Dr. Cynthia Nazario-Leary
One of my favorite memories of my Abuela was helping her water plants in her kitchen garden. The sunny, bright porch behind the kitchen was a maze of containerized plants with leaves, vines, fruits and flowers spilling out from every direction. Closing my eyes, I can still smell the unique aroma of herbal and floral scents mixed with the smells of fried chicken and rice and beans. My Abuela didn’t have much of a yard, but she had all the plants she needed in her kitchen garden, and when she wasn’t cooking, there was a good chance she was nearby tending to a plant.
What is wonderful about gardening in containers is that it allows anyone — from landowners to renters or those with big yards to tiny apartment balconies — to try growing their own produce. Containers also are moveable and portable, allowing you to find the perfect spot for each of your plants or to take them with you when you move.
To get started with a kitchen garden, first consider what plants you want to grow and harvest from. Herbs and leafy greens are good starter plants to get comfortable with before moving on to larger plants like tomatoes or beans.
Second, match the container to the plant. A good container will be large enough to provide room for soil and roots, and have adequate drainage. Plants that are too large for their pots or are sitting in water can become stressed.
Next, check the plants’ requirements so you can properly pot them up, select a good location and set up a watering schedule.
The key to good potting media or mixtures is making sure that they can hold moisture and nutrients, and are porous enough to give roots room to breathe. Fertilizer should be mixed into potting medium at planting using amounts recommended on the label. Choose slow-release fertilizers and only fertilize as needed since too much fertilizer will result in a buildup of salts that can burn plant roots.
To find the right home for your plant, select a location with ample light. Most herbs and greens do best with six to eight hours of direct sunlight each day. Placing plants in a southern exposure offers the most amount of light throughout the day, but a bright east-facing location also can work. West-facing windows receive a lot of radiant energy in addition to light, so make sure your plant can tolerate the extra heat.
Plants should be well-watered when they are potted up and allowed to drain. After that, only water when needed. Overwatering is the most common reason for container plants dying, so check to see if your plants need water before adding more. Place your finger into the top half-inch of potting media and check to see if it is moist or dry. If it’s still moist, skip the watering.
The type of container also can influence your watering schedule. Terra cotta pots and other porous containers lose more water to evaporation than plastic or glazed pots, so they will need to be watered more frequently. Small pots also will tend to dry out more quickly than large ones, and drier weather or indoor air conditioning will call for more frequent watering.
If you are interested in starting your own kitchen garden, come visit the Alachua County Master Gardener plant sale from 8 a.m. to noon May 14 at our Newberry office to get plants and advice on how to begin your container gardening journey.
To learn more about managing your Florida landscape, reach out to UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County’s office to speak with a Master Gardener Volunteer at 955-2402 or [email protected], or visit Alachua County’s Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program webpage at bit.ly/AlachuaFFL.
— Dr. Cynthia Nazario-Leary is the Environmental & Community Horticulture Extension Agent for UF/IFAS Extension Alachua County. Contact her at [email protected] or 955-2402.