, so I just need to make sure I get a variety that says I can grow it in a container. I check the Jaune du Doubs Carrot but see it grows up to 10″ long which is too big for my container. Next, the adorable little Paris Market carrot catches my eye and the description says it grows well in containers. I’m on my way!
The takeaway here is to know (1) what you like to eat and (2) what are the conditions you want to grow the plant under. Those two pieces of information are all you need to get started.
When to plant your vegetables.
When you start researching when you should plant your veggies, you are going to come across the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. This map simply breaks down the USA into regions based on temperatures, climates, etc. and gives gardeners a guide for when to plant vegetables (among other things).
The reason this is considered important for planting is that many seeds cannot grow in temperatures under 40 degrees. So a farmer wouldn’t want to plant everything in February and then wonder why all of her seeds died. For late spring/early summer planting (like now at the end of May), you don’t typically have to be worried about frost in most areas of the country. If you want to play it extra safe, you can always start your seeds inside on your counter and then move them to your windowbox in a week or two when the temperatures are warmer.
Because it’s late May, you shouldn’t have to fiddle around with plant dates. In fact, I decided to wait and post this series until late spring since this is our first attempt at growing veggies. This way we remove one of the big variables: planting time. We aren’t worried about getting our veggies to market before every other farmer, so it’s no bother to wait to plant them until we don’t have to worry about frost.
What soil to use for your window box garden.
Folks get as confused about their soil (and as dedicated to their blend) as anything else in gardening. Again, let’s try and keep this pretty simple.
Yes, you can find recipes for and create a beautiful scientific blend of soil and amendments. Maybe it would make things grow better. But there’s nothing wrong with buying a bag of potting soil, dumping it in the window box and calling it a day.
The key is to buy potting soil. Like, soil, for pots. See? Do not buy garden soil. Do not buy topsoil. Potting soil. That’s it. You can buy organic or Miracle-gro. You can get the store brand or a national name brand. Doesn’t matter.
I will note that I personally think there is a big difference in quality in the bags you pay more for. I’ve used the cheapest bag available for houseplants before and get frustrated when it’s full of pieces of wood or other fillers. But guess what? Stuff will still grow in there. Don’t sweat it. Buy whichever bag makes you feel good.
Ok, that’s it. We are all set up to get growing. Check out Parts 2 & 3 for how to actually plant and take care of your new vegetables.