Margaret Lauterbach

Consider growing a few veggies in containers this year

Cherry tomatoes grow in a container.
Cherry tomatoes grow in a container. TNS

Once we think about a garden and begin poring over seed catalogs for ideas and go to local nurseries, most of us find we’ve acquired more than we’d originally planned — often more than we have the space available. It’s not quite a gardening frenzy, but our enthusiasm and plant-collecting desire may override sensible plans.

Must you abandon your whetted hopes? No. Use containers.

Containers may be as simple as a bag of potting soil with drainage holes poked in it or as fancy as a concrete urn. There are many variations available to fit almost any pocketbook. And, with care, you can grow almost anything in a container. Look around for plant varieties that are compact or those that do not “walk,” like summer squash. That squash starts out as a manageable plant, but then it expands its territory as it produces fruits, until it hangs over a raised bed or container. Some vining plants like winter squash, melons or cucumbers can be trained and tied to grow up a trellis affixed to a container.

A gardening friend in Eagle, Pat Roloff, uses raised beds and earth box containers for growing vegetables. Her enthusiasm for the earth boxes convinced me, so I bought some similar containers, called “grow boxes,” to try this year. They will enable me to grow some chiles and tomatoes apart from the regular garden, so the chance of cross-pollination will be reduced. I won’t have the recommended isolation of a half mile, however.

Some of the advantages of growing in containers are the ease of access to pull weeds, sow seeds and harvest; you can follow the sun, moving the container to obtain the necessary six hours of sunlight; you’ll have no worry about soilborne diseases; you can grow food on your balcony or deck; you can plant in better soil than your in-ground soil without worry about hardpan; and you can easier contain plants that want to spread. The main disadvantage of growing in containers is the need for frequent watering, two or more times a day during hot weather.

One issue with containers is the drainage hole. Most drainage holes are in the bottom of the container, and once that is set directly on a patio or deck, the hole is closed. You can buy container “feet” to raise the container or put parallel scraps of wood near the hole. If it’s formed of plastic, drill holes in the side of the container, quite near the bottom, for drainage.

Carrots and potatoes

A friend in Alabama, attempting to feed a family of six vegetarians, who has a garden on a steeply-sloped lot, resorted to growing supplementary carrots in a half-barrel to supply enough for the family to eat. She used carrots in many different dishes to add nutrition.

Some folks swear by growing Irish or Idaho potatoes in a barrel or a large planting bag. I found it’s difficult to keep plants watered in that confinement, but if your system works, you can grow a large crop in a small space. Note that all tubers formed by growing plants are produced higher than the seed potato was planted. Thus “hilling up,” or pulling soil up around a growing potato plant, shields the new tubers from sunlight that can create solanine in those potatoes. Solanine’s presence is shown by green coloring on the tuber, and that is toxic to humans. I usually cut off that part of a potato unless it’s definitely dark green and takes up a lot of space on the tuber.

Should you grow potatoes in Idaho? Freshly dug potatoes have delicious flavor, and you can steal or harvest small potatoes while the plant is still growing. That feeling in the soil for tubers is called graveling or grabbling. Years ago, a Boy Scout troop gleaned potatoes and bagged them, then went door to door, selling Idaho potatoes (field run, so some are baking size, others small) for $5 per gunny sack. You can’t beat that price, but I didn’t see other Scout units follow suit.

As for moving containers to follow the sunlight, before you plant a large container, lighten the load by putting styrofoam or a plastic bag of aluminum cans in the bottom. (Unless the cans are bagged, they’ll be loaded with soil and not recyclable.) Then leave about 6 to 8 inches of top space for potting soil and the roots of the plants. It will dry out fairly quickly on hot days though.

Made for herbs

Container planting is especially useful for growing culinary herbs on a deck or balcony, close to the kitchen. Chives, basils (sweet, Thai, Mexican, Tulsi, etc.), sweet marjoram, rosemary, parsley, summer savory, oregano, thyme, French tarragon and mint grow well in small containers (ca. 8-inch pots). Mint will travel, sending a runner out of the drainage hole unless you pick up the pot and turn it at least once a week. Sage really requires a larger container, and you’ll want either a larger container or a series of containers for cilantro if you and your family use it. It quickly bolts to flower and seed in hot weather. Dill grows fairly tall (over 2 feet), and unless you grow the fernleaf variety, stalks are sparsely supplied with leaves. If grown in the ground, let some of it go to seed, and you may never have to grow it again, for volunteers will appear.

Hot weather substitutes for cilantro are pepicha and papaloquelite. Their seeds look similar, but the plants are quite different. Pepicha is difficult to germinate, seems to germinate only by accident, but the slender straplike leaves are delicious. It’s low-growing, slightly trailing in habit. Papaloquelite (quillquina or killi) has small roundish leaves. and grows to about 30 inches in height, as I recall. Seeds of pepicha and papaloquelite resemble those of dandelions. Richters and Johnnys Selected Seeds sell pepicha (Johnnys spells it pipicha), and papaloquelite is sold by Nichols Garden Nursery and others.

An in-ground or container-planted herb garden near the kitchen is beneficial for the family chef as well as the diners’ taste buds. Once you have the common herbs established, you can add more exotic herbs, depending on the cuisines you favor. Za atar (sic), cumin, lemon grass, eryngium foetidum (culantro or chadon beni) and other more exotic herb seeds may be found via Google.

Other culinary “nice-to-haves” are cutting celery, salad burnet and borage. Borage flowers are gorgeous in salads, and the furry leaves taste like cucumbers. Salad burnet leaves also taste like cucumbers, but they’re smooth and small. Salad burnet is a perennial, much tougher than it looks. It pops up in early spring, shrugging off winter cold. Thomas Jefferson once planted eight bushels of seeds of salad burnet, using it as livestock feed.

In different areas of the world, people eons ago adopted native weeds for their scent, flavor, medicinal or dye use, and those weeds became known as herbs. Herbs do not need nor do they thrive with rich fertilizer, but they do need good drainage and in most cases, full sun.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.