How to Fight the High Cost of Groceries This Summer, Starting Right Now with Container Gardening.
Well, I guess it’s finally happening: mainstream America is waking up to smell the coffee.
Last night on NBC Nightly News, I listened to a story about the rapidly sinking American economy and the rapidly escalating cost of food. Worrying about actually being able to put food on the table was something of a new concept for Americans, I was told, but apparently, many of us are being brought face-to-face with the idea every day as food prices are skyrocketing all over the world—even here.
As the piece concluded, the reporter said that some people were even starting to “grow their own” and she gave a nervous laugh.
I just LOVED that nervous laugh, because I imagined that the correspondent was envisioning herself down on her hands and knees pulling weeds out of hard-baked soil just to score the evening’s meal.
The truth is, however, that anyone, even a television personality, can produce an economical and productive garden in a hurry more easily than may have been thought possible. You could have one tomorrow if you really tried.
I’ll show you how.
My conversion to this new technique that I’m going to tell you about began a few years back, when I decided to move my garden.
I should have known better than to have put it where it was in the first place: up the valley a bit and just beyond sight of the house. I guess I picked that spot because I thought the soil and exposure looked good, but I was being an idiot by ignoring the First Rule of Gardening, which is: The closer your garden is to the house, the better your garden will be in all respects.
I had several raised beds at the old site and I wanted to keep both the soil I’d built up inside each one, as well as the timbers they were framed with. I was able to accomplish the move using our skidsteer loader.
Well, while I was doing that, I naturally started thinking about the concept of a mobile garden. Hmmmm.
Just the previous month, I’d dug several large holes for fruit trees, only to have those holes fill up with water for the next few weeks. No way I was going to plant expensive fruit trees in there. Now I had to fill up all the holes and dig them somewhere else, which would, in all likelihood be higher, poorer ground than this. Hmmmm.
Too bad I couldn’t just scoop up a whole bed, or a planted tree, or bush into the bucket of the skid-steer, take it where I wanted it and drop it off there.
One thing for sure, if a guy could do that, it would certainly save a lot of heartache, especially for beginning gardeners.
I had other problems with my gardening, of course, the local animals typically take a heavy toll from my harvest, and of course, weeding has always been a drag, less so for the raised beds perhaps, but no fun, especially the areas planted directly into the ground. Also, I never knew exactly how wet the roots were getting when I watered, nor whether I’d gotten the fertilizer and soil amendments deep enough to benefit all the roots.
Too bad a fellow couldn’t have the control over a vegetable garden that he does with potted plants, I thought. Hmmmm.
Okay, now I’ll cut to the chase. I found a way to cure ALL my gardening problems and to make vegetable gardening in general much, much easier even than in simple raised beds.
What I did was collect a couple of dozen large plastic tubs that beef ranchers buy full of molasses for their cattle.
Here’s a picture of one.
I’ll go into where you can get these neato tubs, cheapo, in a minute, but for now, let’s assume you have as many as you need.
The first thing I do is to drill four, 1-inch diameter holes low on the sides of the tub for drainage. I use a drill-driver and a hole-auger for this. The hardest part is getting the donut-hole out of the auger after each drill is made. In other words, this is easy.
Then I fill the tub with my VERY potent mix of half bottomland soil and half homemade turkey manure compost that I acquired the previous summer (see The Turkey Manure Manifesto) and which has been quietly rotting away all this time.
This is primo stuff which takes me several months to create, and you probably shouldn’t expect to be able to duplicate it quickly enough for this summer’s garden, so I’d suggest a 50-50 mix of store-bought compost and potting soil and maybe a dash of bone meal and wood ashes. Just make certain that you don’t use any un-rotted manure, that is, make certain that the compost you use has been well composted because we’re going to put it in pretty liberally and you’ll burn your plants if your nitrogen source is too fresh. The tubs hold a bit more than a bushel, so you’ll probably need 100-200 lbs of soil mixture for each one.
Okay, even though you’ve just gotten started, you’ve almost got a garden already.
Put two tomato plants into your tub, tamp them down, and then water the whole thing profusely until water runs out the drainage holes and the soil is wet throughout.
At this point, I make a wire cage out of fencing material, which I place around the two plants. This not only protects the young plants from deer browse and additional animal agitations, but it will provide a support for the growing plants to cling to. Later, I’ll drill small holes in the tops of the tubs and tie the cages down so the plants don’t tip over in strong winds.
Now you have a teeny little two-tomato garden, which just happens to be (reasonably) portable, so put it someplace where it will get plenty of sun.
The middle of your lawn will do just fine, because when it’s time to mow, you just have to drag the (200-lb) tub a few feet to one side, mow, and then either drag it back or leave it in the new location.
Personally, I hauled in a truck-load of 1” screened creek gravel which is a little bit like a big bed of marbles that I keep my tubs on. This makes it somewhat easier to manhandle the tubs into different configurations for watering, or for sun exposure or later I’ll clump the fruit trees and berry bushes I was experimenting with into huddled groups to stay warm over the winter.
Growing in these tubs gives me all the advantages of raised beds and then some. There are some special considerations, though.
1. While every part of gardening is easier in the tubs, including watering, the soil in your tubs will probably dry out faster than they would if planted in the ground. If you’re only starting a couple of tubs, you can just use a watering can or whatever you’d use to water your house-plants. For my couple of dozen tubs, I arrange them all in a rough circle and put one of those single frog-type sprinklers in the middle. An hour or two produces three or four inches of “rain” and I do this between letting the soil dry out slightly, or about every three or four days when it’s hot. (I live in the Ozarks, if you live in Texas or Saudi Arabia or someplace like that, they’ll probably need water more often.)
2. Weeding is done with your fingertips. Just pinch out the few shoots that make it up beside your plants. The rest of your weeding gets done by the lawn-mower. I keep a plastic lawn chair in the garden area so I can relax in comfort while I pinch out my weeds. This, I have to say is mostly out of my deep and abiding laziness, because weeding two dozen tubs rarely takes more than three or four minutes. Since I do so despise pulling weeds, this is the part I appreciate the most.
3. Once I have established plants up and growing, I like to put three or four inches of a heavy mulch over the top of the soil. This helps stabilize the soil temperatures, and slows evaporation considerably. This winter, I’ll cover the tubs I plan to over-winter with hay, mulch or compost.
4. I get my tomatoes in about as early as anyone around here (I’m right on the cusp between Zones 5 and 6). And due to the rich mix and optimum conditions, I’ve got four-foot-tall plants already while most of my neighbor’s plants are only about a foot or two at best. The next spring, I got my garden in even earlier by planting the plants a couple of weeks before the last frost was expected and sealing over the tops of the tubs with that organic wonder, Saran Wrap, creating a miniature cold-frame from each tub. (Okay, I know plastic wrap isn’t organic, but it is cheap). You could lay a window glass on the rims of the tubs just as easily.
5. The tubs alone are pretty-good protection from rabbits, rodents, turtles, and smaller animals since they raise the plants up above their sphere of gnawing. For birds, I circle all the tubs again, and cover them over with bird netting (Wal-Mart $6). For deer, ground-hogs and raccoons, I wrap 2”x4” woven wire around the plants and anchor these in the soil. You could also just wrap the wire around the whole tub, but I do it this way to save wire and produce a taller barrier.
I emphasize that I’m still experimenting with this technique. So far, I’ve had great success with tomatoes, peppers, onions, beans, peas, cabbage, broccoli, garlic, and all manner of herbs as well as companion plants such as nasturtium and marigold. One of the weirder-appearing plantings I’ve made have been vines such as squash, watermelon and cantaloupe. These really thrived is the rich soil I created in the tubs, and I supported their dense growth by suspending wire hog-panels over the tubs and training the vines to grow up to and across these.
I’ve also experimented with perennials, in particular, currant bushes and dwarf peach trees. With these, the results weren’t very encouraging. The currants are still living, but they don’t thrive. The peach trees grew beautifully, made leaves and even put on a teeny amount of fruit. Then one day, during an unusually hot spell in the second year, they just died abruptly after appearing lush and green the day before. I believe that in the extremely hot, sunny weather, the ratio of roots to soil became such that they plants just dried out literally overnight.
I still haven’t given up on the idea, but instead of regular bushes and dwarf trees, I plan to try miniature varieties next time.
Even considering that minor set-back, I’m very enthusiastic about container planting. If you’re living in the city, in an apartment even, this may be about the only way you can produce any of your own food, and it’s certainly about the fastest way to get a garden in and have food from it this year. Out here in the woods I’ve got all the room I need to garden and I just love using this method because in addition to the ease of weeding and working the soil, the containers allow me the flexibility to place plants anywhere, including parts of the lawn—some vegetables are quite attractive you know. Folks used to think tomatoes were poisonous, but they planted them as ornamentals. I like to have a couple of bushes of cherry tomatoes just outside the front door. They do especially well in tubs and when they finish bearing, I replace them with tubs of chrysanthemums for the fall.
Where to get These Cool Tubs
While I hastily take all credit for this particular invention, I’ve found that many unscrupulous characters have stolen my ideas even before I had them. Therefore, these items may not be as easy to find as one might suspect. You could probably substitute some sort of plastic tub you’d find at Wal-Mart, for these heavy black plastic jobbies, but you aren’t likely to get anything so tough and long-lasting.
As I mentioned in the beginning, these tubs are designed as feeders for beef cattle, so the best place to look is at your local feed store. I called several places looking for the source of new tubs and I finally tracked them down to one manufacturer, Adventure Plastics of Ackley, Iowa.
I didn’t speak to them though, because I got all my information from the company that fills them with molasses and resells them. Another Iowa company called CTI. (Sorry, I didn’t get their address) but I spoke to one David Linhart who told me that the new tubs cost them around $6.50 each, but that, being so light as they are, shipping would probably cost more than that (CTI buys them in batches of 3,000). He also told me that a considerable secondary market has sprung up where used, licked-out molasses tubs were selling for about $3 each.
So if you don’t know a rancher feeding molasses to his cattle, see if your feed dealer doesn’t have a few on hand.