As an apartment-dweller, I know the frustration of not having enough soil to call my own for a garden. (Why do you think I garden in other people's yards?) For many years, I've had a small assembly of various-sized pots to keep some of my favorite herbs close at hand, and I've even tried growing the occasional vegetable in such containers as well.
More urban dwellers -- especially those in apartments or condos, living areas with limited outdoor space –- are feeling the urge to exercise their green thumbs. With long waiting lists for local community gardens, they, too, rely on container gardening to green up their homes. Author D. J. Herda has noticed this trend, which dovetails with his longtime passion for growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in pots throughout his home and garden, and has published the new book "From Container to Kitchen: Growing Fruits and Vegetables in Pots"
Container gardening not only fills that yearning that renters might have for a patch of earth, Herda notes, but planting in pots can also complement outdoor gardening by allowing for additional, movable landscaping (useful for plants requiring the more balmy climate of the house over winter), and containers can be useful for people with mobility problems.
The chapters explore the essential elements for container gardening: what to use for containers (almost anything, as long as it provides drainage as well as a waterproof container), what to know about watering and fertilizing and lighting, and how to deal with insects and diseases. Each chapter ends with a quick summary of the key points covered, followed by a "Recipe for Success" exploring one fruit or vegetable in detail: physical requirements, planting information, potential problems, health benefits, when to harvest, and annual savings accrued by growing your own.
Though container gardening provides generally low-maintenance crops, Herda reminds novice gardeners that the containers must fit the needs of individual plants. "In general, a plant's root system should be at least one-half the height of the plant at the plant's maturity." (More depth, of course, is required for root crops.) Err on the side of larger pots, he notes, to allow the additional nutrient intake needed for food crops to flower and develop.
Occasionally, the book seems to provide somewhat contradictory advice. In the chapter discussing cultivars and hybrids, Herda indicates that once you know what you want to grow, visit a local nursery to buy your plants. Yet in the many "Recipes for Success," information is given on starting plants from seed, so a chapter on seed-starting in general might have proven more useful, especially since starting many food crops from seed is far less expensive.
Herda addresses companion planting in containers, or growing two different species that benefit each other, which is a useful way to maximize space. He also notes obvious and less obvious points: just as when growing fruit outdoors, sterile varieties need to be planted with others indoors to allow for fertilization.
Some tips were completely new to me, such as sprinkling powdered cinnamon on sterile planting medium such as in seed trays to prevent damping-off.
Overall, the book serves as a good starting point for beginning container gardeners and can offer additional tips for veterans, but it left me wanting both more and less. Some topics seemed to be covered very briefly or not at all (such as seed-starting), while other chapters seemed to have too much chat and self-deprecating humor, and not enough substance. Eventually, I cut to the chase and focused on the summaries at the end of each chapter for the key points. The photographs are mostly in black and white and not always clear and helpful, surprising when you consider that Herda, who took many of the photos, is a photojournalist.
For those interested in starting to grow more of their own food indoors and in containers, Herda's book offers plenty of good information, especially on specific plants. In my mind, a better general book would be R. J. Ruppenthal's "Fresh Food from Small Spaces" (reviewed a year and a half ago), but "From Container to Kitchen" supplements it for those needing more details on specific plants for pots and maintaining a container garden.