Time to bring back a grand American tradition

By Lynette Walther | May 14, 2020
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther When it comes to container-grown tomatoes, go for cherry varieties that produce sooner than the full-size tomatoes.

She never called it a “victory garden.” But my greatest gardening inspiration, my Grandmother Reba Miley, grew one all her life. Even though she held a full-time job at the local department store, her year revolved around her garden. So I grew up just assuming the “victory garden” ethic simply was a part of life.

My grandmother had a small town lot with a tidy two-story, white frame house she religiously painted all by herself each summer. It was surrounded by her garden beds.

There were the tomatoes that grew up a trellis by the garage, a straw-mulched patch of strawberries, neat lines of green beans, onions, cucumbers growing up the wire fence, gooseberry bushes, an apple and a sour cherry tree. Of course there was room for beauty too, a blood-red climbing rose, her favorites of zinnias and coleus and a fragrant mock orange bush.

To this day I cannot smell one of those bushes without it transporting me back to her bountiful little yard of so long ago. She may not have realized it then, but those floral additions helped attract the pollinators that made her harvest so successful.

I can also visualize her pantry behind the kitchen, with the two pie safes lined with rows of glass jars of sour cherries and gooseberries she had canned, along with other vegetables from her garden, put-by for the winter.

I fondly remember summer meals when there would be a steaming pot of the greenest green beans simmered with ham. She claimed her secret to that was to saute the beans in a bit of bacon fat first.

There was always a bowl of cottage cheese, and plates of thinly-sliced home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers (she was especially proud of a “new burpless” variety she grew) and always green onions. Even though I had to dip them in sugar to tolerate them, I’d eat up those scallions with relish because everything came out of Grandmother’s garden.

Perhaps my love of vegetables can be traced to those meals. I’d like to think that young people growing up today will find themselves enjoying a range of vegetables — initially out of homage to those who grew them like those onions I gobbled up — and eventually out of the realization they are some of the best foods to be found anywhere.

Today we find ourselves in completely uncharted territory, and people are taking matters into their own hands — tracing out paths for their futures. For many that means growing some or a lot, or even a little of the food that they and their family consume.

I keep finding myself going back to those who faced hardships in the distant past, and witnessing how they dealt with them. I see us coming full circle today. I like what I am seeing with many taking up the reins of food responsibility and independence.

Gardening in containers is an easy and simple way to get started, and it can be done practically anywhere there is ample sunlight. To that end, we have a simple list of ten steps for success with a container “victory garden” from the National Garden Bureau for new gardeners or seasoned veterans:

1. Don’t underestimate the size of container needed for growing some vegetables.

Bigger is almost always better, but with larger containers comes a need for more soil and thus weight becomes a consideration, especially if you plan to move your containers often. Drainage is very important in a container as is soil depth.

2. Just as with in-ground plantings, sunlight is necessary. Containers need six to eight hours of full sun per day to produce. But unlike in-ground plantings, you can move containers around to get more sunlight. Consider using containers with wheels, or otherwise easily movable containers, so they can receive enough sunlight.

3. Think about how the wind might impact fragile plants or even topple the containers. Are you on a corner balcony of a tall building? Consider clusters of containers. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, with plants providing some needed humidity for their neighbors, but also some plants can protect other plants from wind.

4. Vining crops need trellises, not only for support but also to grow upwards, saving horizontal space which might be at a premium.

5. Soilless potting mixes are great for containers, providing good drainage with less weight (less chance of soil compaction). The larger the container, the more potting mix you’ll need which means less frequent watering. Potting soil provides proper drainage and does not contain weed seeds or pest eggs as regular garden soil could.

6. Consider drip irrigation or self-watering containers depending on your availability to water frequently enough. Container gardens do require more frequent watering (sometimes multiple times each day if it’s hot and dry) than in-ground plantings.

7. Proper fertilization is more important for container plantings. More frequent watering can wash out some of the nutrients a plant needs to produce vegetables.

8. As with in-ground plantings: Know your zone and know your last frost date. Without that knowledge, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

9. Think combinations! Try basil with a tomato plant. Or put beans with carrots. Spinach and onions work well together and sunflowers and cucumbers are a sympathetic combo. Some vegetables are pretty enough to be front and center and act like ornamentals! Look for varieties that grow well in containers.

10. Last, but not least, don’t forget to plant some flowers for pollinators. Flowers that attract bees are good and necessary no matter how or where you plant your vegetable garden.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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