Outwitting the sun

Container gardening lets you play wonderful tricks on nature.

Herbs and salad greens, for example, grow near at hand for convenience to cooking pot or dining room; and plants dwell where asphalt or concrete never intended them to be.

You may want to outwit the sun by having growing things where it is -- or even where it isn't.

Gardening on roofs, decks, patios, and balconies is easy. You can plant stairways, railings, garages, sidewalks, and window boxes. Also, you can grow your plants in almost anything: trash bags, garbage cans, wood boxes, fruit baskets, half barrels, plastic buckets, bulb pots, fiber pots, paint buckets, strawberry barrels, food cartons, old bathtubs, and new hot tubs.

But if you want eye appeal, you may want to choose containers that have utility and good looks, too.

One new wrinkle -- and once tried, it could catch on fast - is soil bags that are entirely self-contained. Filled with a lightweight soil mix, you simply punch holes in the plastic bags and plant for a full season of growth.

Experienced container gardeners know some basics must be supplied for success with these individual gardens. There must be enough soil volume, for example, for good root development, adequate water and fertilizer, and good light for growth.

* Soil

Use lightweight soil mixes, the prepackaged kind found in garden centers which contain combinations of peat, vermiculite, and/or perlite. They provide a good balance between water-holding capacity and quick drainage. And they also allow for large amounts of air in the root zone which is essential for growth.

Their light weight is important, too, if you have a roof garden or plan to move containers from place to place.

* Fertilizer

Easiest to use is a balanced slow-release kind, such as Osmocote, applied at planting, which will release nutrients throughout the growing season. Supplemental feeding once a month with a water-soluble fertilizer is a good booster.

* Water

Providing enough water is critical to container gardens. Containers dry out faster if they're small, faster if they're in a windy spot, and faster if they're in full sun and against a heat-collecting wall.

Unglazed pots dry out faster than glazed ones, faster than plastic, and faster than wood containers. And hanging baskets of all kinds, suspended as they are in the air, dry out faster than containers on the ground.

Hot, sunny days can suck away moisture before you know it. Your eye and hand are the best gauge.

Drip irrigation kits, spaghetti tubes, and other equipment available at garden-supply stores allow watering a large number of containers simply by turning on the hose. They're so easy to hook up, too. Even an all-thumbs amateur gardener can make them work.

* Light

No matter how deep the shade, some things will grow. Full sun is best for vegetables that bear fruit, but leafy vegetables will be satisfactory in less than full sun.

A burst of container gardening has brought flower gardeners new opportunities to indulge every whim. As many as eight different kinds of flowers can coexist as a mixed bouquet in the same planter -- sunny colors of marigolds, gazanias, Shasta daisies, celosias, petunias, thumbergia, salvia, and zinnias, with just a touch of white to cool them down.

Container plants are most often enjoyed at the end of the day as family or friends gather on the deck, patio, or balcony. One trick is always to include some white flowers as part of the garden scheme where you'll linger as night draws in.

White shows up long after color has faded and will lengthen the garden day.

Most gardeners find vegetables take to containers, too. The first choice is always tomatoes, from bite-size snacks to whopper beefsteak types. Most of the large fruited varieties are indeterminate, continuing to produce flowers and fruits as the plants grow ever upward. These need four- to five-gallon containers and strong staking.

Smaller-fruited kinds, which make up in quantity what they lack in size, will produce prodigiously in smaller containers. Tiny Tim, with cherry-size tomatoes, is the smallest, ranging up to 21/2-inch fruits of a new variety, Patio Prize.

Cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, and summer squash need a large root run and should be planted in at least a four- to five-gallon container. All-America Award winner for 1982 is Peter Pan, a bush-type squash, which will stay in bounds, compared to the vining varieties which must be tied to a trellis.

New cucumbers with good production from small plants are also ideal for containers. One such variety is Bush Crop, a good slicer with six- to eight-inch fruits.

Salad vegetables require a minimum of space, whether leaf lettuce, loose-headed bibb types, or romaine. Salad onions from sets and radishes from seed can give you a flavorful harvest in as little as a month. Extra zest for your salads can come from rocket salad (Roquette) and Corn Salad.

The secret of the container salad garden is succession planting -- replanting as soon as one harvest is over - for continuous production all summer long.

A strawberry jar, each planting pocket filled with a different herb, is like a spice rack, only fresh is better. Especially adapatable to this kind of planting are chives, parsley (either curly or the flat Italian kinds), marjoram, sage, thyme, and summer savory. Sweet basil, which many folks consider indispensable with tomatoes, can be planted on top.

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