I started Full-time Tumble Weeds in 2009 when we first began our great adventure as a couple living full time in an RV. We did this for five years before we settled down in a stick house and rejoined settled society. This old post is about how to have a small container garden in a small place with a small budget. I think it is still relevant so I decided to report it.
Garden? How does a full time tumbleweed manage a garden? I have a long love hate relationship with gardens. As a child we always had a small vegetable patch in the house. It was a hangover from the “victory garden” days, a habit picked up by my English maternal grandparents I think. My father was a farm boy and the family garden was a constant feature of his life. Some of the best summer treats come from the garden like strawberries put by in the summer to be eaten in the dead of winter. My father’s family was very poor in the Great Depression and the vegetable garden was not just a political statement like the victory garden. It was a necessity. They would not have made it through the winter without that vegetable garden and the hours of work that went into it.
I spent three years being a farmwife before a combination of drought, 22% interest rates and my ex husband’s drinking destroyed that life. I had a huge garden from which we got an entire year’s worth of fresh, canned and frozen veggies. Managing that garden took several hours of often back breaking work each day. I would go to the garden in the morning before the heat set in. I would weed, hoe, stake, tie and all other things gardeners must do. I would pick everything that was ready to be processed. The rest of the day would be spent in the kitchen labouring over boiling salt water for pickles, kettles of stewing tomatoes and the like. At the end of each day, after checking the seals on the Mason jars, I would carry them to the dirt basement shelving or stack them in the freezer to wait for winter when we would eat them. I was endlessly proud of the rows on rows of tomatoes, pickles, jams, jellies, sauces and my freezer full of frozen beans, carrots, peas, corn, my apple pies and peach pancake sauce and all the rest. As a farmwife I knew what my grandmother meant when she told me it was a relief when the first frost came because no matter how much you love gardening, it’s good when the season ends because you can stop working so hard.
Life changes and so did mine and we left the farm. Later, I left the drunk and I restarted school when I restarted my life. Every spring I planted a garden again. Years later, the garden became a source of shame and regret, planted each spring with only the best of intentions and then my life as a scientist left me too busy to keep it up properly. I would only harvest a few small tomatoes and some over ripe yellow beans from a bed choked with crabgrass and thistles. Giving the garden up when we gave up the house was a relief. Yet I missed it so much. I began to hunger for a garden patch.
My first return to gardening was when I purchased two containers of mixed herbs at Superstore our first summer as “full timers”. One pot was a called “Mediterranean Herbs,” a mix of cilantro, thyme, rosemary and basil. The pot other was a “Barbecue Herb” consisting of a set of basil, oregano, chives and parsley plants. I found myself really enjoying those two pots. For not just the summer, but a whole year afterward I frequently enjoyed clipping fresh herbs from my pot and cooking with them. My greatest culinary triumph was serving company grilled lamb chops made with my own fresh rosemary and thyme in a campground outside Boston.
The herb experiment went so well that the following summer I decided to try to expand it. I bought a long shallow trough and planted beans and an eggplant and one green pepper in it. I also bought two pots with large tomatoes in them. The tomatoes gave me a great crop. I was eagerly watching 3 dozen or so romas and red early girls, just beginning to ripen, until Fred spotted them. Fred is my big indeterminate lab, shepard, pointer rescue who was deprived of food as a puppy. He eats everything but onions and orange skins. I had moved the tomatoes to a spot to get more sun and unnoticed also moved them into range of his chain. In the end Fred left us eight tomatoes. The stuff in the trough alternated between being flooded and dried out and produced exactly four yellow beans, too old to be useful. Fred got those too but, I gave them to him. It was an experience nearly as bitter as finding my vast garden choked with weeds and grass and deciding one August I had to forever give up on the big farm garden.
Over this winter I decided to try again. My first ever big farm garden had been a smashing success. In fact, I foolishly outdid my poor mother-in-law, a mistake she never forgave me for. I did it by advance planning and research. I started by getting everyone I knew who had succeeded at gardening to give me advice, sifting through it and taking what I liked and leaving the rest. (I had no interest in lima beans.) I then borrowed books on gardening from the library, researched it all in advance and wrote everything out in a little notebook with a cute kitten on the cover. I finished my research that year when the seed catalogues arrived and I could now check hardiness zones and choose varieties. Armed with my research I had a very successful garden. I did follow some of my mother-in-law’s advice, but only some, and when I outdid her and everyone was praising my produce, I was too naive to understand how much I had hurt her. She did earn her customary first place ribbon at the local Agricultural fair for her gladiolas but, I had to say it, that was only because I didn’t bother with flowers. Oh, the self centred arrogance of a 20 year old, especially one who succeeds.
This winter I repeated the exercise only this time from the perspective of a container garden for a very small space. Also since books are heavy and take up poundage we couldn’t afford while living full time in the trailer, I used my computer and the internet to research container gardening. I learned that my shallow trough that failed did so because it was too small. Small containers dry out too quickly and can’t hold nutrients. Also I used cheap soil. In a container garden you can’t skimp on soil because that resource is already limited by the container. I decided I would use the best quality soil with those little water absorbing and releasing pellets and that has plant food worked right in it. ($7.99 a bag at Canadian Tire for a total investment of $71.91 in good soil.)
I also planned my garden content carefully. Living in a trailer I simply can’t plan on canning and my freezer barely holds two full sized loaves of bread. The most important consideration was to grow only what we could eat as it became ripe or dry and pack in small spaces. We have developed the habit of frequenting farmer’s markets where we can. I know approximately how much we can eat of any one thing before it goes bad. The days when a farmer’s market meant cheap prices are long gone. Farmer’s markets these days are now rackets with racketeers who merrily charge extraordinary premiums from city folk who want the privilege of eating locally grown produce. If you want cheap today, you have to go to the grocery store. Thus, I know what is expensive. My experience as a farm wife has taught me how much one plant can produce under good conditions. So my little container garden concentrates on herbs and greens and goes light on low-cost root veggies we eat little of or can get very cheaply. I did dedicate two pots to potatoes. Supposedly, when I flip the pot over at the end of the summer, I will find the pot full of fresh new potatoes. Nothing tastes like fresh new potatoes with the wet dirt only just washed off before they go in the cooking pot.
Life in a trailer means that the you have little space. And so I read up on how to maximize space. I designed a tiny garden that was made of containers that are set up so the total size of the garden is only 2m wide and 1.2m across (4X6ft). I then added a small 1.2m high trellis system to the plan to have plants climb up on instead of spreading over the ground. I made it with 10 raw 1X2 spruce lumber at $1.45/peice, some spare lumber in the fire bin of the campground and plastic netting at $6.99 bringing my investment in the garden to $93.40). All of this information I found from two websites. One was all about patio gardening. The other one was, of all things, for survivalists in the city after the zombies arrive and you have to grow your supply of food on an apartment balcony between battles. (You really can find anything on the internet.)
I also wanted my garden to be environmentally friendly. For me, that also must mean cheap. After pricing out official garden containers of the appropriate depth in the greenhouses, I decided they were crazy high priced. My precious cat required I produce bimonthly plastic kitty litter pails. (this was before I tilt trained him.) Instead of recycling them, as I usually do, I started collecting them. My trailer is currently full of bags of kitty litter stored in every available space because I don’t store much, being in a trailer. I soon had to buy a lot more kitty litter then I actually needed and stowed the litter elsewhere. Good thing we are not planning on moving anytime soon. I must have a hundred extra kilos of litter stashed in every nook and cranny. I also have the satisfaction of reusing the kitty litter pails and saving myself about $240 in garden containers. When the season is over I can leave the buckets in the recycle bin on my way out of the campground without regret. I did find the smiling cat on the side of the pail a bit too disconcerting and my current landlord, who is exceptionally tolerant about most things, was sending dismayed looks my way. I invested in a can of deep green spray paint and covered the kitties. (Total cost now up to $99.39 but a very substantial improvement in appearance resulting from the cosmetic touchup.)
Last, I wanted to use rainwater. My experience as a farmwife has shown me that no matter how much well water you give the garden, the plants are only sustained. To really see a leap in lush grow and get the best produce you simply must have rain. Rain in Manitoba tends to come by the deluge between long stretches of drought. I got lucky and found a portable collapsable rain barrel in a clearance bin for $10. I found some sump tubing in a garage sale for $5 and I now have a nice supply of rainwater for watering. (Total cost $104.39.)
The plants cost me the most. I found out that the lower prices of the old time farmer’s market actually can still be found in greenhouses outside the city. Instead of $15.99/planted tomato in a pot, I visited the local Ile Des Chennes greenhouse. I found six fine plants for $7.99. Since I did so well with potted herbs, I bought 12 herb plants. I also bought two cucumber plants, an eggplant, a zucchini plant, eight pepper plants of assorted types, one single seed potato cut into two, a bag of seed garlic, 100 purple set onions, and several packets of seed for lettuce, spinach, beets, climbing peas, green, yellow and pole beans. Total cost of $85. With the tomato cages, I figure I spent about $200. The final and most wonderful touch was my daughter gave me a little welcome sign and a bright windsock. Those two items added that perfect cheerful gardener’s touch.
I was fretting about the cost of my garden and telling my husband I had no idea if I could produce $200 worth of vegetable to justify the cost. He made that exasperated noise he makes when I am refusing to spend money on myself.
“Are you getting pleasure from your garden?”
“Yes, a lot.”
“And how much is your pleasure worth? Minimum wage? Figure out that.”
I laughed, recalling again how I always say you can only live in a trailer full time with someone you really like. He was reminding me yet again of why I don’t just love him, I like him. I am getting pleasure from my little garden, a lot more than $50/month worth less whatever veggies we finally eat from it.
The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.
(from the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney)
Results of the tiny garden:
Originally Posted September 24, 2012
The air is cool here at night now and that first frost is going to come anytime. Most of the garden is winding down so it’s time to write about the outcome of my little container garden experiment.
We had lots of tomatoes, really delicious ones. We had a lot of peppers. The smaller peppers, chillies, sweet and hot banana and jalapeno really produced well. The green onions were wonderful. The herbs did very well. I was especially pleased by my lemon thyme plant which gave us the most wonderfully flavoured lamb we ever had. We had weeks of lovely salads spiced with fresh herbs and those were a mouth watering delight. And the rain barrel? Greatest thing since my deluxe honey wagon. One good rainstorm gave me a couple of weeks of rainwater for my garden.
What sort of worked:
The green and yellow bean plants produced a lot in a small space. However I only had six plants so even though each plant produced a lot, there was never enough for a real meal of beans. The beans got tossed into whatever I was cooking and so I found out fresh beans in a curry or stew is just dandy. I planned on using my beets just for beet greens but they grew faster than I planned. The leaves were bitter quickly in the season so I have quite a few beets. My two cucumber plants were a surprise. One that was on the sunny side of the garden space in the big pot produced over a dozen cucumber and is still growing like crazy and will likely produce until frost. The other, getting only a little less sun and in the smaller pot did very poorly and never produced a single fruit. Lesson learned, cucumbers need full sun and the big pot. The large red pepper plant did not do well. It produced two enormous peppers, fell over and laid there for weeks before the red started showing.
What failed: I now know zucchini plants need to have the male and female flowers to cross pollinate. My one plant did marvellously well producing one glorious bloom after another, one at a time, alternating male and female so at no point did I get the required fertilization resulting in fruit. My eggplant is only now producing blooms. I fully expect frost will get it before I get any eggplants. Next year I will put in two zucchini and forget about the eggplant. The pole beans and snow peas all died from white mould before producing anything. I guess I need resistant strains or I have to give up on those. I could plant more green and yellow beans instead. I thought the potatoes did not do well in the pot. The plants grew like crazy, towered over the other stuff and then dried out too fast and died. However imagine my surprise when I dumped the pot out at clean up and found it was indeed full of lovely potatoes. And they were so delicious!
Final tally-I think cost wise I about broke even in terms of money spent with the salad greens pushing it all up to the top. Taste wise, of course, we came out way way ahead. I certainly got a lot of pleasure from having my wee garden. One nice little unexpected bonus was the tiny garden gave everyone an excuse to drop by and chat me up. I am a shy person, and I don’t do well with deliberately reaching out for the purpose of meeting people. However the little garden meant I always had something to talk about and I was outside to do it. Many people commented on my cheerful little garden with the bright windsock and the nice little welcome sign. My garden brought pleasure beyond just for me. I will do it again next year.