The Q&A Archives: above ground flower garden

Question: hello, I'm completely new to gardening. I live in a townhome with a small yard. I would like to start a flower garden. I would like to know if it's possible to create an above ground garden. Maybe in a large trough or terra cotta planter, something like that? I would also like to have a small vegetable garden, with maybe peppers, tomatoes and squash. Is this feasible in Tucson, AZ? Thank you for any help.

Answer: As a new gardener, there are many things to consider. Container gardening presents opportunities for many innovative ideas.

There are many possible containers for gardening. Clay, wood, plastic, metal are some of the suitable materials. Containers for vegetable plants must:

be big enough to support plants when they are fully grown
hold soil without spilling
have adequate drainage
never have held products that would be toxic to plants or people.

Consider using barrels, cut-off milk and bleach jugs, window boxes, baskets lined with plastic (with drainage holes punched in it), even pieces of drainage pipe or cement block. If you are building a planting box out of wood, you will find redwood and cedar to be the most rot-resistant, but bear in mind that cedar trees are much more plentiful than redwoods. Wood for use around plants should never be treated with creosote or pentachlorophenol (Penta) wood preservatives. These may be toxic to plants and harmful to people as well.

Some gardeners have built vertical planters out of wood lattice lined with black plastic and then filled with a lightweight medium; or out of welded wire, shaped into cylinders, lined with sphagnum moss, and filled with soil mix. Depending on the size of your vertical planter, 2-inch diameter perforated plastic pipes may be needed inside to aid watering. Whatever type of container you use, be sure that there are holes in the bottom for drainage so that plant roots do not stand in water. Most plants need containers at least 6 to 8 inches deep for adequate rooting.
As long as the container meets the basic requirements described above it can be used. The imaginative use of discarded items or construction of attractive patio planters is a very enjoyable aspect of container gardening. For ease of care, dollies or platforms with wheels or casters can be used to move the containers from place to place. This is especially useful for apartment or balcony gardening so that plants can be moved to get maximum use of available space and sunlight, and to avoid destruction from particularly nasty weather.

A fairly lightweight potting mix is needed for container vegetable gardening. Soil straight from the garden usually cannot be used in a container because it may be too heavy, unless your garden has sandy loam or sandy soil. Clay soil consists of extremely small (microscopic) particles. In a container, the bad qualities of clay are exaggerated. It holds too much moisture when wet, resulting in too little air for the roots, and it pulls away from the sides of the pot when dry. Container medium must be porous in order to support plants, because roots require both air and water. Packaged potting soil available at local garden centers is relatively lightweight and may make a good container medium. Soilless mixes such as peat-lite mix are generally too light for container vegetable gardening, not offering enough support to plant roots. If the container is also lightweight, a strong wind can blow plants over, resulting in major damage. Also, soilless mixes are sterile and contain few nutrients, so even though major fertilizers are added, no trace elements are available for good plant growth. Add soil or compost if you wish to use a sterile mix. For a large container garden, the expense of prepackaged or soilless mixes may be quite high. Try mixing your own with one part peat moss, one part garden loam, and one part clean, coarse (builder's) sand, and a slow-release fertilizer (14-14-14) according to container size.

Plant container crops at the same time you would if you were planting a regular garden. Fill a clean container to within an inch of the top with the slightly damp soil mixture. Peat moss in the mix will absorb water and mix much more readily if soaked with warm water before putting the mix in the container. Sow the seeds or set transplants according to instructions on the seed package. Put a label with the name, variety, and date of planting on or in each container. After planting, gently soak the soil with water, being careful not to wash out or displace seeds. Thin seedlings to obtain proper spacing when the plants have two or three leaves. If cages, stakes, or other supports are needed, provide them when the plants are very small to avoid root damage later.

Pay particular attention to watering container plants. Because the volume of soil is relatively small, containers can dry out very quickly, especially on a concrete patio in full sun. Daily or even twice daily watering may be necessary. Apply water until it runs out the drainage holes. On an upstairs balcony, this may mean neighbor problems, so make provisions for drainage of water. Large trays filled with coarse marble chips work nicely. However, the soil should never be soggy or have water standing on top of it. When the weather is cool, container plants may be subject to root rots if maintained too wet. Clay pots and other porous containers allow additional evaporation from the sides of the pots and watering must be done more often. Small pots also tend to dry out more quickly than larger ones. If the soil appears to be getting excessively dry (plants wilting every day is one sign), group the containers together so that the foliage creates a canopy to help shade the soil and keep it cool. On a hot patio, you might consider putting containers on pallets or other structures that will allow air movement beneath the pots and prevent direct contact with the cement. Check containers at least once a day, and twice on hot, dry, or windy days. Feel the soil to determine whether or not it is damp. Mulching and windbreaks can help reduce water requirements for containers. If you are away a lot, consider an automatic drip emitter irrigation system.

Your local garden center will have all kinds of plants to choose from. Enjoy your new container garden!

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