Growing In Sacks, Pots and Whatever You've Got

In a recent previous post "Do You Have to Grow Food" I pointed out that the impact of urban gardening is vastly greater, in the aggregate, than most people believe. We tend to think that little gardens here and there make no difference, but in fact, they add up rapidly. Consider the impact of US Victory Gardens in WWII, for example - in 1944, US Victory gardens, which averaged only about 350 square feet, grew fully half the produce for the US. That is, home gardeners grew as much produce as all the vegetable farms in the US at the time. While it may seem, intuitively that small gardens don't matter, they do.

They particularly matter in places where it is hard to get adequate food or nutrition - in the Global South where billions struggle just to get enough food- and also in food desert urban areas, where much of the food come from convenience stores and other sources that provide little fresh, unprocessed food. Here, the problem is not too few calories, but too little nutritional value in those calories. And in both places, small gardens are part of the answer. We know how important small scale production is - it has been documented in hundreds of studies, and recently UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon reaffirmed the importance of small scale production to world food security.

The sack garden, which is simply a low cost form of container garden, is getting some real attention as a potential source of high-nutrition foods for people in the developing world, and it is just as applicable here. This Scitezen article by William Van Cotthem advocates that NGOs and relief organizations institute sack garden training, because it can be done at minimal cost, with substantial potential to increase nutrition.. The same goes for urban dwellers who may believe they cannot garden because of contaminated soil, lack of space, or physical disabilities.

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What can you really grow in containers? Well, a lot, actually. Using homemade self-watering containers, my friend Pat Meadows, disabled and in her 60s, reported growing hundreds of pounds of vegetables one year entirely in containers made from plastic storage bins. Other people I know use scavenged food buckets and styrofoam fish coolers.

I have 27 acres, and I still use containers for a substantial number of plants. I began as a container garden, growing on balconies in third and fourth floor walk-up apartments, where every ounce of soil was hauled up to be planted in scavenged containers. My housemates, husband and I ate a lot of food from those containers. I know what can be done in urban setting with minimal inputs - and those who can least access or afford the ingredients for fresh food are usually those who need them the most. Containers make gardening accessible to those who don't have land, money or the physical ability to get down in the dirt, and they represent the beginnings of a democratic garden access.


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Although space isn't an issue me, I am doing most of my gardening in containers this year because it really cuts down on weeds and protects the plants from my chickens. My containers were all free to me- I use a few tires cut to provide maximum surface area, old nursery containers, and milk crates lined with cardboard boxes. I am even growing potaoes in containers - a couple of old bathtubs.

You're right - it's amazing what one can grow in a few containers. My elderly parents took up container gardening in their 70s, more as physical therapy than anything, I think. They had containers set up on two tables on their porch, so they didn't have to bend down.

They grew so many tomatoes, and so much lettuce, and so many herbs of every kind that everyone in our extended family had freezers full of homemade tomato sauce, "ketchup" and tomato paste to last from one end of the summer to the beginning of the next. That's four households, three with kids, that no longer had to buy commercially prepared jars or cans of tomato goods, nor any lettuce or herbs.

Imagine if they'd had space for just a few more tables of containers - we could all have skipped the produce aisle altogether!

Little things can have a great impact.

Container gardening is a good way to try out gardening if you aren't sure you will like it or can do it. For whatever weird reason, considering that I was a successful houseplant and flower garden grower, I lacked confidence in my ability (or perhaps more likely, my interest) in growing food plants. But my DH wanted me to grow tomatoes. So I thought, I'll try growing a couple of tomato and herb plants in pots, and if it doesn't work or I don't like it, I haven't lost much. That was in 1993, and even during that very wet year, and even with the squirrels getting a lot of the tomatoes, it still proved to be enjoyable. That way I knew the effort into starting a small veggie garden (40 square feet) the next year would be worthwhile.

Even now that we have an acre lot, I still grow a few food plants in containers. Some are pepper plants that I am keeping away from pepper plants in the garden so they don't cross-pollinate. Others are plants that won't survive the winter outside, like citrus trees, moringa, and rosemary.

I'm going to make two new raised beds (which are sort of container-y) this year, so I'll have a total of three. This is partly for looks, partly for having some control over what's in the soil, and partly because the culture requirements that I've been reading about recommend growing things in a 2-4 year rotation, and I thought I could just move a particular kind of veggie from bed to bed to accomplish this.

Boy, it's been a long winter - I'm really looking forward to starting seeds soon!


Here's a question, how would you design an urban hot box?
--Hot box being the off-the-grid seed starting box, where heat is provided by slowing rotting horse dung.--
As an urban dweller, I usually start my seed with electricity from the grid, with grow lights and warming mat. How could I switch to something closer to a hot box, and without the need for horse dung, because I can't locate or transport horse dung sustainably.
Do you think you could get the same effect from a good mix of compost? Do worm bins give off any noticable heat? I have one of those... Design it for Zone 4, buried in snow Iowa and relying on solar power for anything but sporadic heat is risky.
Could goat poop or rabbit poop be used? Those are animals I could potentially source locally.
Any thoughts?

Wow... those self watering containers look really good, I've got to think about making some of those. I've never done anything like that and don't even have the tools (I could probably borrow them) but it seems like it'd be worth a shot for the cost & effectivness.

Jennie re hot box: You could use candles in a thermal space. I've also put hot water bottles in with my starts on cool nights, once my makeshift greenhouse is outdoors (plastic shelving unit with shower curtain).

By Christina (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

@ Jennie: I keep a few bricks next to the woodstove (top of refrigerator is another good spot) but any warm place will do. When it's below freezing, I put a couple of these bricks under the poultry waterers to keep them thawed. They stay warm for several hours, just change them a couple times daily.

Another thing you can do, build a reflector box out of cardboard and put a piece of clear plastic over top, angled to catch sun in a south-facing window. That can generate enough greenhouse-effect heat to start tomatoes and peppers within two weeks, even in a chilly house.

Growing up in the late 1960's to the 1970's, most of the houses in my neighborhood had gardens and most people grew more than they could eat themselves. There was a lot of sharing from the garden back then.

By PlaydoPlato (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

I'm lazy so my plan for the near future would be to have a raised rigid plastic wading pool with a computer controlling a pump, monitoring the moisture of the sand or gravel, and monitoring the air temperature. The nutrient reservoir will be in a plastic tank below the pool so it will be in the shade all day; ideally the system would be powered by a mid-sized 12V battery and a small (~30W) solar panel.

For many places it is not practical to encourage the population to grow their own vegetables due to the expected increase in water usage. In many cases the water shortage is due to incompetent governments not addressing long-term issues of population growth, but while there is a shortage, gardens are not practical. Of course a small number of people can always make great gardens, but if everyone did it the water supply problems come up.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

MadScientist - it depends on how they are grown. It also depends on where transported staples are coming from. There's some evidence that even in deserts, dryland small scale home agriculture uses less water, if practices are good, than nearby field-scale agriculture. So no, it actually might be wiser to encourage gardens.


The best tomatoes I ever ate were home-grown on our apartment's sunny balcony. In general, the only way to get fresh peas and tomatoes worth eating is to grow your own.

I've seen neighbourhoods built during WW2, where a crescent street provides a small park for playing on the inner curve and gives the houses, all on the outer curve, small front yards for grass and large, wedge-shaped back yards for gardens.