Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.
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Not everyone has a large outdoor space for gardening, especially those living in condominiums, apartments and densely populated neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean you can't have an outdoor garden.
As long as you have a sunny spot to place a few potted plants, you can grow flowers, vegetables, small fruit trees, evergreens, grasses and more on your patio, deck, rooftop or balcony. Most any container, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom, will serve as a place to grow plants. Consider half beer kegs (the wooden kind), an old washtub, a planter from the garden center, even an old wheelbarrow or child's wagon.
You'll want to drill holes in the bottom, if the planter doesn't already have some in it, and then elevate the planter a couple of inches off the patio, deck or other surface so water can flow easily out the holes and drain. Many gardeners like to fill the bottom of the pot with gravel or shards of pottery so that the soil won't clog the drainage holes as it flows out.
Once you have your planter situated where you'd like it, fill it with commercial potting soil from the store. Do not use soil dug up from around your home. No matter how good it is, garden soil tends to form a dense mass that is difficult for roots to move through and tends to hold too much water resulting in soggy, suffocating soil. It also can lead to soil-borne diseases in container plants.
If the potting soil you choose does not contain any organic matter or fertilizer, you will have best results if you mix 3 parts potting soil with one part compost (aged manure, or commercial bagged compost). Then, following directions on the fertilizer container, sprinkle a little over the soil and cover with another inch of your soil mixture.
Now you're ready to plant seeds, seedlings or full-grown plants. And if the plant is one that needs support, such as tomatoes or roses, you might imbed a trellis into the soil before you put in your plant.
If you're starting from seed, keep in mind that seeds generally need consistently moist and warm soil in order to germinate. Until the seeds germinate, many gardeners cover the top of the pot with plastic wrap or a lid of some kind that has air holes in it to keep the top layer of soil from drying out quickly and to keep warmth near the soil surface. The seed packet will tell you how far apart to place your seeds, how long it will take for them to germinate, and how long until the plant matures and produces flowers and/or fruit for you. Keep in mind that the Steamboat area has about a 59 day growing season, which you can extend somewhat by bringing a planter indoors or covering it early and late in the season when frost is expected.
For seedlings, keep an eye on moisture and the hot sun which can wilt a tender plant. If possible, water away from the base of the plant, or lightly mist the plant foliage to avoid damping off. This problem occurs when a fungus attacks a seedling at the soil line and rots the stem, killing the plant overnight. Good air circulation and avoiding overwatering will prevent damping off.
Once the plants become established (often you can tell when it starts sprouting several sets of leaves), you'll need to keep the soil consistently moist (for vegetables), but not saturated. On flowers and shrubs, water thoroughly, then wait until the soil is quite dry before watering again. This promotes strong root growth and helps patio plants maintain good health.
What is different about caring for patio plants, as opposed to those planted in a garden, is that soil in potted plants dries out more quickly because it is being attacked by sun and air on all four sides, so it will need more frequent watering. Also, because of the need to allow excess water to drain out of the pot, you also lose nutrients. As a result, you'll need to fertilize container plants more frequently.
Follow directions on the fertilizer container.
So no matter how little space you have for gardening, chances are you can fill a container or two and experience the rewards and satisfaction of growing your own food and flowers.
Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. For information: http://rcextension.colostate.edu or call 879-0825.