The Bountiful Container: Gardening in small spaces

I've been gardening for almost fifteen years. I started with flowers, added herbs and vegetables, then a few fruits, then a lot more. I've gardened in plots and pots and raised beds. I've drooled over bedding plants, spent too much on whatever was my obsession-of-the-moment (bulbs! daylilies! gooseberries! ornamental grasses!), and have certainly read my fair share of plant books and magazines.

By this time, I'm somewhat jaded about most gardening educational materials — I find they are often at one extreme or another: either an all-around reference that is about as exciting to read as The Merck Index, or beautiful but vapid plant-porn packed with color photos of planting schemes and “outdoor rooms” that can only be reproduced in Southern California!

However, I give a rave review — and two green thumbs up — to a recent find on container gardening: The Bountiful Container by Rose Marie Nichols McGee and Maggie Stuckey (2002). This book was suggested last spring by a reader named Beth in J.D.'s overview of square-foot gardening. It will find a permanent place on my gardening reference shelf, despite the fact that I don't plan to grow anything new in a container in the foreseeable future. (Although this book just may have changed my mind.)

A Great Gardening Book

The Bountiful Container beats most gardening books hands-down in several key areas:

  • It focuses on growing plants that give a beginning gardener the most “bang for the buck”, plants that are both edible and decorative and can be grown with limited space: vegetables, herbs, a small selection of fruits, and edible flowers.
  • It is splendidly organized and easy to read, and has a great index, too. The Bountiful Container is full of practical information that covers the entire life span of the crops: choosing varieties, planting, watering, fertilizing, dealing with potential pests and diseases, tips for success, and the much anticipated harvesting and using/eating. Included are recipes and craft projects to make with your harvest. Bits of historical flora-lore are tucked in here and there for fun.
  • The level of detail is just right for almost any skill level, and the writing is pleasant to read and easy to understand. There are five full pages of instructions on the best ways to grow potatoes, and two full pages on radishes. (Radishes!) The information the authors provide will practically guarantee success compared to the somewhat generic and unhelpful lack of detail on the back of most seed packets.

When J.D. writes about our crop gardening, inevitably there are questions (and some audible moaning) about the possibilities of growing in containers. Container gardening can be much more than a clay jar of strawberries or a cherry tomato in a hanging basket!

Who might need to do their farming in a pot? Anyone without a yard (think apartment with a balcony) or who can't dig up the yard (some renters). Those who are transitory and want to take their garden with them, or those with really bad growing conditions (such as poor soil).

Containers can also supplement a traditional garden, providing a handy pot of herbs just outside the kitchen door, an experimental area for kids to have their own garden, and allowing tender plants to be moved according to the season. For example, I have a bay laurel tree than lives in the herb garden until October, when I move it to a sheltered porch for the winter. [J.D.'s note: I am the one who moves it, and it's heavy.] And my mint is in a pot to keep it from taking over!

Sowing the Seeds of Success

The Bountiful Container is specifically tailored for success growing edible crops in containers. The book teaches:

  • How to choose suitable varieties (chosen for compactness, hardiness, etc).
  • About increased watering and fertilizing requirements for container-bound plants. This is the biggest commitment for containers — they must be watered daily and fertilized regularly.
  • How to stake or trellis to help plants grow vertically and guard against wind damage.
  • Why you shouldn't even try certain plants in containers (corn, melon, cabbage etc).
  • How to combine plants for a pleasing effect, to stagger harvest, and how to choose plants with similar water/sun/soil pH needs.

Although growing in containers will never give you enough produce at one time to can 16 quarts of spaghetti sauce or 30 pints of green beans, it's just the thing for small-scale pick-and-eat farming.

One actual weekend harvest from August 2006 — not from containers.

I award The Bountiful Container bonus points for a number of reasons. First, most of the information is applicable to traditional in-the-ground gardening, and the thorough treatment of topics will teach even experienced gardeners a thing or two. (Although be sure to adjust watering and reduce fertilizing schedules if not growing in containers.)

Next, the authors don't care if your containers are simply old 5-gallon buckets! They understand that some container gardens are for looks and others are for sheer practicality, but like most true gardeners, they think any growing, healthy plant is a thing of beauty, no matter what it may be growing in.

The book also covers low-impact pest and disease controls — the authors advocate the least toxic approach possible. The sizeable section on herbs is better than most books I've read devoted solely to the same topic. If you are just starting your garden and are considering growing herbs (in pots or the ground), I heartily recommend checking it out.

The Bountiful Container was written by Oregonians, but location-dependent issues are covered in detail, such as choosing the right apple for a warm-winter climate, how to protect your container plants from deep freezes and strong winds, and which plants need to go inside for the winter or be harvested before frost hits.

I love the very specific hints about which plants to begin growing from seeds versus when to buy plant starts. This is a much-misunderstood topic. Seeds are cheap, but they are not always the smartest investment.

Theme Gardens

McGee and Stuckey politely assume you know practically nothing, then explain it clearly and concisely. But they also assume you can decide for yourself which plants you want to grow, so they don't offer many “paint-by-numbers” gardens. If you want a book that tells you exactly what to plant in what kind of pot so it looks just like the picture, you would be better served with Bob Purnell's Crops in Pots.

The authors do offer a handful of “Theme Garden” plans. These plans, either in one container or a grouping of smaller pots, list specific plant varieties and how to arrange them. For example, “The Lemonade Party” on page 218 combines a Meyer lemon tree with lemon verbena, lemon-scented geraniums, basil and thyme, with yellow begonias, nasturtiums and violas. (The flowers are all edible.)

For the more serious cook, “Country Kitchen in the Round” (page 98) uses six pots to pack in one precious tomato plant, basil, cucumber, eggplant, lettuce, nasturtiums, parsley, peas, peppers, rosemary, bush beans, a pepper, sage, summer squash, and culinary thyme! Early season and late season crops are rotated to make the most of the space.

Two Small Weeds

This book does have two shortfalls that should be noted:

  • Since it is ostensibly about container gardening, you will not find crops such as corn, watermelon, butternut squash, asparagus, and many more, including most flowers. (Luckily, these authors have produced other books, which I may have to investigate.)
  • This book has no photos, only pen-and-ink sketches. Since I associate these with mail order gardening ripoffs (which never look as good as promised), I was initially put off by the lack of photographs. But the solid information soon won me over. In their defense, it would be difficult to photograph such an arrangement as the “Country Kitchen” described above; by the time the eggplant, pepper and tomato plants are fruiting, the peas and lettuce would be done and gone.

Although J.D. often advocates borrowing books from the library, The Bountiful Container is one I know I will refer to throughout the entire growing season, so I'm glad we found a used copy to purchase (for $11.50). Maybe when I've learned its contents by heart, I'll pass it along to a gardening friend. They're bound to enjoy it as much as I have.

Further Reading

For more information on growing food in containers (or smalls spaces), check out:

Now's the time to get your garden space ready. The danger of frost is passing in many parts of the United States. Garden fairs and plant sales have begun to pop up like weeds. Get out there and grow some food!

More about...Books, Food, Home & Garden

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