I don't have a yard. Can I still grow food?
Don’t let a lack of space or an urban setting stop you from participating in the carbon capture movement. An excellent way to get your hands dirty is to sign up for a community garden. Or offer to help in someone else’s garden. I know lots of people who are doing both. If neither is an option, you can grow perennials in containers using regenerative techniques like composting, mulching, and minimal tilling. Here are a few tips to get you going.
Find a big container.
Bigger is better when it comes to pots. Growing perennials in small pots makes it hard to take advantage of these plants’ robust root structures. Root-bound or crowded plants won’t weather outdoor temperature swings well and typically need more tending. A good rule of thumb is to choose a container that offers as much space below ground as a mature plant’s foliage above ground.
Keep plants well drained.
The biggest reason potted plants don’t fare well over time is soggy soil. Some containers come with drainage holes, but many do not. Buy the ones that do. If your pot is over six inches wide, it needs more than one hole.
Use potting soil.
Garden soil often becomes compacted over time. But unlike garden beds, which can be loosened with a broadfork, potted plants are almost impossible to aerate without damaging the roots. So make your own potting soil mix by combining equal parts peat moss or coconut fiber, good garden soil, compost, and sand. The peat moss and sand prevent soil from compacting and increase drainage. You can also just buy potting soil from your local garden store. Potting soil is usually mixed with perlite or vermiculite, textured styrofoam-like pebbles, to help container soil stay loose and porous. Look for potting soil that is 100 percent organic and, if you can find it, inoculated with mycorrhizae, a fungus that works with plant roots to absorb more nutrients.
While potted plants are resilient, they do take a little extra care. Garden plants have deep root structure that can find water and nutrients underground but potted plants depend on you to keep them moist and fed.
Watering: The exposed sides of the pot absorb heat and dry out the potting soil quickly. Water your soil whenever it’s dry.
Composting: Twice a year in the spring and fall, add valuable nutrients by layering on a half-inch of compost. I like to gently mix it into the first two inches of soil.
Mulch potted plants: If your potted plants live outside in the summer, cover the top of the soil with mulch to keep it from baking in the sun. Mulch also helps retain moisture, whether your plants live inside or out.
Troubleshooting: If your potted plant has stopped growing, or the roots have pushed through the drainage holes, it’s time to repot. Find a new container big enough for your plant to stretch out and grow. Fill in the extra space with an equal mixture of potting soil and compost.
Yellowing leaves may mean a plant needs more nitrogen. I rely on liquid fish emulsion to quickly boost plant growth. It’s simple to add, since you don’t need to mix it into the soil. Dilute the concentrate with water, following the instructions on the label, and slowly pour the mixture into the pot. Be aware that fish emulsion smells pretty, well, fishy, which can be a problem for indoor plants. Cut down on the stink by adding a few drops of lavender oil before pouring.
Acadia Tucker is a regenerative farmer, climate activist, and author of Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits & vegetables and Growing Good Food: A Citizen’s Guide to Backyard Carbon Farming. She currently lives in Maine and New Hampshire with her farm dog, Nimbus. When she isn't raising perennials in her own backyard, she grows hops to support locally sourced craft beer in New England.