When most people think of gardening, they picture a sweet old lady carefully clipping her rosebushes, or a tired-but-happy man, skin tanned brown by days spent outdoors pushing a lawn mower over lush, vibrant grass.
They see formal planting schemes stretching for miles, neat borders, mounds of soft, dark earth topped with the bright-petalled cheerfulness of heathers and peonies, rose bushes and tulips. They picture box hedges being trimmed into striking, instantly recognisable shapes. They hear their grandfather's voice, perhaps, chastising their younger self for “muckying up my flower beds!” They see an endless parade of signs reading: Keep Off The Grass.
City dwellers might think of uptown restaurants where the vegetables and herbs are sourced for an “organic, rooftop garden”. Or they might think of allotments, of apartment dwellers “getting back to nature.”
Increasingly, however, a new kind of gardening is starting to take over, capturing hearts and minds with its simplicity and potential: container gardening.
Millennials have been stereotyped as being “too impatient” - with the fact that very few millennials, compared to previous generations, list “gardening” as a hobby cited as “proof” that they “won't commit to something long-term.” The truth, as always, is a little different.
Many millennials are very aware of the benefits — both in terms of personal health and for the wider environment — of eating fresh local produce, reducing food miles, and using as few chemicals in the raising and growing of food as possible. Millennials, both in the US and the UK, also frequently end up spending much of their adult lives in apartments, small houses without much outdoor space, or insecure privately rented accommodation. In the UK, it's not uncommon for a tenancy to be terminated by the landlord after six months, even when the tenants have been responsible, paid their rent on time, and kept the property in good order.
Rather than not having the patience to garden, it's often simply that millennials don't have the space for the idea of gardening that comes to mind for many people of older generations.
Gardening is evolving. It's moving from an attractive statement of how you enjoy your leisure time to a small, industrious enterprise where the focus is on utility and practical application. Rather than having vases of attractive cut flowers on the windowsill for a few days, today's modern gardeners have cute little crates of herbs on those same windowsills for several weeks, plucking a bit here, a bit there, adding them to casseroles and salads, curries and spaghetti Bolognese.
In place of exquisite, carefully manicured lawns and neat herbaceous borders, property lines are marked with pots of vegetables and soft fruits, while planting schemes in what space there is revolve around peppers and courgettes (zuccini), lettuces and cauliflower, cucumbers, sweetcorn, radishes and beans.
Gardening hasn't died: it's just made the transition from being seen as a hobby to being seen as something as natural and obvious to do as breathing.
So – Why Start Container Gardening?
In my case, there wasn't much choice: my outside space was a sparse, concrete yard that most prisons would have regarded as too small to be of any use. There was no soil for trees, shrubs, fruit bushes and vegetables to take root in. There was no lawn to mow alongside neighbours in the kind of bonding exercise that served my parents and grandparents well, and gave them the illusion of being on friendly terms with people they only saw attached to a lawn mower, or bent over, savagely evicting weeds from borders.
Also, I have dogs – even if there had been earth, soil, physical, ground-level growing space, it wouldn't have lasted for long, and nor would anything planted in it. My small, concrete yard needed to do double-duty. It needed to grow things – I like the process of watching something arrive from nothing, and it matters to me that I have fresh food that tastes of outdoors and effort – but it also needed to survive rampaging paws.
So, container gardening it was, with a deliberate choice made to keep vegetable plants and herbs either on indoor windowsills, or in pots along the fence line to ensure that the humans of the household got them before the dogs. My wife pointed out that, living in a coastal town, soft fruits were out. The seagulls round here don't need encouragement.
I also knew I wanted trees – well, shrubs, at least – and flowers, as well as the practical stuff. I like watching butterflies, and I think bees are under appreciated for the vital job they do. I also like squirrels and birds, although I know the former isn't everyone's cup of tea. I wanted to do what I could, with my small space, to provide not just for myself and my wife, but also for the small representatives of the natural world that was here long before we were, and which will remain long after we're gone.
That natural world is the reason that there is a half-foot width of space, in front of the back fence, which I have left to grow wild. Nettles, brambles, weeds and stray grasses poke their heads through, mosey about, and settle down, providing the succour and sanctuary to unseen life that they have always offered. It's a small concession, and, apart from when I need to trim the wildness back a little, I don't notice it.
A lot of people start container gardening for the same reason I did: out of necessity. Increasingly, housebuilders aren't leaving actual garden space – every scrap of earth must be built on, because profit has to be maximised – but people still feel a drive to work with their hands. They still want to grow at least some of their own food. They want, if nothing else, something they can be proud of, something they can look at and think: “I made that happen.”
Some city dwellers have made virtual farms of very small outside spaces thanks to container gardening: Mark Ridsdil Smith, of Vertical Veg , fell down the rabbit-hole of container gardening in 2009, when he started growing fruit and vegetables on his London balcony. Almost ten years later, he has a fantastic container garden, and is working on a “front yard larder”.
I'm in the very early days of my own container gardening adventure, having only brought my own place three years ago. If I can come close to Mark's level of success, without either the dogs or the seagulls ruining things, I'll be very happy indeed.
For other people, container gardening is a choice, rather than a necessity: they have a reasonable outdoor space, but they choose to do their growing in pots, rather than in the ground. Sometimes, this is because the native soil is unsuitable for the kind of plants they want to grow, and so a good-sized container filled with a bag or two of the right kind of soil is the most practical and affordable route to go down.
For other people, container gardening is a natural way to enhance an Asian-influenced hardscaped space. Think of eye-catching pots and sympathetic live planting softening a feature wall drawing the eye to a design spot along a path of coloured gravel, or wafting a delicate fragrance as it twines sinuously around a bamboo sculpture.
Another reason why someone with enough space for a traditional garden might choose to go down the container route is disability: container gardens are forgiving of physical impairments, chronic pain, and days where success is counted as getting out of bed. Containers can be purchased at exactly the right height for a wheelchair user to reach comfortably, or box-like containers can be stylised with an extended lip so that someone with joint or muscle pain can sit down if they need to.
Because they provide a small, readily visible growing surface, it is the work of a few minutes, rather than half a morning, to weed a container garden, while, for those who can't always manage a watering round, drip feeds can be placed in the containers themselves to provide your plants with the hydration and nourishment they need.
And, finally, just as I have pets, so other people who choose container gardening have children. Whether they have claws or toes, small feet and boundless energy don't mix well with a traditional garden. If your plants are in pots, it's less likely your little darlings will trample them to shreds, which makes for a happier and more harmonious home all round. The children can enjoy the garden without getting shouted at, you can enjoy your plants without undue anxiety, and the simplicity and ease of maintenance of a basic container garden might even create an opportunity for some quality time together.
Can I Start a Container Garden? A Quick Q & A:
Q: I live in an apartment, and don't have any outside space at all – can I start a container garden?
A: Absolutely! If you have a balcony that gets a lot of sun, tomatoes will thrive out there. If not, many herbs prefer a bit of shade (and taste amazing in soups, casseroles, and teas...) If you have a narrow balcony, consider a Vertical Wall Planter, which you can hang over the balcony rail.
If you don't have a balcony, don't panic! Sunny windowsills are an ideal spot for strawberries and tomatoes, while cooler sills can happily play host to a range of herbs.
Q: I don't have a lot of spare cash – where can I get good quality containers?
A: Firstly, containers don't need to be expensive. As long as you can get compost and plants in them and the plants can get air, water, and sunlight, you're good to go.
Ideally, a container will need to have holes so that excess water can drain away. However, if you find something you like that doesn't have drainage holes and drilling them isn't an option, then a layer of gravel or bark on the base of the container can work just as well. Just be careful not to over-water anything you plant in that particular container.
Consider looking in thrift stores, at flea markets, and in the classified ads, as well as keeping an eye out for online bargains.
Q: I've never grown anything before – what should I start with?
A: Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, mint, and basil are very tolerant and forgiving. (Sage can be a little bit of a diva – not enough sun, too much water: the list is endless!) Peppers, both the bell and chilli varieties, do well if you buy them as semi-established bushes to grow on, especially if you're able to keep them indoors over the winter. If you're looking for some decorative colour, heathers are very hardy, and do well in containers.
Q: I have pets – are there any plants I shouldn't grow?
A: Soft fruits and most veg will need to be in containers that are at a height that dogs can't reach, as the furry horrors will eat anything! Otherwise, just be aware of what plants are poisonous to your pets, and steer clear of those, and you should be fine.
Q: I'm away from home a lot, with work. I'd like some container plants, but is there anything that can manage for several days at a time without care and attention?
A: Succulents, succulents, succulents! Cacti are ideal for people who have busy lives, as they literally just need a pot and some soil. At the very, very most, you'll only need to lightly mist them with water a couple of times a year – often not even that. And they look just as attractive as more high-maintenance plants.
Q: How can I get my children involved in container gardening?
A: Why not let them choose their own suitable container and grow strawberries, tomatoes, or cress on their bedroom windowsill? Before planting, you can sit down together and read about the needs of various plants, and watch YouTube videos about how to look after them. As long as your children are able to manage routine tasks such as watering safely, the responsibility of looking after a plant and the pleasure of seeing it bear fruit is the perfect way to introduce a little bit of being-a-grown-up to your children's lives without overwhelming them.
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