It’s too boastful and too early to call it a success, but for a Brooklyn transplant, my little container garden is a triumph. I brag about it to friends and family as if it’s Martha Stewart’s perfectly tended vegetable patch or full of prize-winning heirloom roses. And I love it more because it’s anything but that. The little garden on the deck has become a hodgepodge of art made from necessity and the plants are proving that despite my careful planning, they’re in charge.
I’d planned to plant cherry tomatoes in a vintage crate that once held Blue Goose pears, and old wine boxes were slotted for growing herbs. A big terra cotta pot, was purchased so purposely, was for Early Girl tomatoes, and little red and green pails were to hold peppers. Nine weeks have passed since those plans and all of those plants have outgrown their pots and boxes, some even two or three times. The larger tomatoes were promoted to more functional 5-gallon paint buckets, staked up with scraps of wood left over from a home improvement project. I ransacked the house for potting containers—mostly from the kitchen— stealing a set of plastic canisters, an old teapot with a missing handle, a pasta pot with too much chipped enamel to use anymore, and a plastic water pitcher. A few pepper plants are supported by all the chopsticks I could find in the kitchen drawer, fastened with twine. The poor Pathos vine that was dutifully moved from New York apartment to New York apartment for almost a decade, only half-surviving in dark bathrooms, was unceremoniously ousted from its green ceramic pot one day after I decided that it was no longer worthy of the real estate. Now home to a sweet Turkish Corbaci pepper is in it.
Janie Lamson—who owns Cross Country Nurseries, a chili pepper farm up the road from my house, and is an expert grower with the largest mail order selection of pepper plants available in the United States—warned me that repotting was going be necessary. “The size of the fruit determines the size of the pot,” she said. But unlike fish that only grow to a size suitable for their tank, plants just keep growing, making it obvious when they are ready to move on and up. Novice gardener that I am, I asked “Why not just plant them in really big pots the first time around?” Janie laughed. She explained that the roots of the little plant will never reach the water and nutrients in the bottom of a big pot so it will never grow sturdy and fruitful to its full potential. You’ll be left with a little plant in a great big pot and one or two sad little tomatoes.
I’ve been soaking up all this advice and lugging home bags of soil every other week to fill bigger and bigger pots. Miraculously, it’s working. The ten tomato plants, eight types of peppers, a tomatillo, cilantro, sage, lavender, arugula, mint, rosemary, thyme and oregano are all healthy and lush. The tomatoes and peppers are covered in tiny yellow and white blossoms, soon to be fruit. The skinny tomatillo branches manage to support ten or so little green globes in their paper jackets. The cucumber seedlings didn’t make it through a frost, but we ate the arugula for dinner last night and are already fearful that we can’t keep up with the bounty of the three types of basil plants—an Italian, a Thai, and a lemon. Garden Design magazine may not be calling anytime soon, but it’s still the most beautiful first garden. Cross Country Nurseries www.chileplants.com —Julie