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The Home and Garden Issue

Container Yourself: A master gardener gives cooped-up cultivators a clue


Published May 13, 2009 at 9:55 a.m.

Industry analysts are predicting the slumping economy will drive gardeners to grow more of their own food this summer. Even novices, and space-challenged urbanites, can get in the game with containers, according to Burlington gardening expert Barbara E. Richardson. She contributed a short essay on one of her passions, growing herbs, to local garden guru Charlie Nardozzi’s new book, The Ultimate Gardener. The volume collects practical advice as well as personal reflections from dozens of horticultural hotshots.

The sour economy has impacted Richardson on a personal level. Last fall, she was downsized after a decade at South Burlington’s National Gardening Association. The native of Rawsonville, Vermont, who has a B.S. in plant and soil science from UVM, also worked at Gardener’s Supply for nine years. One of her primary responsibilities at the NGA was researching and responding to questions sent to the organization’s website — roughly a “gazillion” over the years, she estimates with a laugh. She graciously agreed to take a few more from Seven Days.

Seven Days: How did you become passionate about gardening?

Barbara Richardson: I grew up in a family of gardeners. My parents grew up during the Depression. So feeding yourself out of the garden was a no-brainer, just part of life. I grew up picking cabbage worms off plants and squishing potato bugs and picking beans. And I still liked it after that, surprisingly.

SD: How did it turn into a professional interest?

BR: Growing up in the ’70s, there was lots of awareness about pollution and environmental degradation ... My dream [was] to either be a farmer or to help farmers ... grow organically ... So I went to UVM for plant and soil science, and they were just then getting into the sustainable agriculture realm ... I was living in apartments but working on farms, and really always craved having my own place to grow things. That was always difficult, living in an apartment. But I usually made some kind of effort to make it happen.

SD: How can city dwellers or renters, with little or no in-ground space, grow more food at home during tough economic times?

BR: As long as you have some space outside, like a fire escape or a balcony, or even a window box, you can grow a salad. You don’t have to spend money, either. I grew plants in basically whatever I could find that had a hole in the bottom so it would drain. As long as you have some sun, you can grow a tomato, cucumbers. It’s best if you can find, at the garden center, varieties that are already suited for that — container varieties. But I have certainly had 6-foot-tall tomato plants growing out of a bucket, too.

SD: How does a brown thumb overcome feeling intimidated about getting started, or the fear of killing everything?

BR: Keep trying. Find a friend, a neighbor, who can help you out. It’s basically about the plant’s needs. It’s like if you had a dog; you know it needs water, you know it needs a walk. Well, a plant needs sun and it needs water and — especially if it’s growing in a container — it’s going to need regular fertilizer. So if you can just be regular with it, like you would with a dog, then you can keep it alive.

SD: What are the easiest things to grow for an inexperienced gardener?

BR: Lettuce, anything that doesn’t fruit, that doesn’t require sunshine, that will give you a quick reward. If you need pretty immediate gratification, grow radishes. Thirty days — you’ve got radishes!

SD: What flourishes in containers, and what struggles?

BR: As long as the container is big enough, pretty much anything will grow ... I tend to want to grow things that you get a big yield off of ... A tomato, once it starts fruiting, they’re very prolific. You want to stay away from things that are going to take up a lot of space. I think about squash. If you have a trellis up the front of your porch, you can go ahead and grow zucchini on that. But it’s a lot of space for a vegetable that’s very prolific, that friends are going to be loading you up on later in the summer ... A little bush cucumber can be really prolific; you get a big reward for a small, 3- or 4-gallon container. That’s how I would focus: on things that are going to yield well for the small space that you can give them.

SD: How do you recommend a novice start a healthy soil mix for container gardening?

BR: Fortunately, we have down at the Intervale a good source of compost-based container mixes. And the nice part about that is that they’ve already figured out what works. But if you have compost, potting mix, peat moss, blend those together until you’ve got a mix ... Think about what the plant needs: both moisture and air around its roots. So you want something that will drain well, but that will also hold enough moisture to keep the plant healthy through the course of the day. But you do have to water pretty much every day with container gardens, if it doesn’t rain. And water once a week ... with the fish-based or seaweed-based fertilizer.

SD: What are your top secrets to successful container gardening?

BR: Self-watering containers — I love them! Because on a really hot, windy day, you don’t get home till late, that could cause blossom-end rot on those tomatoes. Making sure those pots are deep enough and have enough soil to nourish the plant ... Knowing my limits ... At the beginning of a season, you want to go hog wild, and you do, and you overcrowd things, and then you end up with disease or poor yields. So thinking long-term about results, and giving plants enough space.

SD: In your essay, you say herbs are “magical.” Why?

BR: You just have to smell them and you know. They evoke memories — any fragrance does — but, I mean, such good memories: of really good food, of a soothing tea. The smell of mint just sends me right back to childhood, in the apple orchard where the spearmint grew. It’s a way to transport yourself somewhere else.

SD: Which herbs do you consider easy essentials for the beginner to grow?

BR: Basil, of course. Cilantro is a very popular herb. And that’s very rewarding, it grows very quickly, but you have to sow it frequently, because it will go to seed quickly. Parsley, and I recommend buying the plant, because it grows so slowly from seed. Some kind of chives, for sure, because they’re so easy. And any gardener who’s got chives will be glad to give you some, because they will take over a garden. And a mint of some kind, and of course I just love chocolate mint. One of my new favorites is shiso, which is also known as perilla. It’s very ornamental. It looks like basil, but it tastes like cumin. And dill.

SD: Especially for the beginner, wouldn’t you recommend starting with plants, and not putting the pressure on yourself to start things from seed?

BR: Absolutely. And when you go to a garden center, they’re going to have container-appropriate varieties, and will steer you to those ... Go where the plants are reliable. I think that you can go to Agway or Home Depot and get plants, but they have not been cared for in the way that a family garden center would do it.

SD: Anything else you’d like to add to encourage the gardener considering a first try at the trowel this year?

BR: Just don’t be afraid to ask questions. If it’s at the farmers market ... the extension service, the garden center ... Oh, and the Internet is just rife with advice and message boards.